Defying Expectations

Last month my organization, Global Press Institute (GPI), had the honor of being showcased at a Catalytic Women event on women’s economic empowerment. Something that Melanie said to the audience that night really struck me: everyone in the room could do something to make a difference. Everyone – no matter what your level of income or wealth – could be a philanthropist. sample-image-blogWhat really resonated with me about this message was its fundamental similarity to a lesson I learned in Nepal ten years ago.

After a few weeks in the country as a foreign correspondent, I realized I was the wrong person to be covering the Nepali civil war. I had just two things that “qualified” me to report on this country I knew so little about: a Master’s degree in journalism and a credible news platform. Yet the local women around me had everything else that I lacked in order to tell important, powerful stories: access, language, context, and trust.

When I met Pratima, the community matriarch of a small village in Eastern Nepal, I handed her my pen and asked her to write the story of her community. That moment was not only the birth of GPI, an organization dedicated to training and employing women in the developing world to report on their local communities. It was also an inspiring life lesson about how the roles we have come to expect for ourselves are often dramatically and silently dictated by the force of history – in other words, by the way things have been.

Isn’t it obvious that a local woman with knowledge of her community would be better poised to report on it than a foreigner parachuted in for a few weeks? And yet the entire model of international journalism has been built around the use of foreign correspondents.

Likewise, it is obvious that we do not need high-paying jobs or sizable fortunes in order to be thoughtful, generous, and impactful givers. Just because we have always thought of philanthropy as the purview of the wealthy doesn’t preclude us from making a difference with our resources.

If you wonder whether this is really possible, consider that each GPI news story (25% of which lead to demonstrable social impact, such as changing laws) costs on average between $100 and $200 to produce. We and other organizations are able to use modest donations to create significant impact on the world.

The lesson here is that we can access certain roles and opportunities in life, even if that means bucking the way things have traditionally been done. After all, if a former sex worker, or a member of the Dalit (“untouchable”) caste, or a woman with a fourth grade education, can become an award-winning professional journalist, then each of us can, in our own ways, become philanthropists.

cmhheadshotCristi Hegranes landed her dream job as an international journalist in Nepal, but it only took her two weeks to realize she was all wrong for the job. “Local women had everything I didn’t,” she said, “except access to a major publishing outlet.” She created the Global Press Institute to train and employ women to write quality investigative, professional features. Currently, Cristi manages 26 news bureaus and employs 135 women, and she’s building revenue by distributing their stories through such outlets as National Public Radio and Reuters. Cristi talks about Rwandan reporters Ritha Bumwe, whose article on sexual predators has influenced new legislation there. Here with Cristi is her first Sri Lankan employee (soon after their 2006 launch) and the embodiment of her ambition—Manori of Sri Lanka, who just got promoted from reporter to regional editor for Asia. “We’ve asked, and 98% of the women who’ve been through our training program report feeling empowered as a result.” And the percentage employed by GPI?—100. 


What is a Social Entrepreneur?


Everywhere I look, I see this term. While I think I know what it means, I got to wondering how others define it.

But first, a confession. Having begun my career in corporate finance, my curiosity often starts with finding the market mechanisms that leverage social change. There are so many different directions to go in learning about social entrepreneurs (including Babson College’s Social Innovation Lab that we heard about at an event last month). I’ll start here with a few thoughts on how a person can invest in a social entrepreneur, and the global change that is their unique vision.

Wikipedia tells us that social entrepreneurism is the process of pursuing innovative solutions to social problems; social entrepreneurs relentlessly pursue opportunities to create and sustain social value, while continuously adapting and learning.

Two PBS specials offer examples. The New Heroes says that a social entrepreneur identifies and solves social problems on a large scale. Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society. Agents for Change gives us 15 Young Go-Getters You’ll Want to Meet.

If you’re near the SF Bay Area, these events are worth attending to learn more. (And let me know of others to share!)

  1. Pipeline Fellowship Changing the Face of Angel Investing in San Francisco next Wednesday, June 12 at 9am. Catalytic Women and S.H.E. Summit are collaborators.
  2. HUB Ventures Demo Days at Facebook HQ, also next Wednesday, June 12 at 6pm.
  3. Young Women Funding Social Impact in San Francisco, Thursday, June 20 at 8am: Calvert FoundationKivaOne Percent FoundationSparkSF and Young Women Social Entrepreneurs are event partners (with Catalytic Women) and they know a lot about social entrepreneurs.
  4. Startup Weekend Women, September 13-15 in San Francisco, is an intensive weekend profiling female founders. There will definitely be some remarkable social (and traditional) entrepreneurs on stage.

Imprint Capital and Equilibrium Capital are firms specializing in impact investing — investing in social entrepreneurs. Here’s some language that they use to describe their focus.

  • Investments made in companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
  • Investment strategies rooted in hard economics and macro challenges, such as expanding consumption in developing nations, rising costs and constraints of natural resources, increasing financial and environmental risks from pollution and climate change, creating sustainable lifestyle product choices based on health and well being, shifting supply chain strategies, and creating policy and regulatory changes to manage limited natural resources.

One investment that Imprint Capital and RSF Social Finance mention is the Root Capital Women in Agriculture Initiative fund, which targets underserved women-run and women-centered businesses in Africa and Latin America. RSF’s Social Investment Fund allows anyone with $1,000 to invest in a direct loan fund funding nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises.

ImpactAssets goes one step farther. They offer donor advised funds that leverage investments to earn a return and create positive social and environmental impact, and also increase the amount of capital flowing to high impact social and environmental enterprises.

Calvert Foundation, which incubated ImpactAsset, offers various community investmentoptions starting at a mere $20, including WIN-WIN (Women Investing in Women Initiative).

Social entrepreneurs go deep on a particular issue that can change the world. Last week 4,500 leaders and social entrepreneurs gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the Women Deliver conference to learn about partnerships and solutions to help prevent 350,000 deaths each year of girls and women from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. Their vision for social change: maternal health is both a human right and a practical necessity for sustainable development.

As I write and am awed to know so many people — women and men — who are leading this work, including a few who’ve just returned from Kuala Lampur. What about you? How do you fund social entrepreneurs? We’d love to build a program around it this fall.

Photo of one of the participants in Nest, an organization that offers business consulting in developing countries. Photo courtesy of Nest and PBS NewsHour.

5 Steps to Impact Investing With a Gender Lens

Two weeks ago in Boston I had the extraordinary pleasure of hearing from three women I admire greatly: Jackie VanderBrug, Siiri Morley and Cheryl Kiser. They spoke about the complexities of social impact at a Catalytic Women event. Their perspectives spanned the full range of engagement in social impact.

In this emerging field of social entrepreneurs and gender lens investments, I see the smartest people I know struggling with definitions and metrics and models. It’s confusing — and exciting. The opportunities have never been better for women. I’m jumping in.

Care to join me? Here are a few, easy steps to help you start, from our experts who spoke to a group of Catalytic Women on May 2 in Boston.

  1. Be the brand. Women make most consumer purchases and each dollar we spend has an impact. Leverage your power when you shop. Look for products made by women. Have you seen Prosperity Candle’s beautiful selection of gifts for self and others? Siiri spoke of the women who create these products and use candle-making as a business to lift themselves out of poverty in some of the world’s harshest places. Jackie also told a story of looking for a special purchase for herself and taking the time online to find a source that has a positive impact on its community. The Internet has never made this easier.
  2. Focus your philanthropy. Jackie’s US Trust and Boston’s own The Philanthropic Initiative have a High Impact Giving Guide focused on gender lens philanthropy. She also spoke about a Monitor Institute/Packard Foundation report on enterprise philanthropy. Prosperity Catalyst, the nonprofit sister organization led by Siiri, is creating a special hands-on learning community for donors who support their work at $5,000 as Founding Catalyzers (perfect for Catalytic Women!) and will have opportunities to see the impact the organization makes in reducing poverty.
  3. Invest in a woman entrepreneur. Prosperity Candle is funding a royalties program so that their global women candle makers have inventory and supply expenses covered, minimizing their initial outlay of $20,000. Kiva and Catapult offer microloans to women around the world starting with as little as $20. WINWIN (a fund of Calvert Investments), WAGES (US Trust Investment for Women and Girls Equality Strategy), and the Raise for Women Crowdrise challenge allow investments in women entrepreneurs. Join Pipeline FellowshipAstia Angel or Golden Seeds to invest seed funding to women-led startups.
  4. Leverage your company’s giving and marketing funds. Make the case in your own business or to your corporate leaders: devote a percentage of your company’s philanthropic budget towards social enterprises with shared values; create marketing partnerships with companies looking to shift the gift and create more meaningful event and corporate swag; or invest in programs that train social entrepreneurs, like the Social Innovation Lab at Babson College.
  5. Ask questions. No one has all the answers in this space of social enterprise, impact and gender lens investing. And only a minority of financial advisors are familiar with these tools for ROI with a social benefit. If clients aren’t asking, advisors have no reason to learn. Ask your wealth manager: What is the impact of my portfolio on women and girls?

A bit more about the experts who offer these strategies…


Cheryl Kiser, as head of The Lewis Institute for Social Innovation and Babson Social Innovation Lab, knows the challenges of becoming (or not) a social entrepreneur.


Siiri Morley brings experience as a founding team member of social enterprise Prosperity Candle and nonprofit Prosperity Catalyst, and spoke of the risks and benefits of these contrasting for/non-profit business models for social impact.


Jackie VanderBrug, as an early leader in gender lens investing and in her new role leading social investing strategies at US Trust, explained the myriad ways to invest in enterprises run by women, benefiting women, or both.

And let me know where your journey into gender lens investing and supporting social entrepreneurs leads you — or how Catalytic Women’s network and resources can help.