Not Everyone is Asked, “What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?”
by Maria Bolis, senior advisor for Private Sector Department, Oxfam America
What if you were never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When I was younger, I wasn’t aware that people had different expectations of girls and boys. My parents wanted me to get good grades and have a career. They never asked, “When will you get married? How many children will you have?” Instead they asked, “What are you thinking about” And “What interests you?”
I followed my interests – sometimes circuitously – to graduate school for international development, the World Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, consulting, business school and eventually the New York Fed – free of the constraints of societal or familial pressures that so many women around the world face.
When I came to Oxfam, I began to see things differently. The doors that so easily opened for me – largely because of the “zip code” of my birth – were either shut or perhaps not even visible to others. Education, mentors, books, contacts, encouragement – these were all assets that I’d taken for granted. It killed me that the world was so full of people with incredible talent and drive who were routinely set back, minimized or unacknowledged largely because of their gender or the color of their skin.
I worked in finance and felt confident that the impact investors could be part of the solution. There is a rising tide of interest in gender lens investing that invites investors to create economies that re-value women and their contributions. Furthermore, we knew that tackling a problem as big as women’s economic marginalization requires a “systemic approach” involving multi-sectorial partnerships that bring together the unique skills sets and resources of the financial sector, non-profits and academia. Oxfam would play its traditional convening role and use its platform as a global advocacy powerhouse to trumpet the voices of the entrepreneurs to change the paradigm of what a “successful entrepreneur” looks like.At Oxfam, we set about developing an initiative known as “Women in Small Enterprise” or “WISE.” The objective of WISE is to support the revaluing of women’s economic contributions. We seek to demonstrate how women – especially indigenous women – are already contributing meaningfully to their economies as producers, suppliers and employers, but their contributions are going uncelebrated. We call this “making the invisible visible.” For those women, who are running their own small businesses, generating employment and supporting their families, we want to elevate their accomplishments. At the same time, the WISE initiative tries to make the road a bit easier for those women – through access to business training, coaching, peer networking, and financial links.
We went on to raise Oxfam America’s first ever impact investing fund in support of a pilot that we launched in 2014 in Guatemala. Fund capital is used to provide a partial guaranty to local financial institutions to incentivize increased lending to women-run businesses. This financial access component is paired with coaching and peer-to-peer learning opportunities (supported by separate grant funding) for the women participating in the program provided by our local partner organization, IDEA. The training weaves together business skills with themes of empowerment and agency. The very first training session helps women define their “life plan.” It asks – “What do you want to do?” to women who may never have been afforded the luxury of answering this question.