Early last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center, the United Nations Office for Partnerships, and Business Call to Action hosted their annual International Women’s Day Forum, a daylong event at the United Nations marking International Women’s Day, which the UN formally established in 1977. The purpose of the annual Forum is to advance global efforts related to women’s economic empowerment.
The theme of this year’s Forum was ‘Turning Inspiration Into Action’ and Root played out that theme by participating in a panel discussion on women in agriculture. Alongside Root Capital’s Willy Foote on the panel were Ashley Arbuckle of L’Occitane USA, Simon Winter of TechnoServe and T.J. Whalen of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Taking advantage of a shared experience working in the shea butter value chain, the panelists focused on the specific challenges and opportunities related to that industry, one that boasts a high representation of female farmers. Indeed, in Burkina Faso, shea is referred to as 'women’s gold' because of its economic relevance to women.
This notion of ‘inspiration to action’ struck me as an apt characterization of where we are on a societal level with regards to women’s economic empowerment. The body of evidence underscoring the business case for women’s empowerment is increasingly well established, for example through various studies that highlight the host of correlations between gender inclusion and good business outcomes. It is exciting to be at this point in time where we can move from making the business case to leveraging that business case to improve parity of access to opportunity for men and women. The question being asked is no longer ‘why?’ but rather, ‘how?’
For Root Capital, our ‘inspiration to action’ moment came in 2012 when we launched our Women in Agriculture Initiative. What inspired us was that, in addition to the ‘missing middle’ of rural finance, one of the greatest obstacles to growing rural prosperity is the fact that women have significantly less access to assets and productive resources (e.g. inputs, land, education, financial services, technology, time) than men. Yet, we know that when women have economic opportunity, control over additional income, and more household status and power, they spend as much as 50 percent more than men on things like food, health, clothing, and education for their children.
Agriculture is the most important source of employment for women in rural areas in most developing countries, and women’s empowerment has been an important piece of our work since the beginning. Formalizing our strategy into the Women and Agriculture Initiative, however, has allowed us to shine the light on a host of opportunities that have enabled us to raise our impact to a higher level. Since the launch of the Initiative, we have made over $87 million in loans to more than 100 businesses that score an ‘A’ or above in gender inclusion on our social scorecard. These businesses are located in 21 countries and work across 14 different industries.
‘Mainstreaming’ women’s economic empowerment
The concept of ‘mainstreaming’ was present in many different conversations at the Forum. As I thought about what a mainstreaming process needs to look like for us at Root Capital, I realized that it’s all about ‘walking the talk.’
If we’re going to continue having these important conversations about gender inclusion, we have to live up to live up to the standards we set for our clients and ourselves and continue down that path from inspiration to action. We’re past the theoretical phase; now it’s time to make it real.