The Women's Entrepreneurship Facility (We-Fi) announced at the G20 Summit stands out as a tangible initiative to help address a significant, but often ignored, constraint to growth and job creation—the wide global gender gap in starting and growing businesses. It is telling that, at a time when growth and inequality are core economic concerns, G20 countries have chosen to place an important bet on women entrepreneurs.
No one expects We-Fi in and of itself to solve global growth challenges. But by supporting women-owned or led businesses with growth potential, it invests where returns are likely to surprise on the upside. We-Fi aims to leverage $325 million to be provided by donors (including $50 million from the US) to mobilize more than $1 billion from international financial institutions (IFIs) and commercial sources.
There have been previous efforts to provide finance to women-owned SMEs—for example, the IFC's Women's Entrepreneurship Opportunity Facility (WEOF) launched in 2014, and the IDB's Women's Entrepreneurship Banking initiative (WEB) launched in 2012. But We-Fi takes a new, holistic evidence-based approach. Its distinctive features are: (1) a multidimensional strategy that goes beyond just finance to include help with skills, access to information and networks, and access to markets; (2) engagement with governments on the laws, regulations, and policies that discriminate against women entrepreneurs; (3) support for women’s start-ups and early stage firms; (4) equity investments in women's businesses, as well as lending through banks and other financial intermediaries; and (5) use of blended finance to share risk and solve market failures in order to unlock commercial finance.
What will success look like? This is an ambitious, path-breaking effort. Its results should be lasting and transformational. As my colleague Cindy Huang noted in a previous CGD blog, there are an array of challenges to be considered. As We-Fi takes shape, this is the time to think about what all these coordinated interventions should achieve and how results might be measured.
Typically, results of such programs are measured in terms of the amount of finance provided by the facility, the number of financial intermediaries participating, the number of women entrepreneurs supported, and perhaps the impact of expanded access to finance on women's business performance. All that is well and good, but it would be even better to go further and to measure what happens to the behavior of key market actors—women business owners, corporations that include women’s businesses in their value chains, financial intermediaries, angel investors, venture capitalists, and accelerator managers. The aim should be to change behavior so that women have better access to, and can seize, more productive opportunities long after We-Fi’s projects end.
This requires asking a deeper set of questions to assess impact: Are women starting and growing businesses in nontraditional, high-growth-potential sectors such as tech-intensive firms (rather than the current high concentration in consumer goods and services)? Are banks targeting women clients as part of their business strategies? Are they deploying innovative credit-scoring methodologies that are gender neutral? Are they funding lending to women out of their own resources? Are they offering products targeted for women's needs and preferences? Is the share of women's businesses in angel and venture investment increasing? (Globally, it is around 5 percent.)
Not only the amount but also the composition of finance mobilized by We-Fi are critical to judging its success. One hopes there is sufficient emphasis on private, commercial finance, not just on mobilizing finance from the IFC and other IFIs. It would be helpful to know more about the track record of IFC's WEOF so far. What is the ratio of IFC commitments to other lender finance? And how much of that mobilized finance is from the private sector? What are the targets for We-Fi?
Finally, this is an important opportunity to contribute meaningfully to filling the gender data gap that is hampering progress in understanding the needs of women entrepreneurs, the kinds of interventions that work best, and the potential returns from engaging women-owned businesses as clients and suppliers. Access to funding from We-Fi should come with strong requirements for collecting and sharing gender disaggregated data (while protecting business confidentiality).