Remarks at the Launch of the Women's Entrepreneurship Fund

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Kiva Headquarters
San Francisco, CA
February 26, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Julie, for that kind introduction, and for your tremendous leadership on this project. Ever since we met at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya last year, we have been looking at how we can partner to empower women entrepreneurs like the ones we met there. And this Fund wouldn’t have happened without Julie—and the entire Kiva team.

I’d also like to thank our colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank for their support in this effort. We’re excited to see how your work can make a real difference for both women entrepreneurs and financial institutions.

At last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, I had the chance to meet a woman named Zohra Baraka. Zohra told me that she knew ever since she was a little girl that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. Her parents owned their own store, and when Zohra’s school closed for holidays, they sometimes let her run it all on her own.

Zohra has been running her own business for more than 20 years. One day, the wife of one of her suppliers came in and pleaded for an advance on his paycheck. The woman explained that her husband wouldn’t pay the school fees for their two daughters, and she was desperate for them to get an education.

So Zohra decided to hire this woman as a supplier, and even gave her an advance so she could send her daughters to school.

To me, this story illustrates why the State Department cares about women’s economic empowerment. First, we know that, like the woman who came to Zohra, women are more likely to invest their earnings back into their family, paying for things like their kids’ education and immunizations.

And by the way, women are generally considered to be a good, low-risk investment. For example, in the microfinance world, women repay 98 percent of their loans. And second, we know that women are more likely to hire other women than men are, so empowering women entrepreneurs has a multiplier effect within communities.

To put it simply, we know that when women do better, families, communities, and ultimately countries do better as well. And yet, women face far too many barriers in the economy, particularly women entrepreneurs. According to the International Finance Corporation, as many as 70 percent of women-owned small and medium enterprises in developing economies are unserved or underserved by financial institutions. That adds up to a $260 to $320 billion credit gap for women alone.

Study after study shows that there are plenty of women like Zohra—women who have the confidence, capacity, and follow-through to start their own businesses—to the point where women in places like Nigeria and Zambia are more likely than men to be entrepreneurs.

That’s why we’re so excited to be part of the launch of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund today. Through our partnership with Kiva, and with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank, we’re going to expand access to finance for the full spectrum of women entrepreneurs, from microenterprises to small and medium enterprises.

There are many ways this Fund tackles the challenges facing women entrepreneurs when it comes to accessing capital. Today I’d like to highlight two that are particularly important to the State Department.

The first is data. Here in San Francisco, everyone knows the value of data. And yet that’s something the international community is missing when it comes to women entrepreneurs. We don’t have enough data to illustrate the experiences of women entrepreneurs in certain countries.

For diplomats, that constrains our ability to encourage countries to reform their laws and policies to promote women’s entrepreneurship. It also limits the ability of banks to find new, innovative ways to finance women entrepreneurs.

That’s why the State Department’s role in this Fund will include investing in data collection and analysis—so that we can measure how effective the Fund is in expanding access to finance. This is invaluable data that can offer new insights into the experiences of women entrepreneurs in countries around the world. It will show not only the size and purpose of the loan, but also whether the lendee returns for additional funding.

And once we have these numbers, our diplomats will have an even stronger, evidence-based case that will help us work with the public and the private sectors. It will help us develop programs, advance regulatory change, and make legal system reforms to broaden women’s financial inclusion. And each of these pieces is critical to empowering women entrepreneurs.

The second point I’d like to highlight is how this Fund will help us advance the Sustainable Development Goals. Last September, the world came together at the United Nations and agreed on priorities for the global development agenda for the next 15 years. A key part of that agenda includes expanding women’s access to financial resources.

This is an important recognition that women’s economic empowerment is a key part of our overall efforts to address other challenges—including gender-based violence, women’s political participation, and the education and empowerment of adolescent girls.

But the global goals cannot be achieved by governments alone. We need everyone—governments, the private sector, civil society, and individual citizens—to commit to achieving them.

For our part, the Department has several initiatives to empower women entrepreneurs around the world. We have networks in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In several countries we’ve opened physical centers that provide women with resources to start and grow their own businesses.

But we’ve been looking for ways we can work with the private sector to close the gender gap in access to finance. This Fund offers just that – a clear, direct way for the private sector to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, tackle what is currently a multi-billion dollar challenge, and double the impact of their investment. Donors can contribute resources that will directly go to expanding financial resources for women who are more than entrepreneurs—they’re job creators, care givers, and educators.

Because the Fund will be used to match, dollar-for-dollar, what Kiva’s lenders provide to women entrepreneurs, donors know that they are part of a global community of support for this effort. And thanks to the data collection, investors will have hard data and evidence to track the impact of their contributions.

The Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund can make a difference on so many levels in the entrepreneurship ecosystem—for women and their communities, for microfinance institutions and commercial banks, for donors and investors, and for regulators and policymakers. And that impact is going to start almost immediately.

We’re hoping that by the time President Obama comes to San Francisco for this summer’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, we’ll already be well on our way to empowering women entrepreneurs through this Fund.

So thank you so much for joining us for this launch—I’m looking forward to our discussion this morning.