Gender & SME Finance

Sabre Collier is a Skoll Scholar and one of our Shell Foundation Fellows. This is the second in her series of posts from Johannesburg, hospital where she is working with GroFin. GroFin finances small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa.


Tara Sabre Collier

At GroFin, case we are lucky to have several dazzling women entrepreneurs in our portfolio.  We’ve helped one of them expand a chain of pharmacies to over 20 locations in Nigeria, another launch an agroprocessor that sources from dozens of women’s cooperatives in Ghana, another to launch a private school in Nairobi and many many more.

Some of our investment officers have anecdotally noted that the women entrepreneurs tend to be more diligent with their repayment, which correlate with findings in the microfinance space.  Moreover, World Bank and multilateral research has proven that women invest a greater portion of their earnings into household health and education, improving quality of life for the next generation. So, for an impact investor, women entrepreneurs bring a two-for-one premium.   Promotion of gender equity and improved human development outcomes long-term.

At the recent Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurs Conference  in Nairobi, there was a session on gender that got me thinking a bit more about this issue.  So I began to look a bit more at the women entrepreneurs in our portfolio. They  are extremely diverse across nationality and sector but are quite well represented in community/ social service i.e.  schools or health clinics, pharmacies, MFIs or other social businesses.  I also noticed them clumped conspicuously in sectors  with links to agroprocessing and textiles, which tend to have really high job creation and/or local supplier sourcing from economically vulnerable groups.  Investees with at least 50% female ownership tended to have higher turnover growth and much greater low-skilled job creation.  This is an interesting paradox because external research has shown that traditionally, women’s businesses are more likely than men’s businesses to be “dwarfed” i.e. low-growth.

In the midst of this global 2-3 trillion dollar SME finance gap, we also suffer from a global gender gap, and the two are mutually reinforcing. Women’s lack of financial access is compounded by other  factors such as sector representation, household division of labor, legal rights and cultural norms.  These factors help keep women’s businesses small, which theoretically makes a woman entrepreneur more high-risk. Fortunately, in our case, most of the women entrepreneurs are bringing commensurate financial and social returns.

Given that we focus on established SMEs, perhaps our women entrepreneurs do not reflect the common woman.  As they have already surpassed the informal microenterprise stage, they may reflect the outliers, the superstars who have overcome these myriad barriers to women’s entrepreneurship.  After all, in Africa and the Middle East, women’s literacy  and labor force participation is significantly lower, compared to men.  And, in some of the countries where we operate, women are reportedly  requested to bring spousal consent for bank loans.

The next step is better marketing to, targeting and supporting these women entrepreneurs so that our portfolio can continue expanding its social and financial returns.

As the expression goes:  Give a woman a seed and she will give you a garden.  Give a women a house, she will give you a home.


Joining the International Centre for Social Franchising

An MBA and Skoll Centre Ecosystem Awardee, Greg Coussa works for the International Centre for Social Franchising, leading ICSF’s expansion to the United States. You can reach Greg at

Innovation has been a buzzword, is a buzzword and will remain a buzzword for years to come. But in a day and age where crucial and amazing innovation has already occurred I think it’s important to not always follow the trend of looking for the latest innovation, and instead focus on scaling up what has already been proven. I am not saying that innovators should stop innovating (we still desperately need the Salman Khans and Molly Melchings of the world to be supported), I just believe that a disproportionate amount and inefficient allocation of resources are focused on finding innovation rather than on supporting proven innovation.

The International Centre for Social Franchising ( is a UK charity born out of a frustration of seeing social organisations constantly reinventing the wheel and wasting scarce resources on problem solving. ICSF believes that proven ideas of best practices should be the starting point for designing and delivering solutions to social problems. Its vision is therefore a world where innovative and proven social impact solutions are spread to match the scale of the social problems they address. To achieve this vision, ICSF supports social-impact organisations to scale their proven models through social replication.

The spectrum of replication models is diverse and control level over aspects of expansion varies from one model to the next. ICSF follows a five-step process for replication that our research has shown an organisation would need to flow through in order to successfully replicate. This framework provides organisations with a scale up roadmap. ICSF supports the social replication of such social organisations in three ways:

  • Consult: Advise and assist social organisations who desire to replicate
    • ICSF has helped numerous organisations scale, explore scale options, or improve current scaling efforts. Previous and current clients include Oxfam, Nike Foundation, FoodCycle, and Population Services International (PSI).
  • Curate: Lead in knowledge-building and research-focused efforts surrounding social replication models and best practices
    • ICSF recently conducted a lengthy research report supported by the UK’s Big Lottery Fund in assessing the potential for social replication.
  • Convene:  Act as a hub for action-focused discussion and networking for those interested in scale through social replication
    • Late in 2013, I had the privilege of attending an ICSF and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) -led roundtable discussion to further the research for rapid routes to scale for primary care in developing economies. In attendance were representatives from Baxter, Novartis, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), EcoBank, CARE, Save the Children, and the Gates Foundation.

All that being said, social replication remains complicated and can be difficult to do correctly: it takes resources, time, support and dedication. While social replication may not be the silver bullet that will finally match social solutions to social problems in full, I do believe it will further the reach and impact of innovative social solutions that have already been developed. And if I can be even a small cog in the delivery of social solutions to previously unreached social needs through our work at ICSF then I will find my time well spent.

RE.WORK Cities: Innovating Smarter Urban Centers for a Sustainable Future

Lisa A. Chase, prostate Writer and Editor, sildenafil Harvard University Graduate School of Design Gives us her overview of the upcoming RE.WORK Cities event, taking place in London on Friday 13th December.

The following is an excerpt of the full article.

city at night

Photo: Shutterstock

The future lies in the world’s cities. For an expanding and increasingly mobile global population, for policy-makers, developers and designers, the focus is on the urban landscape. Yet the prospect of more than half the world’s projected 9 billion people living, working and doing business in cities from New York to Shanghai presents daunting challenges. By 2030, twelve megacities will each be home to more than 20 million people.  Yet municipal governments in both highly industrialized and developing economies are financially and politically constrained in their ability to accommodate these rapidly expanding populations. Simultaneously, the planet faces critical natural resource scarcity and potentially devastating climate-related impacts. How can urban planners, politicians and designers reconcile these competing and conflicting trends to craft cities that are vibrant, efficient, socially and environmentally sustainable?

On December 13 at London’s historic Tobacco Dock, RE.WORK Cities will explore these questions and present provocative – and potentially surprising – solutions for crafting the 21st century urban landscape. Moderators including The Guardian‘s Jemima Kiss and the BBC’s Simon Frantz, along with  thought-leaders from academia, business and the public sector, will explore how design and technology are shaping intelligently designed, highly livable and environmentally balanced cities. Policy-makers, entrepreneurial technologists and designers including Mischa Dohler of Kings College London, founder Marc Pous and Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, along with luminaries from Columbia University, the BBC and IBM will envision the future of the global built environment.  Presentation topics will include the future of urban mobility, environmental efficiency and sustainability, the role of the internet in creating smarter and more equitable cities, and the concept of the urban center as a living, breathing, biological ecosystem.

While increased urbanisation challenges cities to provide resilient infrastructure and public services while reducing natural resource use and environmental impacts, RE.WORK Cities will showcase the rich potential to create more efficient, socially and environmentally equitable urban spaces.  The focus at RE.WORK Cities will be on creative and intellectually collaborative solutions, rather than high-volume keynote speeches and personalities. The global challenges are urgent, the possibilities are limitless, and the future of the world’s cities will be shaped by bold and disruptive thinking.  RE.WORK Cities is your chance to be part of the 21st century urban solution.


Skoll World Forum 2013: Everything You Need To Know

Mark Hand, one of our Skoll Skollars, takes us on a recap of the Skoll World Forum. As Mark says, “happy reading”!


If you missed this year’s Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, never fear: a raft of students from across Oxford worked all week long to get you the inside scoop on the conversations going on in the high-level hallways of Said Business School. The write-ups of our student correspondents provide a pretty comprehensive–and quite encouraging–window into the world of social entrepreneurship.

The theme of this year’s forum, disruption, surfaced in a number of posts. I look at four skills necessary for shifting systems; MBA Meagan Johnson takes it up a notch to the power of system design itself. Rwanda, Sara Leedom argued, has practical lessons to teach us on such system-level change—unfortunately, the session she visited missed the boat. At the same time, Environmental Anthropology PhD Shauna Monkman points out one critical flaw in using Rwanda a model of disruptive change. DPhil Guillermo Cassanovas provides notes from a session with industry leaders well on their way to effecting large-scale change; MBA Michael Thornton examines how large companies can do this in a way that is more than “staving off Mr. Freeze with a Bic Lighter.”

There were a few well-trodden topics: James Tilbury covers the birth of yet the latest, greatest impact measurement tool put forward by the founder of now-bankrupt Monitor Group; and MBA Nicki Ashcroft offers a quirky comparison between impact measurement and one of your favorite children’s cartoons. MBAs Akiko Aiba and Nat Ware explore the relationship between social enterprise, aid, and philanthropy.

The mobile phone effect got a lot of play at this year’s Forum. That’s not too surprising, MBA Charlton Mak points out, given that mobile phones are more prevalent globally than toilets. MBA Sabre Collier says she is still looking for a business model that might be appropriate to Angola, dear to her heart; fellow Skoll Scholar Shubham Anand may have uncovered ideas in both monitoring and payments, while DPhil Ali Aslan Gümüsay asks how innovations like these can be taken to scale.

One of the biggest open questions at the 2013 Skoll World Forum was the question of youth unemployment–a hot topic beyond Said Business School. Both MBA Chad Anderson and MPhil Sherihan Abd El Rahman report out on the “ticking time bomb” of youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa. What can investors do? MBAs Chris Hunter and Greg Coussa might have some answers: Chris discusses one approach to startup generation with which we’re experimenting here at Said Business School, and Greg highlights the work one organization is doing to support small- and medium-sized enterprises around the world.

But what, exactly, does it take to get this hard work done? One surprising topic from the week was the importance of emotional connection. In her second article, Shauna Monkman wonders if the ability to connect is behind one of social entrepreneurship’s greatest successes; MPP Ken Moriyama suggests its power as a check on the worst demons of do-gooders.

Finally, if all this is still a muddle to you, I posted a Social Entrepreneurship 101 designed for beginners and a first stab at identifying key conversations happening at the Forum. Happy reading!

Social Entrepreneurship 101

 Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, Mark Hand and his colleagues give us their take on an introduction to Social Entrepreneurship.  As Mark says, doctor “happy enterprising!”

“Social Entrepreneurship,” according to one definition, “strives to solve social problems at a systemic level using innovative, sustainable, scalable, inclusive and measurable approaches.”


Confused about social entrepreneurship? You’re not alone. -Image by Debbie Levey

In the 1980s, Ashoka Foundation’s Bill Drayton started using the phrase social entrepreneur to describe the people he funded to fix the world’s problems. Thirty years later, we use the phrase (and its sister, impact investing) to encompass nearly all novel do-goodery. The result is that it takes a couple of years working in social entrepreneurship or impact investing before you can get a grip on who’s who and the various meanings that different players attach to the same words. And the upshot is a clear division between insiders and outsiders. This keeps insiders’ jobs safe, I suppose, but it also prevents a lot of smart people from contributing to some of the coolest work on the planet.

So, in an effort to demystify the world of social entrepreneurship and impact investing, here’s a primer edited from a post written during the 2012 Emerge Conference at Oxford. If you’re a veteran, you’ll recognize all these names–and probably roll your eyes at how often the same examples are trotted around stage. If you’re new, we hope this can be a useful starting point.

Why Should We Care About This Social Entreprenonsense? 

If you’ve gotten this far, presumably you are already interested in social entrepreneurship. There’s good reason to be. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll be competing for funding and spots at commercial incubators like Y Combinator with social entrepreneurs that have a head start on a compelling, convincing pitch. If you work at a nonprofit, you’ll be fighting for talent and money with a growing, exciting field. If you’re an investor, for-profit impact investors like Bamboo Finance will be pitching the same pension funds that you used to have a lock on. And if you’re a regulator, watch out: millions, and soon billions, of dollars are doing an end-around governments’ own poverty-alleviation and environmental agencies by going through foundations, private companies, and sometimes developed world aid agencies.

Broadly Speaking

To review: (1) Social entrepreneurship is opaque and ill-defined. But (2) It also matters right now and it will matter more in the future. None of that gets at our original question, though–what is it? How can we split up the things people include when they talk about social entrepreneurship?


Many of the leading funders of social entrepreneurship–Acumen, Gray Ghost Ventures, Unitus, Ashoka–cut their teeth on microfinance. In brief, microfinance is the provision of loans, often in the developing world, that are typically at smaller amounts and lower interest rates than existing banks and moneylenders. Kiva, an online marketplace for microloans, is probably the most well-known. Among the other pantheon of microfinance gods are the Grameen Bank (and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus), Accion, and BRAC. Microfinance splits roughly into three camps: first, nonprofit microfinanciers like Grameen; second, government agencies such as USAID and DFID that underwrote the sector for decades; third, for-profit microfinance funders like Unitus, which invested in the for-profit Indian microfinance bank SKS. The latter are the most controversial; in 2010 SKS became the second microfinance bank to list publicly (and make some investors a boatload of money) at the same time that the suicides of some of its clients pushed the industry to the brink of collapse.

Impact Investing

As microfinance’s golden age came and quickly passed, many funders moved in the early 2000s to the work of funding startups with high-growth potential and significant social impact. In 2007, these groups created the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) to promote their work. Today, this kind of investing is called impact investing. You might also hear the phrases patient capital, venture philanthropy, or social venture capital.

That work, broadly, is venture capital with a social or environmental twist. Ideally, social entrepreneurs will get seed funding from individual (angel) investors, then work through business incubators like Stanford’s D-Lab, the Unreasonable Institute, or Echoing Green, then receive capital from seed-funders such as the Unitus Seed Fund, the Mulago Foundation, and Village Capital; occasionally angel groups like Toniic and Investors’ Circle step in at this point. The next step up–talking here about amounts in the $500K-2m range–includes Shell Foundation, LGTVP and Skoll Foundation. Moving farther along the funding continuum means tapping deeper pockets like those of Omidyar.

It’s hardly that clean, of course. First, funders like the ones listed above often have multiple funds investing in different amounts, for example. Second, some of these funders give grants to nonprofits (which for-profit investors wouldn’t call “investing”), while others put equity into for-profits targeting mostly middle class consumers (which others wouldn’t call “impact”). Some will even give grants to for-profits while others make loans to non-profits. Third, the funding chain is hardly well-developed: speak to any entrepreneur on the hunt for investment and you’ll walk away more confused about the funding landscape than ever.

Social Enterprises

Still, the high-growth social enterprises that these groups fund (which are typically listed on the Our Portfolio section of their websites) make up a significant portion of the actual work going on in the arena of social enterprise. D.Light, Aravind Eye Care, Simpa Networks, One Acre Fund, DripTech, Embrace, Envirofit, and Grameen Phone are some of the household names within the social entrepreneurship family, along with Partners in Health, Riders for Health, Root Capital, FairTrade USA, and Teach for America.

What holds these companies together? They’re across the spectrum of developmental stage. Some are for-profit, some are non-profit, and some are hybrids. Some call themselves social enterprises; others blanche at the term. Some are successful and others–honestly–are struggling much more than they or their investors will admit. In large part, what binds these groups together is the network of linkages among the overlapping portfolios of each investors, the investor/donor list of each enterprise, and the incubators that gave them their first jolt. At their core, perhaps, all hearken back to our original definition of a social entrepreneurship: “innovative, sustainable, scalable, inclusive and measurable approaches” to big social and environmental problems. They’re selling more efficient cookstoves, solar-powered replacements for kerosene lanterns, eye surgeries, and irrigation systems to customers who would otherwise never have had access to potentially life-changing goods and services.

But wait! What about…

As social enterprise and impact investing have filtered into common use, a number of other sectors have piped up or piled in: “Hey! We’re already doing that–we’re impact investors, too” or “We’re social enterprises, but in a different way.” Community Development Finance Institutions have been pumping money into low-income communities for decades. Small businesses and the local banks that fund them argue fairly that deep impact is local impact. Fair trade organizations and worker cooperatives like FabIndia work to provide better wages to developing-world commodity farmers. Socially responsible investors have made huge strides in shifting mainstream capital into funds that exclude socially and environmentally hazardous investments.

Big bad governments, international bodies, and major corporations have been looking at market-based solutions to poverty for some time, as well. Major development banks provide capital to infrastructure projects in emerging markets, corporations have graduated from corporate social responsibility to innovative efforts like Vodafone’s M-Pesa and Avon’s “Ladies” in Africa. Traditional banks have, as well: JP Morgan has its own Social Finance unit; Deutsche Bank announced its Essential Capital Fund in September 2012. Bilateral aid organizations (USAID, DFID) were essential to the development of microfinance, and the World Bank and IFC have worked to pull capital and expertise into developing countries since their inception. In the last decade, a new form of finance, called social impact bonds, pulls together private, public, and social sector organizations to drive commercial capital to nonprofit activities.

Where to Show Up: Social Entrepreneurship Conferences and Meetings 

Great! You’ve got the lay of the land, and you’ve figured out what you think counts as legitimate social enterprise and what is rubbish. Where are you going to go to meet other people like you? Every year there are a few key conferences and gatherings. Their relative importance shifts over time, but here are the ones that might still matter in 2013. First, there’s SOCAP, the largest gathering of social enterprises and funders on the planet and a complete circus. The Skoll World Forum at Oxford is its upscale version, where heads of state meet the Skoll Foundation’s investees. Opportunity Collaboration is a cozier weekend that in part connects wealthy individuals with entrepreneurs. Other gatherings include: Sankalp, the Intellicap-hosted Indian version of SOCAP; the Emerge Conference, the Skoll World Forum’s younger cousin; and the Foro Latinoamericano de Inversión de Impacto.

What to Read

Congrats. You now know everything you need to know about social enterprise. What should you read to stay up to speed? A couple of years ago, the clearinghouse was Nathaniel Whittemore’s Social Entrepreneurship blog, and no single publication has stepped into that gap. So here’s your RSS feed: Stanford Social Innovation Review,, Huffington Post Social Enterprise, Triple Pundit, and Impact IQ.

If you really want to impress, there are a few books you should probably have on your shelf. For a bit of (always inspirational, sometimes fluffy) introduction, scan The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, How to Change the World by David Bornstein, and Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus. For a bit more meat, move on to The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Pralahad, Impact Investing by Emerson and Bugg-Levine and Social Enterprise by Marc Lane. Can’t get enough? The University of San Diego’s Sara Johnson has put together a pretty solid list on impact investing for beginners, and the report on everybody’s tongue in 2012 was “Blueprint to Scale” by Acumen Fund and Monitor.

Happy enterprising,

Mark Hand, Joy Jauer, Sara Johnson, and Kshitij Khurana

Photo Credit: Debbie Levey

Disruption Decoded: Four skills for shifting systems

Approximately twenty University of Oxford students will be attending this year’s Skoll World Forum as part of the Skoll Centre‘s Skoll World Forum Student Fellowship.  Students will be blogging throughout the Forum, so stay tuned for some great insights!

With the Forum fast approaching, Mark Hand has already shared some of his thoughts below. Enjoy!


What does it take to unwind wicked problems? Image by Jacob Thomas

What does it take to disrupt an entire system? Last month, Joy Anderson of the Criterion Institute pulled together a group of social entrepreneurs, academics, consultants and funders for a day-long conversation on this very question. During the morning session we heard from those working to alter the supply chain for US fish, to bring together musicians from the entire Nile River Basin, and to redefine the “American Dream” in an age of decreasing homeownership. In a clever twist, Anderson had each of us focus on one of five themes as we listened: Leadership, Choices, Strategies, Relationships, and Stuff That Doesn’t Fit Into the Other Four Categories.

During case studies we recorded thoughts and questions on sticky notes, then rainbowed a wall in the main hall of the ICAEW building in London. After lunch another delegate and I scratched our heads over the multi-colored mess. Criterion will put out a much more thorough reflection on this series of events in June: in the meantime, here are the four themes that I believe system-shifters must master to succeed in their difficult work: Adaptive Leadership, Storytelling, Network Theory, and Power.

Adaptive Leadership. As we grouped together words that touched on leadership we noticed a trend in descriptions of the leadership of actors tackling wicked problems: humble, centered, adaptive, rooted, curious. These were not the authoritarian leaders or old nor in command of industry-specific expertise. Rather their talents were what business school strategists called dynamic capabilities: the ability to shuffle resources in reaction to new situations or new understandings of an existing situation. As one participant put it, “The more we learned the more the idea that we understood the industry went out the window.”

Network Theory. Such a humble approach to leadership allows systems-shifters to see themselves as organizers of resources within a network of relationships. In the Philippines, for example, the multimillion-dollar community development group Gawad Kalinga owes its success to having worked out how best to connect big businesses, communities, highly educated young Filipinos, and others. Within the world of network theory, they serve alternately as bridge and broker among these otherwise isolated communities.

Storytelling. To view leaders as hubs at the center of a wheel of relationships runs counter to the familiar narrative of the hero leader. But narratives and stories form the basis of humans’ religious and political understanding, serve as the glue for communities, and–in the language of business–are the method by which leaders pull others around their vision. “Where there is no vision,” reads the Jewish Ketuvim, “the people perish.” Following the Nile River Basin musical project, in which Africans from the length of the river basin will come together to compose pan-African musical scores, Arab and black North African musicians will leave with a new story to tell about their counterparts in other countries.

Power. Following the day with Criterion, I had a conversation with an American friend starting a nonprofit to fight against the death penalty in his state. Why a nonprofit rather than politics? I asked. He responded that he didn’t want to “play the game.” I pointed out that by tackling a political issue, he was in “the game,” whether he liked it or not. Too often social entrepreneurs and others avoid using the tools of the system, believing they can create change from outside. They’re wrong; real changes requires politics, even if those system-shifters aren’t to become politicians.

The Skoll World Forum, of course, will be packed with individuals already putting these skills to good use. And if there is one aspect of the Forum I am focused on, it is looking for the other skills that these individuals have made sure to develop. Suggestions welcome.



Photo Credit: Jacob Thomas