These women leaders show that balance is better, part two

Part of Accion’s annual series highlighting women working in financial inclusion

As we strive to close the gender gap in access to financial services and build an inclusive financial system, we’re proud to have a diverse team leading the charge. Three in five people who work at Accion are women, and at Accion Venture Lab, more than half of all full-time staff are women.

We’re highlighting some of these leaders who are working to build a more inclusive world in our annual blog series on the women of Accion and our partners. You can learn about more inspiring women in our previous article for this series.

Here are a few of the leaders we’re proud to work with:

Kshama Fernandes, Managing Director and CEO, Northern Arc

Kshama Fernandes“If a large proportion of the human population is excluded from finance, education, livelihood, medical care, etc., we will never be able to unleash our full potential as human beings. We will only be half as good, half as productive, and half as happy as we could be in a world without the gender gap. Let’s strive to become a complete species!” With such a bold statement, it’s no surprise that Kshama Fernandes has committed her career to creating a more equitable world. As the managing director and CEO of Northern Arc in India, she supports companies that are serving people who have been excluded from the benefits of formal financial services, including women. She sees the effects that come when these underserved populations finally get financial services that meet their needs: “Small sums of money can make a big difference to the lives of many. As an illustration, access to a timely loan gives the ability to pay fees and to not have to pull a girl child out of school at the first indication of financial stress. It means having the liquidity to avail medical treatment in a timely manner for the bread earner so her or his family won’t be homeless. For many women, it means an opportunity to avail a dignified livelihood, and the independence and the empowerment that comes with it.”

Driving financial inclusion is a mission Kshama has embraced wholeheartedly. “Those of us who are fortunate to have had access to finance, have the responsibility to give back to the world,” she says. Whatever mission motivates you, she offers this advice for making an impact: “Don’t underestimate the power you have to change the world for the better. You have your rightful place under the sun — in your families, at your workplaces, in board rooms, and in the wider financial ecosystem.”

Cindy Ko, Venture Partner, Singapore, Quona Capital

Cindy Ko“There are a million ways to make an impact, both professionally and personally. Define how you want to make that impact, and in what way you can contribute most to it,” advises Cindy Ko, who steers Quona Capital’s impact investing work in Southeast Asia. She knew she wanted to do meaningful work with a global impact, and that’s how she came to work in inclusive finance: “A brief career in investment banking taught me early on that finance separated from impact rang hollow for me. I spent a year in Kosovo with a microfinance organization — and making the connection firsthand between the loans we made and the impact on their lives — it left a deep impression on me. I’ve since dedicated my career to entrepreneurship and financial inclusion in one shape or another.”

At Quona, Cindy works with a team of men and women around the globe to support fintech for the underserved. She sees Quona’s diversity as a strength in today’s connected world: “Organizations which have learned to cooperate across diverse opinions, cultures, and paradigms internally will be better prepared to compete externally.” The dynamic times we’re living in, which make diversity in the workplace a crucial asset, are also leading to a more gender-balanced world in every sector, Cindy observes. “We have come a long way. I personally see the gender gap in financial inclusion — and in education, political power, etc. — disappearing over the next generation,” says Cindy: “Women entering the formal workforce, gaining greater economic power — it’s a tide that cannot be turned back.” She’s not just resting on her optimism though — by working to drive financial inclusion forward, she’s empowering those who have long been underserved and catalyzing a brighter future for all.

Maria Camila Gomez, Vice President Latin America Program Management, Global Advisory Solutions, Accion

Maria Camila GomezWhen Maria Camila Gomez started computer programming at just 7 years old, she didn’t know that her passion for technology would one day lead her to work on leveraging digital financial services for financial inclusion. It was when she was working for Mastercard that she came to learn about the severity of financial exclusion faced by the world’s most vulnerable and found opportunities to use her talents to address this problem. Today, she is a leader for Accion’s Global Advisory Solutions team in Latin America, where she’s seen the challenges that can make financial services inaccessible for women and other excluded populations. “One of the main barriers for an individual to open an account is simply the ease of doing so. Convenience, speed, required documents, and user experience, among other factors, are key, and they are even more relevant for segments like working moms. I believe that technology plays a very important role in helping to improve these conditions.”

Financial exclusion is a vast problem to tackle, so having an excellent team that reflects a variety of backgrounds is crucial. “Gender balance helps to bring a mix of perspectives and a more complete set of skills that allow an organization to see the big picture and avoid bias. This leads to better decision-making that leverages innovation, creativity, and collaboration,” she says. She urges other women who want to make a difference to resist messages that you have to be self-sacrificing. “Take care of yourself, and that way you will be able to help even more. Wake up, smile, be grateful, be authentic — so we can build a virtuous circle of happy, inspiring women and do our bit to change the world one day at a time!”

Shamina Singh, President, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth

Shamina Singh

“We have to find ways to close the gender gap in formal account access,” says Shamina Singh, adding that “it’s not just about providing access, it’s also about increasing usage, which can lead to greater financial security.” From her time with the SEIU supporting nursing home workers to her current role leading the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Shamina has seen the importance of economic independence throughout her career. “It’s why I’m so passionate about the scale that has and will continue to be achieved here at Mastercard,” she says. “The company has built financial inclusion into its overall corporate objectives, has active engagement and support from the Board, CEO, CFO, and leaders all the way through the organization and really walk the walk.”

She’s excited about how the Center is employing technology to drive inclusive growth: “One of the solutions we’re working on is digital payroll for garment workers. For garment workers who are mostly paid in cash, digitizing payroll would not only provide control over how their hard earned money is spent, but would also provide important wage and age transparency for the brands that often contract with the factories. It would also provide the factory owners with a much more efficient process for distributing funds.” Partnerships are another way the Center promotes inclusion, including their work with Accion. “Our partnership is helping ensure [MSME] lenders are as strong as they can be so they can help even more people achieve financial security, grow their businesses, create jobs, and improve quality of life for all,” says Shamina: “We’re trying to change and impact things at scale using capital, technology, network, expertise, and analytics — anything and everything we can to lift people up to reach their full potential.”

A key factor for establishing a work environment that cultivates transformative ideas? “An innovative environment is one where you get the best ideas, and a culture of inclusion allows people to bring their best selves to work,” says Shamina. “Real innovation happens when you have more people at the table with different perspectives. In the age of technology, AI and machine learning, we have to make sure humans are at the center and that as these technologies develop, both the originators as well as those impacted are representative of the population.”

For women who want to follow her lead and make a difference, Shamina advises not to undervalue the work you’re doing and what you have to offer. “I think most women are already having an impact but may not acknowledge it as such. I’ve talked to women who work the land during the day and sell spicy pickles and vegetables in the market on weekends who say that their side business is a hobby — and they are pulling in 40 percent of the household income!” She adds that “Wherever you are in your own life, you can always make a difference. Every action, no matter how small, has an impact.”

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