Investing through a woman’s eyes improves finance. This represents the commitment of Gender Lens Investing, launched in Italy by Opes Italia SICAF EuVECA S.p.A., one of the youngest impact funds. Don’t be fooled, it is not a question of giving priority in investments to companies with female leadership to overcome the age-old gender gap in the labour market: counting women alone will not cut it, not even if they sit in leadership positions. We need to look at the entire production chain and assess the power dynamics: does the gender perspective concretely affect the product, the packaging, the sale? Do all stages, when dealing with a product or service targeting the general population, incorporate the needs and expectations of women? Questions such as these are asked when evaluating investments from the perspective of Gender Lens Investing. And it does so because “in terms of innovation capacity, the ‘different’ company performs better than the ‘non-different’ company, just look at the number of patents filed”. This is the view of Elena Casolari, Partner & CEO of Opes Italia SICAF EuVECA S.p.A., a company created at the end of 2019 to provide patient capital and managerial support to businesses that aim to improve people’s lives.
I discovered that women can remain themselves in finance and, in doing so, make finance itself smarter: not because we are better, but because diversity is an asset.
More diversity, better performance
With an endowment of €35 million and thirteen partners, Opes will soon make its first investment decision: “Two million euros on a female-led enterprise in the agri-food sector”, adds Casolari.
Gender Lens Investing is a pillar of the fund’s modus operandi, drawn from the previous experience of Fondazione Opes (now Fondazione Opes-Lcef), of which Casolari herself is chair: running since 2012, it currently has a portfolio of 26 investments in social enterprises in East Africa, India and Italy that deliver sustainable solutions to poverty. Among them, “the companies with the best economic and financial performance are precisely those with significant women leadership and a high diversity rate. We believe strongly in diversity and female talent and are among the few in Europe, as venture capitalists, to apply these beliefs”, says Casolari.
In Kenya, for example, Copia created a sort of catalogue for the sale and delivery of non-perishable goods specifically for the poor and rural communities, who were penalised by the e-commerce boom and also by delivery difficulties. “The company began in 2013, co-founded by a man and a woman, and boasts diversity along the entire supply chain. It now has 25,000 agents, 80% of whom are women, and aims to close 2021 with a turnover of USD 40 million”, explains Casolari.
A second example is Afripads in Uganda, which specialises in the local production and global distribution of cheap, sanitary napkins that are reusable for 12 months: “Also founded by a man and a woman, smaller but very solid, it will have a $4 million turnover this year”. In Italy too, the Opes-Lcef Foundation has invested in several projects, including Progetto Quid, which produces tailor-made garments using scraps left over from the industrial production of big brands, providing jobs to vulnerable communities.
The only woman
The decision to adopt the Gender Lens Investing perspective is a ‘personal and collective’ reflection, says Casolari, who began her career in mainstream finance, following emerging markets for 12 years: “As Managing Director, I was always one of the very few women among men who based their decisions on evaluations that completely excluded empathy and listening”, she recalls.
I had to uneducate myself first, to educate myself again to a different approach.
The next 12 years brought her into the non-profit sector, leading an NGO, Acra. The third step, impact investing, hybridises the two experiences: “At that point I asked myself whether it was really necessary to replicate the male role models I had always known. Or alternatively, when talking about inclusion and impact, finance itself should have a different and inclusive approach. I went back to school, in Berlin, took a course on Gender Lens Investing and discovered that women could be in finance by being women, bringing different skills, different psychology, different eyes and thus making finance itself smarter: not because women are better, but because diversity is an asset, always. I had to uneducate myself first, to educate myself again to a different approach. Now this, shared with partners, is in the DNA of Opes”.
Because counting heads is not enough
Investing with a gender-sensitive approach “is not the same as investing in companies that have a lot of women on the board”, Casolari immediately points out. It is the whole product chain that needs to be considered: “If I want to make a gym that’s supposedly inclusive, with special hours, disability-friendly, and then I make the car park without proper lighting, then I haven’t really thought about women. And this is what we are going to see. We are also interested in how many supply chain companies share this mindset. This is the only way to change, step by step”.
In practice”, she admits, “it is very complex and challenging, because often it is a question of intervening in an established corporate culture that, regardless of how inclusive it claims to be, is not really inclusive”. Why is this work worth doing anyway? “Firstly, because covering the gender gap is everyone’s responsibility. As an investor, it is also a risk management tool: if the gym does not have a car park suitable for women, to stay with our example, women will not go there and therefore there will be fewer clients. This is against my interest as an investor”.
We are one of the few venture capitalists in Europe to apply Gender Lens Investing. It is very complex, because often it is a question of intervening in an established corporate culture that, regardless of how inclusive it claims to be, is not really inclusive.
A grand wager
With her eyes on the future, Elena Casolari believes that we can “make Gender Lens Investing a less exotic proposition”, though it would take a “great wager”. One that “starts by applying gender to finance, just to make our funds more feminine. In the panorama of Italian funds, both impact and non-impact, women as key executives or other top positions remain a very small minority. Unless we change the physiognomy of finance, the process will always be very forced, indirect, laborious… because the things we have talked about so far, investors usually don’t look at them If we want to run faster, we have to make sure that finance, first and foremost, is less and less a male-dominated field and instead brings out female talent, because they are the ones who, when deciding how to allocate resources, are able to see things with a different eye”.