Willy Foote

NexThought Monday – Between the CEO and the BoP: Root Capital report focuses on the often overlooked role of women as “middle managers”

Women across the economic spectrum are critical to unlocking long-term economic development. After 15 years supporting farming communities in Latin America and Africa and working with hundreds of rural enterprises – coffee cooperatives, quinoa exporters, shea nut buyers – I’ve met women holding a wide range of positions: farmers working the fields, mid-level managers overseeing sales, agronomists boosting farmer production, and CEOs running the businesses themselves.

At Root Capital, we have always understood that by simply working in agriculture and supporting these businesses, we have a significant impact on women’s economic empowerment. That is, by financing and building the managerial capacity of rural enterprises, we support hundreds of talented leaders and hundreds of thousands of farmers and agricultural workers, many of whom are women. But we have also always been curious to know if our loans and financial training supported women differently than men and, more importantly, how we could address existing barriers and improve our impact on women in the long run.

Over time, we began to take a more proactive approach and adopted a gender lens to explore new opportunities in agricultural finance. In 2012, we launched our “Women in Agriculture Initiative” based on the belief that gender-inclusive businesses can create greater financial and social impact.

When we started this work, our first major task was taking stock of our clients’ performance related to gender inclusion. As we got more involved, we realized that most approaches to women’s economic empowerment have focused on the opposite ends of the economic spectrum: business leaders and entrepreneurs on one side, and women workers at the base of the power pyramid on the other.

But what about women who are not CEOs or entrepreneurs, but who hold positions critical to the success of the enterprise and its impact? What about women in middle management positions? What about female farmers? We realized that many of the women we work with are under-represented in both the Lean In and Half the Sky conversations.

Earlier this month at SOCAP, we released a new issue brief, Applying a Gender Lens to Agriculture, detailing our experience attempting to answer those questions.

The issue brief is an attempt to detail our experience answering those questions. Throughout the brief, we discuss:

  • An entire tier of women employees we call “hidden influencers,” who often go unnoticed but are critical to making businesses function properly;

  • How we evaluate gender-related outcomes within our portfolio using our gender scorecard to account for the range of roles, impacts and particular challenges of women;

  • Financial products and training programs that have a disproportionately high impact on women, and;

  • Our way of approaching gender lens investing, based on the nuances we see in the communities in which we work.

We’ve written this issue brief to share our progress, lessons learned, and the evolution of our approach to gender lens investing. We encourage others who share our goal of unlocking the economic potential of women to expand their focus beyond women as leaders to include women across the economic spectrum. In doing so, we can identify additional areas in which women are playing high-impact and influential roles within our respective sectors, and begin a substantive dialogue on how we can collectively support their long-term economic empowerment.

Willy Foote is the founder and CEO of Root Capital.

impact investing, smallholder farmers