Five years of GenderSmart: reflections, appreciation, and the road ahead
A little over five years ago, Darian Rodriguez Heyman and I came together with a vision to unlock gender-smart capital at scale by bringing together people across the entire investment spectrum.
In January, GenderSmart, the organisation we went on to build, will merge with our long-term partners at the 2X Collaborative to become 2X Global. We pursued this merger to multiply and accelerate our combined efforts. Our intention is not only to move more capital and bolster the people and institutions moving it, but to shift the whole system of how capital flows to create a more inclusive and sustainable world.
As we embark on this next phase of our work, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on our successes over the past half-decade, and to thank all of those who have contributed to these accomplishments.
Vision and Velocity
The first seeds for GenderSmart were planted in 2017, when the world was in the midst of a reckoning on gender inequality, with Women’s Marches taking place around the world in response to the election of Donald Trump, and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements shining a spotlight on sexualised abuses of power. At its 2017 annual meeting, the World Economic Forum reported that at the current rate of progress, it would take the world another 170 years to reach gender equality.
I had been serious about gender-smart investing for more than a decade — both as an investor and as a builder of the field — and had been seeing a burgeoning interest in investing with a gender lens from institutional investors, as well as countries like Canada and Sweden declaring “feminist foreign policies,” and a lot of talk about the power of women’s wealth. There were already convenings happening, and I was usually one of the people organising them. Darian called me to see if I’d be interested in organising something, possibly with the UN.
There were a lot of people, globally, talking about investing in women entrepreneurs and about women in leadership and governance, some talking about women in fund management, and a handful of us who were looking at gender-smart investing from a systemic perspective.
I was excited by the possibility of what could be achieved if we brought all of those groups together on a global scale, to shine a spotlight on the good work that was happening, be realistic about the roadblocks, cross-pollinate new ideas, and provide a platform and incentive for bold commitments.
GenderSmart was set up to be that space — starting with our first Global Summit, held in London, as a global financial centre, in 2018. From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want to do the typical conference thing of having a handful of designated “experts” expound from the stage. We wanted to bring together rooms of peers, where everyone was actively working on gender lens investing, and create the conditions for those people to meet and learn from each other. We wanted to bring together people who might not otherwise cross paths: bankers with DFIs, financial intermediaries with foundations, public sector actors with fund managers, gender experts and visionary entrepreneurs with everyone. We brought a gender finance systems map that I had worked on with Ruth Shaber and Nexial, to stimulate systemic thinking. We launched a relationship with Impact Alpha, that has been so important over the years. The 2X Challenge had just launched, bringing a level of excitement and real commitment to the convening, and a demonstration of something else central to our ethos — collaboration. That convening was electric. And it was clear it was meant to be more than a convening.
In 2019, we took our energy to the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, where we gathered hundreds of people at an “event within an event” to talk about how gender-smart investing could be used as a tool to address issues as varied as gender-based violence, reproductive healthcare, and climate and sustainability. It was an opportunity to bring our work to and learn from people who live and breathe gender equality, but who approach the issues we work on from a different angle than those in our investor community.
Crisis As Catalyst
Then, just as we were on the eve of hosting our second Global Summit in 2020, with over 300 people coming from 40+ countries, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like everyone else, we had to rapidly pivot: hosting a series of vital online conversations about investing in women in supply chains, to backing the next generation of pioneering women fund managers, and the intersection of gender and racial justice in investment. In February 2021, finally, we hosted a two-week Virtual Summit, across two sets of timezones.
In some ways, communicating virtually helped our community to connect more deeply: both by showing everyone in more human environments, with pets, and kids, and dinner on the stove, and by enhancing our ability to collaborate across continents and timezones. It also allowed us to connect more regularly, with many community members saying that when things were hard, GenderSmart was the place they knew they could come to in order to feel rejuvenated and celebrate progress, but also to ask the hard questions about the work ahead.
Many of our most powerful projects emerged during this era including our working groups on first-time and diverse fund managers, climate and gender, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and the care economy. These were all issues our community was already thinking about and working on: our 2018 Summit, for example, featured speakers on racial equity and power, as well as a session on the care economy. But the disruption of the pandemic — and the time it gave the world to think and reflect — brought them to the fore and gave them a new urgency for investors, policymakers, and the public.
Like all of our best work, these projects emerged from the needs, passions and insights of our community, who are consistently at the leading edge of both the field, and what is coming to the fore in the world more generally.
We also piloted Capital Connect, a series of virtual gatherings with the goal of connecting gender-smart investors with fund managers deploying a gender lens, and for our 2022 Virtual Program we experimented using a platform called Circles, connecting delegates to have courageous conversations about the things that were important to them outside the context of a “session.”
And in October 2022, we brought our community together in person again for the first time since the pandemic began, for our Global Summit in London.
Traction to Transformation
Along the way, we have continually told the story of the work being done across the gender-smart investing field: in our monthly newsletter, on our blog, and through our increasing press presence. Our leadership and community have been out in the world, speaking, writing, and co-convening from Bali, to Berlin, to the Bay Area, building the momentum and the impact of gender-smart investing. And we have worked to engage on the issues that matter with creativity and imagination, bringing in poetry and music to broaden our community’s thinking and enliven our senses.
As I look back on our impact over the last five years, I think of the people who have met through GenderSmart who otherwise might not have. The connections that have been made, the investments that have been deployed, the new ideas that have been seeded. The greater sense of cohesion in the gender lens investing field and within our community. We have consistently heard from our community that they have met people through GenderSmart who they have gone on to work, imagine, or partner with.
I think of the commitments we have consistently pushed people to make: not just in terms of the amount of capital deployed, but processes and power shifts. While we can’t literally track GenderSmart’s impact on the movement of capital the way that, say, 2X can, we know that the amount of capital moving has grown every year — even during COVID. For all the challenges we’ve faced, the gender-smart investing field is bigger, stronger, and more influential than it has ever been, and I’m proud of the role that we’ve played in that.
I am proud too of the role that GenderSmart has played in diversifying the voices that are platformed as “experts”: highlighting work and perspectives from emerging markets, engaging men, and making sure that when we talk about gender-smart investing, we are inclusive of all women and all genders — not just white, straight, cis women in North America and Europe. And I am proud of the courageous conversations we fostered, between people and institutions that rarely have the chance to cross out of their silos.
There are also things that I wish we had achieved. I wish we could say we had made more progress on the issue of backing more women and diverse first-time fund managers. I wish that more public markets funds were integrating real gender analysis into their investments. I wish I could say that we no longer had to make the business case. I wish that more people in the investment space would see that investing with a gender lens is just smart investing, and we had moved from the “why” to the “how.”
I wish that more men were vocally and visibly “bought in” to the work we’re doing. I wish I could say that we had now nailed how to communicate about gender-smart investing to the myriad new audiences we aim to influence. But all these wishes just give us something more to work on, and they are core to the work we will be doing at 2X Global.
I am so grateful to everyone who has been part of this community over the past half-decade. To our circle of committed supporters, advisors, and constructive critics, the system shifters and system disruptors, our partners, and to our extraordinary team, whose leadership, determination, and creativity has driven GenderSmart every day. I wish I could name every person.
As with all things entrepreneurial or social change related, this work has taken patience and persistence. But you have to keep going and know that people will come around.
As we get ready to wrap up these five years and go into the next chapter, I’m both really proud of what we’ve accomplished and the role I’ve been able to play in growing and connecting the field, and excited about what’s to come.
GenderSmart isn’t going away. It’s transforming. And I can’t wait to see what this community does next.
I’ll be there, but in a new role, as an active board member and Senior Strategic Advisor. See you in the New Year at 2X Global.