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Posted on 03/14/2023
Content warning: Portions of this transcript mention sexual assault.
Two CEOs. Countless awards, achievements, and accolades. One shared goal: To end poverty and hunger for vulnerable communities across the globe.
On March 3 Zubaida Bai, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and Lauren Hendricks, Grameen Foundation board member and co-founder of KEIPhone, discussed women and leadership, the barriers that persist for women and girls living in poverty, and what Grameen is doing to create supportive ecosystems that enable them to thrive.
Here’s a partial transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity.
Lauren Hendricks: You and I had the chance to speak during board meetings, Zubaida, but we have never had the chance to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation. And so, I’m looking forward to doing that, and welcome everybody who is eavesdropping on it.
Zubaida Bai: It’s so funny that we’re having our first one-on-one virtually, in this post-COVID world. So thank you, Lauren.
LH: You have such an interesting background. You have 18 years of experience in the social impact space. You founded a business that provides healthcare products to women and girls. You were the managing director of social ventures at CARE. So the social enterprise space has been near and dear to your heart.
You are a global leader. The World Economic Forum has recognized you as a Young Global Leader. You’re a TED speaker and a TED fellow. You’re an SDG Pioneer with the United Nations Global Compact. You’re a visiting social innovator at Harvard’s Social Innovation and Change initiative.
You’re quite impressive. Why Grameen Foundation?
ZB: Grameen is the culmination of what has been a passion in my life, maybe even before I realized I had one, which is to put women and girls at the center, and have a seat at the table. I grew up in India, in a very patriarchal culture, and I also chose a very patriarchal profession, which was mechanical engineering. For me, having a seat at the table was so important, ever since I was young. And I think I developed the capacity to fight against the headwinds that were against the women and girls all around me, to the point where the women and girls around me weren’t allowed to talk to me because I was so outspoken, and I was going to talk about issues that were important to me.
And Grameen Foundation gives me that platform, to be a voice for women and girls globally, especially because we all know women and girls fail to achieve their potential, not because they cannot, but because of what’s holding them back. And how we convert those headwinds into tailwinds has been a purpose of my life. And Grameen is a perfect platform to do that.
And I want to turn that back to you, Lauren. What brings you to women and girls? There’s a lot Grameen does in market shaping, in gender equity, and in financial inclusion. But what brings you to women and girls? You work in such an important space of bringing that digital lens to it, and scaling what we do exponentially. So what’s happening there, on that side?
LH: Well, it’s interesting because I came to it from a very different space. My whole career has been financial inclusion. It’s where I started; what I’m passionate about. I always wanted to be a creative person but what I’m actually good at is math. So financial inclusion was the space I could bring my creativity and my math skills together, to solve those problems.
And when you look into the financial inclusion space, there’s one leader, and that’s Grameen Foundation. Grameen started microfinance, it spread it globally. And when I had the chance to come over to Grameen, I grabbed it with both hands. It shaped me so much, being part of Grameen.
And now I’ve moved into the digital access space, improving women’s digital access, but that comes from my experience at Grameen. Grameen was such an innovator in the digital technology space, and in how to use different technologies to impact women’s lives. And it really opened my eyes and helped me think about technology in a very different way that can be enabling for women and girls.
Grameen also really helped me expand beyond financial inclusion and see women and girls’ lives much more holistically as well: Thinking about it from an agriculture, food security, health—from all the different aspects of a woman’s life, not just finance.
And I think for both of us, Zubaida—it’s interesting because we’re both women, and you spoke about your experience as a woman and a girl living in a patriarchal society. Talk to me more about that.
ZB: I don’t necessarily think that this was what I was going to do. I was outspoken, I wanted to talk about it, because it gave me such a sense of fulfillment. Even though I couldn’t live the powerful life I wanted to, I could ask questions: Why not?
And for me, the journey of being a woman engineer in this space—me and one more girl were the only mechanical engineers are in my class. And I was like, oh my god, I want to go to a country where women are at the forefront. I would sneak money from my mother to access the Internet and see where girls were more empowered. And Sweden ended up being the country where this was practically possible, and was supposed to be the most technologically advanced, gender progressive country.
And lo and behold, even there, there were two engineers. When I did my master's, I felt like the world was definitely a place where I was questioning everything around me. And so when I came back to India and I had this huge corporate job, but I found this opportunity to do engineering for women and girls, I obviously chose that. Doing engineering at the last mile and recognizing the lack of gender and design in agriculture and healthcare products, I think is what really shaped the professional me.
I would go into hospitals where I would see newborn neonates on the floor and come running out. My mentors said, “Zubaida, you understand this problem. You're emotionally attached to it. You need to go back and do something about this.”
And so for me, it was more using the power of me being a woman, using the empathy that I had, but also understanding the grassroots issue in a way that I was privileged to see. I can call myself disadvantaged for having grown in that sector, but for me, I used every single aspect of my life as a privilege, as an opportunity.
I think the downside of that was also that I was a very reluctant leader. And so that's something that you see in gender and diversity issues today. Corporations are training women to be leaders, but they're not necessarily understanding that there is a huge identity shift that is needed in women, even in leaders like you and I, to believe that we are leaders, we are changemakers. To say that we are in a position of power and that we need to use our voice.
So in the first four years of my entrepreneurial life, I would tell everybody, I'm not a leader, I'm not a feminist. I'm just here talking about something until I had a few mentors sit me down and say, “You have to stop. It’s okay if you don’t believe you're a leader, but don't say it. Just go out and do your thing and it's going to show up.”
The mere fact of you showing up and the ability of you to show up even when people say no to you, is something that you should cultivate and keep. If you're going to keep saying you're not this and you're not that, you're going to fail.
That identity shift—from being a young girl, to a woman, to an engineer, to an entrepreneur, to the NGO sector—has been huge for me. And coming back to Grameen, I think there is an opportunity for us to create that identity shift in women [who live in last-mile communities], which can only happen through the representation and empathy that we bring to the table.
I don't know if you have a similar experience, Lauren, of leadership in this case. I'm sure you do.
LH: In some ways I do, and in some ways I don't. It's interesting you talk about your mother and how she would secretly give you the money you needed to get online. My mother is just the strongest person I know, and so I always had that role model where there was no need for me to shrink away from what I wanted or what I thought I could be, because my mother was just the example in our household of what women could achieve. She was a schoolteacher, and she went on to be the assistant superintendent in her district. And even though my dad was in the Air Force and we moved a lot, her career was never second-tier in our household. She really taught me that I should never put myself in a second tier in any relationship or anything that I wanted. Not that all relationships don't have balance, but she really set that example for me. And so it's interesting to hear that your mother did that a little bit quietly, but also that you had female mentors that played that role in your life who helped you kind of step into your space.
That something that's so important to all women, right, that we step up for each other. And there's no woman I know that is in a position of leadership that doesn't have stories about how other women helped her get there.
That's one of the reasons that the work that Grameen does in enabling female agents—whether that's a female mobile money agent, or an agent who helps provide women access to health care, or someone who's helping increase agricultural harvests. We're always focused on finding women who can help other women. And I think that's such an important aspect of the work that we do.
ZB: For sure. And I think Grameen also works with this whole notion, right. Like our founding father, Dr. [Muhammad] Yunus, who spoke about how women are at the center of the family and how enabling them allows us to enable communities in a very meaningful way. And Grameen does that beautifully in terms of working with women so they become stepping stones towards achieving future sustainability and getting people out of poverty. And again, I know poverty is very multidimensional, but Grameen works at it from many different dimensions—our focus is on ecosystems so that they can be successful.
LH: You were talking about turning headwinds into tailwinds. And I think that's such an elegant way of talking about Grameen's ecosystem approach, which is to think about all the different systems that are impacting a woman's life—how to look at the barriers and flip those barriers into opportunities. Talk to me a little bit about that, and how you really encourage Grameen to focus on that ecosystem approach. Why do you think that's so important, and how do you think Grameen is tackling it?
ZB: We started the conversation with this, right, that women fail to thrive and achieve their full potential because everything works against them. I think where the development community has failed a little bit is that we invest resources in creating systems, processes, infrastructures, and then bringing the men and women in, but in a way where we haven't gotten them ready and brought them with us. And I think for me, being an engineer and having that brain, it's very important that you take your stakeholder insights because they're the ones who are going to be users of your product, right?
So we create those enabling systems with women and girls at the forefront. And especially given that there are a billion women in the world who don't have access to markets, who don't have access to bank accounts, who don't have access to even figuring out what's the way to get into the world, I think it's important for Grameen to lead with building ecosystems with women and girls at the center in a meaningful way.
That's hard work, that's work that's not appreciated, that's work that people don't want to do because you don't see outcomes immediately. And Grameen has been a pioneer in doing that thankless job, I would say, in building those, but we never speak about it. Right? And I think this is an opportunity for us to speak about it in a meaningful way so people understand. The gender piece and the ecosystem piece is front and center of what we do.
And maybe this is the right time, Lauren, for you to talk about how we build these ecosystems on the shoulders of digital. What are the barriers that you see in digital ecosystems? Because that's a huge vertical of building ecosystems for gender, and that's a barrier. And it would be great to hear about how KEIPhone is solving that.
LH: Yeah, thanks so much. It just struck me what you were saying about building things and then going out to your clients, and I think that's kind of, in some ways, what prompted me to start KEIPhone.
At KEIPhone, we are looking to get digital devices and data into the hands of women. The world is going digital for the vast majority of people in developing nations. They'll never have a landline phone, they'll never have a computer. Everything will be done on a smartphone. Yet we are seeing the gap in smartphone ownership and the digital divide grow and grow and grow. So we are seeing in some countries, particularly in South Asia, a 40 or 50 percent gap between the number of women who own smartphones and the number of men who own smartphones. And we're seeing almost no progress on that globally. It's really a challenge because women are being left behind. Whether it's telehealth and mobile health, whether it's digital agriculture, whether it's access to finances, everything is going digital. The big global movement in fintech has been super exciting and a lot of it is designed and funded by donors with the purpose of getting women access to financial services.
But if women don't have a device on which to access all these new digital services, they're being doubly excluded. They're excluded because they're not traditional clients, and then they're excluded because the new products and services are on devices that they can't access and they don't own. So KEIPhone is really designed to get devices into women's hands. I can't tell you how many people used to come to me, still come to me, and say, I created this great app for women to help to get them access to markets, but can you help me? Because none of the women are using it because they don't have devices. I'm like, then why did you create an app to begin with? Why didn't you talk to the women first, find out what they had access to, and then create something that they could use anyway? So KEIPhone is pretty simple. We put ads on the lock screens of our phones, and we use the ad-based revenue to provide access to devices. So the way that Google or Facebook uses ad revenue to cover the cost of their services, we use ad revenue to cover the cost of getting access to devices in developing countries.
And it's really just a game changer. There have been some really good [randomized controlled trials] done that shows for a woman in Africa, simply owning a smartphone can increase her income by 24%. But the most interesting thing to me is just the ability of a woman to connect outside of her household and outside of her community. And I know you see this, too. Women are often so isolated by their poverty, by the distance at which they live for other places, for rural women, by the grinding tedium of the work that they do and the long hours that they put in it all leads to isolation that a digital device can help overcome.
ZB: Lauren, I think that's such important part in a core pillar of what Grameen does as well. From my experience of working as a product developer, and in global health and in women's health, we always go to women after the fact. We're going to talk to them about puberty after the fact. We talk to them about pregnancy when they're pregnant. We talk to them about menopause after the fact. There is never a conversation with women to give her the skills and tools and the education she needs before she gets into that space.
I think there is a statistic that says the lack of gender inclusion and the impact that has the social impact sector is costing the world about $6 trillion. And that's a huge number merely because we don't include gender in the conversations that we have in the social impact world. And the work that KEIPhone is doing is a core pillar of that, because Grameen can create ecosystems, but then that can be amplified tenfold if the digital divide is narrowed down.
I think there is another statistic that says 50% of the time men are doing things that are irrelevant to the household on the phone, whereas 100% of time women are doing things that are relevant to her and the household. Many mobile companies have gone in and started giving them loans based on their talk time because they have productive conversations, which is what we believe, that when women are on phone, they're chitchatting, which they're not. Companies have realized the value of them talking on the phone and giving them loans based on that. That's worth something, for sure.
LH: Absolutely. Although I don't want to discount the value of women having time for chitchat. I think it's something we should all strive for because women are so time poor, because they have so many responsibilities, that I want to strive to a place where women in developing countries do feel like they can just chitchat with their girlfriends or their daughter who travels a big city on the phones.
I want to tell one story, if you don't mind, Zubaida. When I was in the field, in Bangladesh, a woman I met was telling a story about an auntie of hers who had had a baby, and that baby was young and got sick with a diarrheal disease. And at the time, in that village, the thinking was, oh, they have too much water in their bodies, and so that's why they're having diarrhea. So we should withhold water so they can dry up and the diarrhea can stop. But really, the child is dehydrated. And so the child ended up dying because that family didn't have the information they needed. What the baby needed was more liquids, not less. And that mother who's trying to do the best she can for her child, right, she thinks she's doing the best thing. She had a phone in her hand and could call a pretty basic healthcare provider, a nurse, or even a community health worker and ask them what to do when her child has diarrhea.
She would have gotten an answer that was said very simply, give some water, put some sodium in that water, and the baby will be better. So we could talk all we want about the theory of giving women access to all this. But in the end, what it comes down to is a real and significant impact in their day-to-day lives.
ZB: And that comes down to if women have the right information, they can move mountains, right? And in the spirit of stories, I remember being in a refugee camp about three years ago now, in northern Kenya. And there was this whole conversation about gender and women not being respected in their households. It seemed more to me like a matriarchal society because most refugee camps are run that way. Men get bogged down by pressure, whereas women can thrive under pressure, at least most of them I know.
And so the whole story here goes that these women were sent on the other side to fetch water every week, and every time they went, the host communities who hated the refugee population ended up raping the women that went on the other side. The conversation was, this is against gender norms, and we shouldn't be sending women there. We need to be sending men to fetching water. And that was the conversation that everybody was having until the point that there was a woman who stood up. This was a heated discussion, right? Like we were all powerful women, and there was a lot of women talking about, this is against human rights and we can't let this happen.
And then this woman stood up and said, okay, we hear everything that you're saying, but honestly, this is such a waste of time because we are okay being raped. And everybody went, what? She said, the host community is so mad that if we sent our men there, they'd all be killed. We would have nobody. And so for us, being raped every week is okay, then getting our men killed and not having a protective layer with us, right?
So sometimes we take gender to the extent of, like, we understand we want to solve problems, but most of these women have answers to their problems. They just need to be able to solve them. So instead of solving the much bigger humanitarian crisis issue, which is solving the host and the refugee community issue, we were not fixing the root of the problem. We were trying to fix a gender issue where it didn't exist. And I think that's where the whole gender conversation is so important. And understanding a woman's perspective is so important. And the context and the culture, the meaning of it, the value of it, is also different in every context.
Building ecosystems is the only way for us to harvest these thoughts, these ideas, this power, so we are able to help societies in a meaningful way and not necessarily try to plug in solutions where we don't need to. And understanding gender and bringing it at the forefront is going to be the most important piece of that conversation.
LH: I agree 100%. Now, you've used the word ecosystem several times, and I know we've had a lot of conversations about what that word means. I wonder if you can give a concrete example of what you mean when you talk about ecosystem in a woman's life.
ZB: Let's take a situation where there is a gender-based violence victim, and she's part of a family with two children, and she doesn't know where to start, right? When Grameen is able to provide support in this area, the ecosystem approach allows us to not only create dialogues, conversations at the household level of what's impacting this woman, but also conversations with financial institutions to create loan products that they otherwise would never provide—to train them to see her as a valuable customer.
There is also this local organization capacity-building that we do to support women like her, who otherwise would never be supported in an efficient manner, which will have an outcome for her. So rather than letting her slide down in poverty, we do everything from household dialogues for gender and gender-based violence prevention training, to training microfinance institutions on how to take the risk with that kind of a woman and connecting her to markets. And if she’s a smallholder farmer, we work with our partners to provide training on what kind of seeds to get, how to take care of her soil, how to get additional income using carbon credits.
We aren't going and implementing 90% of our projects. We are enabling organizations at the local level. We are identifying the right organizations, the right issues to tackle, and taking care of it end-to-end. And that's where the whole ecosystem piece comes in.
LH: Well, actually, for those of you who don't know, one of the reasons my screen color is funny is I'm in Uganda right now and I just met with Bindi, who is your Uganda rep, to talk about working together on a project in one of the refugee camps. So we're really excited about the possibilities there.
ZB: That's a very exciting project, where we are bringing refugee entrepreneurs and connecting them to markets. We do have a digital intervention, but having a tool like KEIPhone to enable that digital intervention would be amazing. And thank you for starting that conversation.
LH: Yes, we're very excited, and I think a lot of people don't know, but in Africa, Uganda actually hosts the largest number of refugees across the continent. So it's a huge issue here. At the same time, the government here is one of the most progressive in terms of refugee rights. Refugees are allowed to work here, they're allowed to integrate into communities. There are a lot of opportunities to take an ecosystem approach, to look at how you can integrate refugees into markets, how they can have employment, how they can sell and buy from local markets. And a phone is a critical piece of making sure that they get connected, especially for those who have traveled far from home.
ZB: As somebody who sits on the board of Grameen Foundation and as an entrepreneur, what's your perspective and take on the work that Grameen does in ecosystem building? And where do you think we could do better and where do you think we do our best?
LH: Oh, that's a good question. Grameen has always been about partnerships, rather than looking to kind of implement everything ourselves. We’ve been very good at taking an ecosystem approach. I think Zubaida, as you come in, you're going to really hone that quite a bit. But it is, I think, part of Grameen's history.
I'll give an example also from here in Uganda. When I was with Grameen in this refugee community we were working in, we were looking at a financial inclusion program and helping refugees get access to mobile money, which had a lot of implications. Refugees here receive a stipend from [the United Nations Refugee Agency] (UNHCR). Many of them get that in cash. So hundreds of thousands of them literally have to line up once a month to get cash in their hand. And those that do, get a digital payment, because UNHCR is trying to push everyone to get a digital payment. There are so few people in the community that accept digital payments that many of them, they may get the money in their digital wallet on the first of the month, but it may take them 10 days until they're able to cash that out and use that money to buy food for their household.
And so we at Grameen came in to help digitize the payments and with the local telecom partner here, which is called MTN, to build on an entire agent network across the camps. We also came in to do what's called merchant acceptance, so that people who are selling food could take digital money rather than cash money. So the day a woman got her payment in her wallet, she could use that money to buy food for her family. Asking a hungry family to wait ten days to be able to use their resources makes absolutely no sense. So Grameen was able to come in and play that ecosystem role. We were able to bring UNHCR, the mobile network operator, the company that ran the agent network, bring all of those people to the table together and build out a plan that put an ecosystem in place that allowed women to access their money the day that they received it in order to feed their families.
ZB: That's beautiful, Lauren. Thank you for sharing. And I think that also happens in the Uganda refugee project now, where we have a technology intervention called LedgerLink, where we're able to use the transactions of these business people to connect them with financial institutions. Because they are able to see their transactions, but otherwise there was no trust between the two parties.
The ecosystem concept is very broad and it's very hard to understand. But when you put it in context, I think everything that we do is so that Grameen to leave a footprint, and make sure the activity that we started continues beyond our existence. When we go into a particular location, with a particular problem, in a particular setting, we strive to work in a meaningful way so that when we walk out, the project doesn't end, the activity that we started doesn't end. And I think that's where the whole focus will be.
LH: We've been talking a lot about some of the kind of extreme humanitarian cases, but I think Grameen also does it in the day-to-day business lives of women. I'm thinking about Ghana and some of the agricultural programs we have there, which are, again, about building that ecosystem out around women to connect them to markets: making sure that women are on the front end, receiving the information that they need to successfully grow crops and increase their kind of crop production, making sure that they're receiving the financing they need upfront so they're able to make the investments in the farm that they need to increase production. And then also making sure that they're connected to markets on the back end so that when they have that production, they're not having to sell it at the cheapest price. They're able to connect to larger markets and sell it for a better price because they're hooked into a larger market. Because we look at partnering with local organizations, we're able to pull all the players together to make those ecosystems work for women.
I'm going to ask you another question because we've talked a lot about women, and I know the question that I always get asked is, what about the men? If Grameen is going to focus on women and girls, what about the men?
ZB: Like I said, I'm a big believer of he for she. There is absolutely no way you can help women show up with their full power without having men understand that power. And as much as the society believes and has ingrained the fact that weak men are next to strong women, I think it takes a much stronger man to be next to a strong woman.
And I have examples in my life where the strength that the men in my life need to stand up for somebody like me is way more. And I appreciate that, and I honor that. And I think that's what Grameen tries to do. Everything from our household dialogues, where we want to make sure that if a woman starts earning more than a man, the man isn't going to make her a victim of gender-based violence, but is going to appreciate her. It's going to see her as an important module of the family so he can grow with her rather than looking at her as a threat. That's a core part of our Household Dialogues initiative. Our gender-based violence training, I think, is all about understanding the power of women and respecting it.
Opening a bank account or getting access is not financial inclusion. There is so much more to it in terms of women having access to digital tools, women being able to use those tools to actually achieve their full potential, having access to loan products, not being afraid to take loans that are above and beyond—and then being able to take risks. Because as women, we are never taught to take risks and we had never given the opportunity to take risks. There are few and far between who take the risk and also knowing that every risk is not going to be successful. So Grameen works with men all along.
I know we are also trying to work with young girls now. And people keep asking me, “Why only girls?” I say, we lead with girls, but if we don't have the boys, then we are creating a future of equitable society that both men and women can thrive together in, and we must take them along.
The more power we give women, the more power men need, because it takes a lot of energy and strength to be next to a powerful woman. And I think it's high time we all recognize it.
LH: And I think men are as trapped in gender roles in these communities as women are. They don't often see the alternatives. You talk about a gender dialogue program, which I am just such a huge fan of—and shout out to Bobby Gray, one of your team members, who really led the work on that. One of the things that really struck me about it, it's set up as a dialogue, it's set up as a household conversation. And the work was funded by the Gates Foundation, who loved it. Every time I see them, they talk to me about it.
But one of the things we ask a household to do is sit down and talk about putting money to the side. What are your household priorities? What do you want to accomplish as a family? And often you find the husband and wife of that household have never had that conversation. It's just not common in that community for husband and wife to talk about their joint goals and their joint financial goals. And once they both agree, okay, our household goal is to make sure our kids get through secondary school or make sure we can buy this plot of land, then you have the conversation about, okay, how does each person in this relationship contribute to that goal? And for men, it's a lot easier to say, oh, okay, well, I see the purpose now of the work that my wife is doing. She's contributing to our joint goal, but part of that goal can also be for her. And he can understand how he can contribute to the goal is to help her start a business. And so some of the savings they do is around that.
And I think, like in every household, money isn't actually about money. It's about goals and priorities and values. And it's just not that common for a lot of households to have those conversations, and facilitating those conversations in a way that then can lead to joint goal setting. Joint priority making is such an important way of ensuring that we're not just working with women, but that we're creating strong families.
ZB: That’s such an important part of how we work—that direction that Grameen is taking is in terms of moving away from the word empowerment, to the fact that we’re enablers of such conversations, enablers of building supporting systems for women to show up with their power. And whatever power that they want to reach in, whatever the situations we can create for them to aspire to have more power, I think all that is what we do amazingly well.
You rightly described the household conversation, but all the way through. And me having been in various forums, I think when we started the whole gender march and we had all this huge outcry about sexual harassment in corporations, there was this aspect where men had stopped mentoring women. And I used to sit on a global advisory council, and that was a huge issue we were discussing because we were like, why didn't we tell the men what our problem is? Why did we go ahead and launch such a big campaign without taking the men along, to now leading that to a situation where women weren't able to get support from senior leaders who are 99% men?
And so even at a global level, we make mistakes like that. So starting with those simple conversations are very meaningful. And that work warms my heart.
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