Fashioning The Right Lens

Shortly over a month ago, I joined the Appropriate IT team as a manager of business development. My role, generally-speaking, is to cultivate relationships with our potential and our active investors as AI goes from a seed stage entity to one in full bloom. I’m supposed to help others see the potential in our enterprise and decide to make a bet on our successful growth.

I’m particularly excited about taking on this responsibility, because I come to hold it via a rather strange path. As we started to discuss the idea of me joining the team, we spoke candidly about my unique (kindly, no one ever said “lack of”) qualifications for a role that requires raising large amounts and diverse types of investment capital.

Stepping back for just a second, let me give you a brief glimpse into that path of mine. It should help you understand the sorts of perspectives and strategies that I will contribute to our enterprise.

For the past 3 or 4 years, I have been wrapped up in what has become known as “Gender Lens Investing.” The definitions of this space are delightfully far-ranging and diverse; the caption “making investment decisions with awareness of a set of gendered dynamics” tends to capture them all. This movement, which is bringing together the classically disparate worlds of gender and finance, is fairly new – but it’s already revealing thrilling opportunities for financial tools and business activities as sources of gender inequality intervention.

The crux of a gender lens being a powerful tool in investing is that it causes us to see dynamics we would otherwise miss. As a result, we make different decisions. Usually that means we capture more value or “bang for our buck” – be that in terms of social impact, financial return or some blend of the two. Had we not had our gender lenses on, we would have missed some gender-related social dynamic that could undermine even our best of intentions.

It was through this world that I was introduced to AI’s founder, Usha, last summer; and it was through the gender lens perspective that I first saw the potential of AI.

Gender Lens Investing

Gender Lens Investing

When we spoke, Usha explained that she was building an IT social enterprise. What brought us together? The intention of this organization to place an emphasis on providing free software development training for women and girls. Now we could have stopped there. I could have said, “That’s great. In a world with insidious gender inequality, a strategy that is actually equitable is often one that gives a leg up to girls and women. I’m glad you’re doing this.” But there was more to this conversation – and we were both game to stick with it long enough to figure out what that “more” might look like.

One of the interesting dynamics that we both saw going in was the extreme paucity of women in technology fields – particularly around cutting edge technologies. Usha was figuring out an approach with an explicit intent to subvert some of the gender dynamics that have led to far fewer women than men developing careers in tech. By extension she (and a growing set of others) was responding to the questions: (1) what opportunities might be missed for technology to improve our world when the vantage point of half the population is not at the table? Or, worse, (and 2) what unforeseen harm might be done?

As loads of high-risk investment capital pour into emerging technologies, it’s no wonder that I, equipped with my gender lens, was intrigued by the intervention AI represents. But, there was one specific piece in our very first conversation that kicked me over the edge when it came to AI’s potential. As I said, it’s no secret that women are under-represented in tech, and many people (though still not enough) are working very strategically to shift this dynamic.

As we were talking though, Usha mentioned that she initially envisioned fully online curriculum for AI’s Development Academy. That made sense to me. I have heard the promise that the internet can democratize access to education (and maybe it will). Some on the ground research though had changed her mind about this approach. AI was now building both online and brick and mortar-based training. Why?

In many communities that AI will serve, internet cafes are not particularly safe for women and girls. So, in many communities, they are less likely than men to frequent them. CLARITY!

This beautiful idea of online curriculum providing access to education (and empowerment, income – all that comes with it) might be significantly undone by this very gendered dynamic. This dynamic gets missed, and the scope of this intervention working for women and girls is greatly reduced. Structural inequity wins again – gender inequality in access to education is RE-reinforced.

This was something AI saw that could so easily have been missed. As a result, the organization made a different decision. Imagine the opportunities for impact we might have lost out on.

And, this is the kind of strategic thoughtfulness that gender lens investing needs in order to realize its full potential. It’s the type of thinking we need in order to capture the full scope of ways our financial markets can improve the world for women and girls – and, all women and girls, not just some.

So, you have heard the story of how I first came to see great potential in AI. Of course, I then did my research to test that vision – assuring myself that I believed in the business model, the team, the organizational values, etc. Now it’s my exciting job to fashion the right lenses so that others get as excited as I did about this enterprise’s huge potential. And I look forward to keeping you posted about that!

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Categories: appropriate it, development academy, innovation lab

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