Leading Women: Gender on the 2018 Davos Agenda

January 22, 2018

by Michelle Lewis

All of the co-chairs at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting are women. One co-chair explains how her experience partnering with the private sector at her foundation in India could be applied on a global scale.

Key takeaways:

  • Working together, the private and public sectors can translate talk into action to further women’s economic empowerment.
  • The private sector can play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between microfinance and venture capital.

This year, all seven co-chairs at the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting at Davos are women. From Erna Solberg, the prime minister of Norway, to Ginni Rometty, chairman, president and CEO of IBM, they represent the broad range of sectors who need to work together effectively in order to close the gender gap.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase the depth of female talent in the world and highlight why we need more women leaders in the top echelons of organizations,” said Oliver Cann, head of media content at the WEF.

The all-women lineup has come at an opportune time: The most recent WEF Global Gender Gap Report described 2017 as “a bad year in a good decade.” The overall gap between men and women widened for the first time since records began in 2006. Economic participation is of particular concern, as only 58% of that gap has been closed, and the report estimates that the workplace gender gap will not be closed for another 217 years.

So how can the World Economic Forum meeting, which brings together thought leaders in business, government, academia and civil society, help advance progress for women’s economic participation?

Putting Words Into Action

One of Davos’s co-chairs this year is Chetna Sinha, founder and chair of the Mann Deshi Foundation and a Schwab Foundation social entrepreneur. Sinha, riffing on Davos’s theme this year of “creating a shared future in a fractured world,” laughingly refers to herself as the “voice of the fractured world.” She says talk is good, but action is better.

Chetna Sinha (center) visits a Goat Insemination Camp conducted by Mann Deshi’s goat doctors in a nearby village.

Sinha’s Mann Deshi Foundation is an example of what happens when rural women become entrepreneurs, and then receive support from private-sector sponsors and nonprofits. Founded in 1996 in Mhaswad, India, and funded by more than 30 partners, including Mastercard, the Mann Deshi Foundation provides the skills, training, access and support entrepreneurs need to grow their businesses. It also runs a cooperative bank that provides rural women with access to credit. Mann Deshi also runs a number of community programs, including water conservation and support for athletes and students.

Mann Deshi has helped more than 300,000 women in India, and Sinha is already setting her sights on the next step, which she refers to as “microenterprise finance.” As businesses who have benefited from microfinance and training have grown, so have ambitions. So Sinha is setting up an alternative investment fund to attract capital so that entrepreneurs can access microenterprise loans.

She says she hopes the Indian government’s new national fund, along with its drive to bring in foreign funding through “Invest in India,” will be a shot in the arm for women entrepreneurs. “There is an enormous business opportunity, just waiting to be tapped. I’m talking about not just moving out of poverty, but towards prosperity.”

As for what Sinha hopes Davos achieves this year, she says: “The CEOs will have to come up with business opportunities, and the policymakers will have to create ecosystems. There is a big gap. We can’t just talk – we have to invest.”

The WEF’s annual four-day meeting kicks off in Davos, Switzerland, on January 23. Sinha and her co-chairs will engage attendees on a number of issues about how to close the gender gap.

Here are five standout panels that will explore some solutions:

Fostering Inclusivity (January 23). The panel will discuss how to equip communities to overcome the root causes of social and cultural divisions. Discussion leaders include Wai Wai Nu, founder and director of the Women and Peace Network in Myanmar, and Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program at Harvard University.

Shaking Up Beliefs and Behaviors About Gender (January 24). Gender roles are changing rapidly. Discussion topics include changing culture through behaviors and tracing the history of gender roles. Gary Barker, president and CEO of Promundo and Carolyn Tastad, group president, North America, of Procter & Gamble, both of the U.S., will speak.

A Shared Vision for Financial Inclusion (January 24). This panel will address how to deliver technology-empowered solutions for micro-merchants, entrepreneurs and youth, and the role of data in the delivery of financial services for the underserved. Panelists include Mauricio Cardenas, minister of finance and public credit of Colombia, and Tang Ning, founder and CEO of CreditEase, People’s Republic of China.

Financial Inclusion Breakfast: Expanding Beyond Access (January 25). New technology is providing sustainable business models to support the billions of unbanked individuals around the globe. Discussions will include consumer-centered approaches to developing financial products and services, and developing financial health as a catalyst for creating markets, social and community stability, and economic prosperity. Opening remarks will be made by Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special advocate for inclusive finance.

The Rise of Women Entrepreneurs (January 26). Women entrepreneurs are blazing trails in the market. What shifts are needed to build gender parity into the changing ecosystem? Discussion leaders include Arancha Gonzalez Laya, executive director of the International Trade Centre in Switzerland, and Chetna Sinha, founder and chair of the Mann Deshi Foundation in India.

Michelle Lewis is an international journalist based in the U.S. She has written and edited for News Deeply, Fast Company, the Guardian and Observer, TIME, Avaaz, the National Council for the Training of Journalists, and Entertainment Weekly.

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