The World Economic Forum reports that at the current rate, it will take 135.6 years to close the global gender gap. Meanwhile, ongoing wars and conflicts are exacerbating humanitarian needs and economic instability, with many developing countries struggling to return to pre-pandemic growth levels, according to the World Bank. In such turbulent times, how does one emerge as an effective leader?

 


Professor and TED speaker Durreen Shahnaz’s groundbreaking Women’s Livelihood Bond has revolutionized impact investing, mobilizing over $128 million to benefit 1.3 million women worldwide and increase their economic independence – all without a single loss. This initiative is part of her broader Impact Investment Exchange (IIX) and the Orange Movement™, which she founded to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality, thanks to her PREM (Passionate, Resilient, Equitable, Maverick) leadership methodology.

Durreen Shahnaz is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a Bangladeshi-American entrepreneur who is the CEO and founder of the Impact Investment Exchange (IIX). A pioneer in sustainable finance and impact investing, she has been recognized as a 2017 Oslo Business for Peace Award Honoree, a financial rainmaker in Forbes’ 50 over 50, and an Asia Society Game Changer Awardee. She is also the author of The Defiant Optimist: Daring to Fight Global Inequality, Reinvent Finance, and Invest in Women, which chronicles her journey to create the world’s first social enterprise and gender bond exchange.

In an exclusive interview with Korea IT Times, Professor Durreen Shahnaz, who was recently featured on BBC News, discussed her PREM leadership methodology, including “sustainable development,” which empowers women and impacts millions of people.

How does Impact Investment Exchange drive sustainable development?

My lifelong dream was to create an inclusive and sustainable world. I founded my companyImpact Investment Exchange (IIX) 14 years ago to women, underserved communities, and the climate front and center of the financial market.

IIX focuses on building an inclusive financial system that empowers underserved women, gender minorities, and the 99% in the Global South to unlock sustainable development and achieve effective climate action.

We have built a sustainable finance ecosystem with the world’s first gender bond (Women’s Livelihood Bond™ Series), first-ever asset class for gender-lens investing (Orange Bond Initiative™), two funds focusing on women (Women’s Catalyst Fund™ and Growth Fund™), a proprietary impact assessment tool that verifies impact in the last mile and gives women’s voice a value (IIX Values™), and a fintech platform (social stock exchange) to connect social enterprises with impact investors (Impact Partners™).

Our efforts have reached 57 countries, unlocking US$400 million in private-sector capital and have made a tangible positive impact on the lives of over 160 million people, all while mitigating 1.83 million tons of carbon emissions.

IIX has a strong track record of collaborating with Korea to advance this mission. We partnered with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) in 2018 to accelerate early-stage enterprises with innovative social and environmental solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), jointly contributing US$1.2 million over five years to support 18 enterprises across South and Southeast Asia and impacting the lives of 8 million people. In addition, we have also joined forces with the Korean Social Investment Foundation to leverage our combined expertise to magnify social and environmental impact — conducting joint research and projects to develop more impact investment opportunities between Korea and Singapore. KOICA also partnered with us for the Women’s Catalyst Fund, which is the subordinated portion of the Women’s Livelihood Bond and catalyzed the bond to attract private sector capital. We hope to deepen partnerships with the Korean public and private sector even more in the future.

What is the Women’s Livelihood Bond?

The Women’s Livelihood Bond™ (WLB™) Series is a bond series to benefit gender equality and climate action. When WLB1 (Women’s Livelihood Bond 1, our first issuance) was launched seven years ago, it was the first gender bond in the world. The bond series empowers women, girls, and gender minorities across a multi-country and multi-sector portfolio while enabling climate action. To date, we have launched six bonds in WLB Series issuances, putting over $228 million in the market and impacting over 3 million women and girls in Asia and Africa. To date, the bond series has experienced no credit loss. WLB 1 has been retired with full payment to investors and WLB 2 will be retired in January with the same positive result.

The capital raised through the WLB Series goes towards women-led, women-focused, and climate action-focused businesses. We firmly believe that with women and gender minorities making up more than half of the global population, unlocking their potential is key to transformative change and sustainable climate solutions.

At IIX, we view gender inequality as a complex and interconnected problem intertwined with climate change, as women disproportionately bear the adverse impacts of climate change and are often excluded from participating as solution-makers.

Can you give some examples of women who’ve benefited from the Women’s Livelihood Bond and the Orange Movement?

The Women’s Livelihood Bond (WLB) Series focuses on connecting the Wall Streets with the “back streets,” empowering women and minority entrepreneurs in Asia and Africa. The Orange Movement™, inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 for gender equality, harnesses the collective influence of governments, the private sector, and people from all walks of life to tackle systemic financial inequality. The movement has created a new asset class in the financial markets called Orange Bond that focuses on gender equality and climate action. WLB Series is also Orange Bond compliant. Last Friday, Dec 9, we issued WLB 6, a $100 million bond, the largest Orange Bond to date that will create a livelihood for 900,000 women in the last mile across Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Vietnam.

Our WLB™ Series supports and empowers women and gender minorities around the globe to increase income and achieve financial independence and climate resilience. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the WLB™ Series aided 12,000 women smallholder farmers to increase income and climate resilience in India and Cambodia, as well as 100,000 Indonesian women, 300 Indian women, and 16,000 Filipina women become financially stable, grow their businesses, and support their families: Emma from the Philippines learned vital skills and expanded her little corner bodega; Rashmi in India cultivated a marigold farm, sold to pharmaceutical companies and transformed climate action; Mona from Cambodia gets better yield for her small organic rice farm due to better seeds and training.

What is “impact washing” and how do you fight against it?

Impact washing happens when organizations claim social responsibility and impact without action behind it. (A related term is “greenwashing,” which is specific to false claims on environmental impact.) The “washing” happens when there is no verification of the data from the stakeholders who are impacted by the organization’s products or services. There have been widely publicized cases of multinational corporations intentionally engaging in impact washing or greenwashing, and worse — directly contributing to social and environmental harm with their business practices for the sake of profit.

Investors must exercise due diligence to ensure that their investments genuinely contribute to gender equality and sustainability. Investors must understand that putting capital into gender equality-promoting assets is a sound investment choice, offering the dual benefit of contributing to a more equitable world while also providing competitive financial returns with traditional investment options.

The Women’s Livelihood Bond hasn’t had a single loss. What do you think is the biggest driver of its success?

Doing good through finance isn’t easy, but it’s possible to reduce the risk of an investment if you create a deep social and environmental impact in the community.

We have effectively shown the ‘math’ of bringing social and environmental equity into investment and proven that in the financial world of “risk-return,” there is a new element: impact. We educate investors on “risk-return-impact” (RRI) and how the right RRI creates a fresh, vibrant portfolio theory. If you create a deep impact, measure it, and verify it, then that will reduce the business’s operational risk. We have proven this repeatedly with our zero-credit default investments.

Can you tell us more about gender equality’s ripple effect on the global economy?

Gender equality is a powerful economic engine. When we talk about sustainable development, we’re talking about unlocking the full potential of half the world’s population. Embracing gender equality could inject an astonishing US$28 trillion into the global economy by 2025!

Today, a staggering 56% of the world’s unbanked are women, indicating a clear disparity in financial access, especially in developing economies. This gap extends to the workforce, where women constitute only about 40% in key sectors. Addressing this imbalance is essential for fostering economic diversity and innovation.
Globally, women represent only ~40% of the total workforce in formal sectors such as finance, manufacturing, and government. A truly inclusive economy that increases women’s participation in the labor force can add $13 trillion to the global GDP by 2030.

How can investing in women help curb climate change?

Women represent about half of our global population and are pivotal catalysts for change. Women’s empowerment goes beyond fairness; it is a powerful strategy for economic and environmental transformation.

When you give women access to livelihood, they not only take care of their families, but also make a concerted effort in taking care of the community and environment around them. We see through our investment that when women start having some income, their families have better diets, healthcare, and education. They can think about better environmental choices such as planting trees, recycling, reusing personal possessions, and often making cleaner energy decisions.

You mention in your PREM Methodology that your work is “maverick.” Can you tell us some more specific “groundbreaking initiatives” that you’ve spearheaded so far?

At IIX, we’ve implemented the PREM framework to cultivate a culture of inclusion, embodying Passion, Resilience, Equitable, and Maverick qualities, each integral to becoming effective leaders and global citizens.

The “maverick” quality is about innovating in the face of challenges, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, and creating solutions. Besides the Women’s Livelihood Bond (WLB) Series, we’ve also built the world’s first social stock exchange for impact enterprises (Impact Partners™). Through Impact Partners, we have raised more than US$155 million from over 1,000 investors, empowering more than 400 impact enterprises. Additionally, we built a proprietary assessment tool that verifies impact in the last mile and gives women’s voice value (IIX Values™).

We all have to recognize that being mavericks is essential to achieve any impact on the world, and is closely linked to the spirit of “defiant optimism,” which I outline in my book The Defiant Optimist: Daring to Fight Global Inequality, Reinvent Finance, and Invest in Women. Armed with these qualities, we can collectively catalyze transformative change that will have a lasting impact on the world. No matter who we are, we have the power to create a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

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