What do eyeglasses have to do with women’s financial inclusion? And what role did they play in Graham Macmillan’s journey to become president of the Visa Foundation this June? The answer lies with a social enterprise called VisionSpring. Before his years with Citi and the Ford Foundation, Macmillan was VisionSpring’s “employee No. 2.”

“I’ll never forget opening QuickBooks and seeing that we had $20,000 [in cash], and I was being asked to lead that organization and grow it to address the nearly 500 million people around the world that needed glasses,” Macmillan said.

VisionSpring’s model was to reorient the glasses supply chain so that, rather than going to Walgreens or CVS, glasses were directed to women entrepreneurs that the startup “could train [to sell glasses] in places like Bangladesh or Guatemala,” Macmillan said.

A core takeaway from this work for Macmillan was “the empathy for the challenges these women faced,” and a recognition of the “arrogance of presuming that one knows what they need… We listened, learned and worked with them to overcome some really significant [systemic, personal and cultural barriers].”

These experiences laid a strong foundation for his current work at the Visa Foundation, which is now devoting hundreds of millions to helping micro-entrepreneurs, especially women in business. Around the world, women-led business is on the rise, with more than 250 million women engaged in entrepreneurship globally, according to one 2018-2019 report. There’s major interest in empowering women economically, especially in developing countries, with estimates suggesting that greater gender equity could add trillions of dollars to global GDP. Of course, women’s equal economic participation is not just a means to an end; it’s a fundamental right.

After these early partnerships with women entrepreneurs, Macmillan spent formative years working in global finance, grantmaking and impact investing. He managed Citi’s international grantmaking program in nearly 90 countries and became its director of corporate social responsibility and business partnerships. It was in this role that he became aware of Visa’s financial inclusion efforts through a program called Financial Inclusion 2020 (FI2020), which also engaged MasterCard, MetLife and others.

After Citi, Macmillan worked at the Ford Foundation, which he described as a chance to walk “the hallowed halls.” He served as Ford’s senior program officer for mission investments—a $1.25 billion integrated program of impact investments and grants. He said equity, a central focus for Ford, was probably the most important issue for him during his time there. “And I don’t mean an asset class,” he said. “I mean the sense of equal participation in society, [in the economy], and in hope and aspiration.”

Macmillan describes his subsequent move to the Visa Foundation when it was about two and a half years old as “an exciting opportunity to grow the foundation, to bring all those experiences I just shared to what I’m doing now. We’re making progress, but we have a long way to go.”

Visa’s Approach to Financial Inclusion and Women’s Economic Empowerment

The Visa Foundation carries out grantmaking and investing with a goal of supporting small businesses, especially those benefiting women. Formal and informal micro, small and medium-sized enterprises account for more than 90% of all businesses worldwide, about 60 to 70% of total employment, and 50% of GDP. Of the 40 million formal small and medium-sized enterprises, women own about a third. Visa centers these women entrepreneurs in much of its foundation funding and works to catalyze women’s economic empowerment through some of its business practices, as well.

In addition to its work on women’s economic empowerment, the foundation backs community needs (particularly in its home region, the San Francisco Bay Area) and global disaster response. These focus areas are in line with the company’s preexisting corporate giving programs, which now continue alongside its foundation’s initiatives.

The foundation’s inaugural 2017 grant was $20 million for Women’s World Banking (WWB), which works in emerging markets to create more economic stability and prosperity for women and their families and communities. Visa also previously partnered with WWB. “One billion women worldwide are unbanked, a significant number of them business owners,” WWB President and CEO Mary Ellen Iskenderian said at the time of the grant’s launch.

This five-year grant’s target strategies include financial service delivery, impact measurement and sharing best practices, with an initial focus on India, Mexico, Egypt and Nigeria. Macmillan said that thus far, Visa has given about $15 million to WWB. In 2019, the program reached 90,000 women, with a focus on savings and credit.

Macmillan said some of the practical challenges of this initiative are predictable, such as discovering that some components of a plan take longer than anticipated, or that a chosen partner has changed strategies and is no longer working in alignment with WWB’s goals—and of course, the pandemic.

He said making adjustments along the way is “the great thing about a five-year relationship… I think it’s a testament to when philanthropy is at its best—it’s about being present over a period of time and not just being a one-off.” In response to COVID-19, the Visa Foundation is releasing restrictions and expediting payments for grantees. In Macmillan’s words, “all the things that you can do to easily signal, ‘we’re here for your support.’”

With WWB, the “foundation plays an important role… to show where there is opportunity… [for] other market players to start to see the value in financial inclusion—that’s the real scale opportunity that a program like [WWB] brings to bear,” Macmillan said.

He also said launching this project was ambitious and formative for the foundation’s current work. “That level of commitment over that period of time [in many ways] influenced our larger financial commitment that you’ve now seen,” he said. He was referencing the fact that Visa is making women entrepreneurs a major focus of its newest grantmaking and COVID-19 commitments—a $210 million initiative.

Visa also carries out an annual study called the “State of Female Entrepreneurship” report. The 2020 version found that accessing funding is still a top challenge for women; while 79% of U.S. women entrepreneurs feel more empowered now than five years ago, 66% still report difficulty in obtaining funding.

Another key Visa Foundation grantee is the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE). It has a Gender Equality Initiative that seeks to address the gap in access to finance for women-led businesses, among other goals. Macmillan previously served on the ANDE executive committee.

As a company, Visa supports women in business through multiple avenues. For example, it runs She’s Next, Empowered by Visa, a women-owned small business initiative; supports the Female Founder Collective, and also backs women in sports. In March 2020, Visa announced two new partnerships focused on women’s economic empowerment with Hand In Hand International and IFundWomen.

And Visa has long been involved with initiatives to boost broad economic access and inclusion with outfits like the Better Than Cash Alliance, Center for Financial Services Innovation, and Alliance for Financial Inclusion. In 2015, it joined a big group of governments, public agencies, financial institutions and nonprofits in the World Bank’s Universal Financial Access (UFA) initiative. In 2019, Macmillan said Visa met its UFA-aligned goal of bringing 500 million new people into the formal financial system with Visa-branded accounts by 2020. About 54% of the first-time account holders are women.

Centering Women in Business During Challenging Times

In April, the foundation announced new giving and investment commitments totaling $210 million. It launched a $10 million COVID-19 relief program to support frontline emergency responses around the world. Grantees include the Red Cross, UNICEF, Feeding America and Food Banks Canada. And Macmillan said the foundation “actually made [its] first grant to support the pandemic to the Chinese Red Cross in Wuhan back in January.”

It is also directing $200 million to support small and microbusinesses with a focus on women’s economic advancement and economic inclusion. As we’ve reported, COVID-19 is having many negative effects on women, including financial strain. Women perform a majority of low-pay, domestic and healthcare jobs, and early data show they are experiencing a majority of pandemic layoffs.

The Visa Foundation’s new giving strategies recognize the gendered effects of the pandemic and also align with the foundation’s already-in-progress plans to center women’s financial success. During the finalization of this commitment, Macmillan said, “it really quite quickly became clear to us… that the very initiative that we’d already proposed and planned for now actually made more sense than ever.”

About $60 million of the new program will be directed to grants for NGOs that support small and microbusiness owners. The other $140 million will go toward impact investments with “partners that generate positive social and financial returns for small and microbusinesses.”

MacMillan said a principal role the foundation sees itself playing is as an “investor in women as investors.” He said women and people of color only manage a minuscule portion of the tens of trillions of liquid wealth in the U.S.

He said Visa aims to “address the supply, access to and control of capital through our investment approach to support fund managers that either are women or [intend to invest in] and support women as owners of small businesses, or businesses that benefit women, either their employees or customers… That’s really, in many ways, the North Star—control of and access to capital.”

Macmillan points out that during the pandemic, women are playing so many key roles, whether as health care responders, workers and volunteers at community food banks, untrained home school teachers (like his wife), or those keeping a household running day to day.

“They’re the center of our lives,” he says. “As we think about a new future… if women played such a critical role in our survival, why wouldn’t we put them in a central role of our thriving—thriving measured by inclusion and equity… real, balanced, durable growth driven by widespread participation in economies around the world.”

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