Inspirational Woman Interview: Mary Ellen Iskenderian

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Mary Ellen Iskenderian is President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, the global nonprofit devoted to giving more low-income women access to the financial tools and resources they require to achieve security and prosperity. Ms. Iskenderian joined Women’s World Banking in 2006 and leads the Women’s World Banking global team, based in New York and also serves as a member of the Investment Committee of its $50 million impact investment fund. Prior to Women’s World Banking, Ms. Iskenderian worked for 17 years at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank. Before, she worked for the investment bank Lehman Brothers. Ms. Iskenderian is a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a member of the Women’s Forum of New York and the Business & Sustainable Development Commission. Ms. Iskenderian holds an MBA from the Yale School of Management and a Bachelor of Science in International Economics from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

What is your background?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: After business school, I began my career in investment banking at Lehman Brothers, where I had an extraordinary on-the-job education in finance. But when I was working there, I was putting in very, very long hours and it became increasingly clear that if I was devoting that kind of time and energy to something, it needed to be more closely aligned with my values. I remember working on an assignment where the firm had been hired to identify acquisition candidates for a large US trucking company. I was charged with designing a financial model that would give a pro forma view of the combined companies, and the “plug figure” in the model was the number of people who would be laid off if the companies were merged. It was really at that moment that I realized that I wanted to be putting my time, my education and my energy into work that could have a more positive impact on the world and I made the decision to pursue a career in international development.

From there, I worked for 17 years at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank. I joined as President and CEO of Women’s World Banking in 2006, where I lead the New York-based global team, based in New York. I also serve as a member of the Investment Committee of our impact investment fund.

You are the President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, a global nonprofit devoted to giving more low-income women access to the financial tools and resources essential to economic independence. What motivated you to join Women’s World Banking, and what has been its impact so far?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: For me, the most important part of making the shift from the private sector to international development was having a very clear understanding of what motivated me professionally. The time I spent on Wall Street afforded me a really valuable insight into what excited me about my work and motivated me to succeed. It became apparent to me that financial incentives, while important, weren’t really sufficient and led me to begin to consider ways in which I could put my talents to some greater purpose. It’s an incredibly personal decision and I would suggest that women considering such a shift ask themselves, “what really drives me?”

I left investment banking and joined the World Bank at an extraordinary moment in time. My first eight years at the Bank were spent in Central and Eastern Europe, and eventually, the former Soviet Union, to rebuild financial systems and institutions that had atrophied or even disappeared during the long years of Communist rule. I saw, over and over again, what I had always suspected: that finance could be a force for good in people’s lives.

Since joining Women’s World Banking, I am particularly proud of the work that we have done with our partner financial institutions to prove the business case for providing financial products and services to low-income women.  Women are excellent clients for banks and insurance companies. They have better loan repayment rates, purchase more life and health insurance, and maintain more significant long-term savings account balances than men. They are very loyal customers as well once their trust has been gained. Perhaps I am most proud of our $50 million impact investment fund, Women’s World Banking Capital Partners, which “puts our money where our mouth is” by making equity investments in women-focused financial institutions.

Can you tell us about some of Women’s World Banking’s savings, credit, and microinsurance programs for women?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: This idea of a “suite” of products is central to Women’s World Banking’s mission. We know that women’s financial inclusion is no longer just about microcredit. All women need a full range of financial tools and services to build security and prosperity for themselves and their families. Here are some highlights from our recent product development partnerships around the world:

In Malawi, we worked with NBS Bank to develop the Pafupi (meaning “close” in the local language of Chichewa) savings account, a digital account designed for low-income rural women with no previous access to a bank. Women can open accounts and make small deposits and withdrawals whenever they want at local shops with NBS Bank agents using mobile technology.

Women’s World Banking worked with three institutions in Latin America—Interfisa Banco (Paraguay), Fundación delamujer (Colombia) and Caja Arequipa (Peru)—to develop rural lending products tailored to women’s needs. As a result, the institutions broadened their footprint in rural areas, and women clients grew their businesses and brought more security to their household finances. Collectively, these institutions reached more than 100,000 clients with loans, and one institution more than doubled the percent of women in their portfolio. A recently completed study revealed that women who received this economic lifeline were empowered in their lives as well, reporting stronger decision-making positions in their household.

 In 2010 we worked with network member Microfund for Women (MFW) in Jordan to create the country’s first private health microinsurance offering. The Caregiver product provides a cash benefit after hospitalization that clients can use for a range of related needs: transportation to the hospital or replacement of lost revenue while their businesses are closed. The most significant aspect of Caregiver is its coverage of maternal health: MFW serves 97% women clients and women are more likely to prioritize the care of their family above their own. The only exception is when women are pregnant. Women’s World Banking assured that the Caregiver policy covers all hospital stays related to pregnancy, a feature critical to improving maternal health outcomes and of great value to MFW’s clients. Caregiver is the prototype for Women’s World Banking’s current microinsurance work in other markets, including Uganda, Egypt and Morocco.

From your experiences, what are some of the biggest barriers to women’s financial inclusion that differ between regions?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: One of the most frustrating challenges of this work is, despite decades of research showing women to be profitable and loyal clients, banks are still not investing in serving them with appropriate products and services. Financial services are traditionally designed with the needs of men in mind without understanding the barriers that prevent women from access them. These barriers do differ by region, but the universality of the issues holding women back from full financial inclusion is undeniable. These include include lower literacy levels, informal or irregular sources of income, lack of legal identification documents or formal collateral, time constraints, as well as legal and mobility constraints in many cultural contexts.

In your opinion, what are some critical components of an effective financial literacy program?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: I’m glad you asked about financial literacy because full financial inclusion for women requires not only the design of relevant products and services, but also education to provide low-income clients with the knowledge and confidence to fully control and grow their assets. Historically, financial education was synonymous with classroom education, which is neither effective nor cost-efficient. Women’s World Banking believes that financial education can and should happen at any client interaction; that daily and weekly transactions provide an opportunity to reinforce basic information that can help women access, use and benefit from a financial product.

While research shows that classroom education as a standalone activity does not usually impact long-term behavior, a combination of targeted interventions can work together to change financial knowledge, attitudes and practices. Additionally, with the rapid growth and promise of digital financial services for women today, digital literacy goes hand in hand with financial literacy. Women’s World Banking pioneers new models of financial education using digital channels, mass media, outreach by branch staff and digital banking agents, and interactive materials, which have the potential to increase asset building and economic security among women by helping them to better utilize their resources.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Every development outcome, from clean water to better education to universal health, is more achievable if women are empowered.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Ela Bhatt, the founder of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Women’s World Banking’s founding Chair, is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. Her lifelong commitment to providing low-income women with meaningful livelihoods is a great inspiration.

What advice do you have for people interested in women’s economic empowerment?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian: Follow me on Twitter! (@meiskenderian)

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