Inspirational Woman Interview: Kaylene Alvarez

Kaylene Alvarez is a specialist in financial inclusion and impact investing with over twenty years of experience in almost thirty emerging markets. At IFC, she leads the Global advisory practice for Banking on Women, focusing on building segmentation strategies and business cases for women’s markets. Her specialties include data & analytics, risk management, and innovations to reach underserved sectors. Previously, Kaylene helped to build and lead a global business development and M&A team for a large, NYC based diversified financial services company. Immediately prior to IFC, she founded two businesses supporting equitable access to finance for women: a consulting business to support MFIs and SME focused banks in frontier markets; and, a lending platform for financing MSMEs in ethical textiles and fashion. Kaylene has published on the topics of Sharia investments in MFIs and risk management for mobile banking.

How did you come to join the IFC?

Kaylene Alvarez: I have always had a passion for helping clients in emerging markets in access to finance. In particular, I love to work to benefit clients in populations that are unserved or under-served. I have been fortunate enough to be able to work in this area for most of the past 20+ years. I’d been an entrepreneur for seven years, when this opportunity arose at IFC to lead their global advisory services practice group for the Banking on Women program, based in Mumbai. It is the perfect opportunity to help build a business within a large organization, in an area that I have substantial experience—and passion.

Can you tell us about some of your work with the IFC?

Kaylene Alvarez: In my current role, I’m able to specifically focus on women as an under-banked segment by working with financial institutions to build programs that serve women as part of an inclusive and sustainable business model. Working with financial services companies to specifically support women was one of the segments where I had focused as an entrepreneur; this position at IFC really allows me to go deep in supporting women as clients of financial institutions to provide better access to finance as part of a functioning economy.

The Banking on Women program encompasses a two-pronged approach to directly support financial institutions in building a Women’s Market: 1) an investment fund (currently $1.6B committed) for investments into financial institutions to support women small and medium-sized (SME) business owners, and, 2) fee-based advisory services with clients. On the advisory side, we work with clients to develop a value proposition and business case for serving women clients. This goes far beyond CSR, and supports full economic empowerment and inclusion for women as employees, as entrepreneurs, as homemakers and influencers. Women are half the world’s population and our goal is to encourage financial institutions to provide products and services that meet the needs of this incredibly large segment. The microfinance model has seen much success worldwide; Banking on Women tends to work with financial institutions that are further along the spectrum in terms of formality, commercial-orientation, and loan or savings account sizes to focus on SME lending and the retail market. To date, we’ve worked with about 35 advisory clients all over the world.

What inspired you to found Indigo Social Finance and Athena Global Alliance? 

Kaylene Alvarez: I founded Athena Global Alliance (Athena) in 2009 as a consulting platform to support access to finance in emerging markets. The firm’s services centered on 4 pillars in financial services: SME, gender, Sharia and digital, in addition to supporting M&A and investment services. After the financial crisis of 2008, it became apparent to me that many of the weaknesses of the US financial services sector had been exposed. Given that I’d only ever worked in emerging markets, I was acutely aware that the impact this would have in the short and long term on less developed markets was going to be huge—and I wanted to do something that would help financial institutions weather the immediate crisis, and build healthier, long term businesses.

My business partner, a fellow SAIS/Wharton alumna, joined me in 2013; she has an incredible amount of experience in geothermal and renewable energy, so we added that to our offering to support sustainable impact businesses through Athena. We also created a nascent debt fund, called Indigo Social Finance, to support SMEs in ethical textiles and fashion. My first love is textiles; my business partner’s is South East Asia. We both have a passion for SME and sustainable businesses. When we put all of that together—and then did the research to identify specific pain points in the market, we tried to launched a small debt fund to support direct investment into SMEs in the supply chains for ethical textiles and fashion. Our concept was, in many ways, going back to merchant banking in the 17th century that was so successful in Asia. We wanted to go deep in a single industry, where we could know the players, the dynamics, how money is made (and lost), and invest in SMEs to strengthen and build supply chains in and of themselves, and as suppliers to large retailers.

When I joined IFC, my business partner took over Athena, and we might revisit Indigo Social Finance—or some version of it-again someday. I’m proud that both entities were founded as women-owned businesses and remain so today.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when scaling these organizations?

Kaylene Alvarez: Having worked in emerging markets for so many years, it was easy for me to understand and articulate the gap in these markets between those with sustainable and responsible business ideas and those with money to fund these businesses. Talent is universal, but opportunity is not; many of these entrepreneurs need access to more than just funding, but also mentors, training and perspective. Of course, the funding is critical, and I see a gap in the market between the options out there–largely, risk-averse, collateralized bank lending in large amounts for established organizations– and what is needed— smaller amounts that acts more like venture capital and comes with business guidance.

For Athena Global Alliance, we were able to successfully navigate the consulting space because we had built a network of people and organizations with whom we could work to narrow this gap. The challenge with any consulting company is in meeting the needs of clients; I think we had a pretty good idea of client expectations. Although we did often find ourselves in the middle of a project when a client changed their mind! That is certainly a challenge when working in a rapidly changing field like impact investing—what is a hot topic today might seem antiquated tomorrow. We focused on areas in which we had expertise—financial services and renewable energy—and played to our strengths, which helped us evolve with the market.

When we were raising funding for Indigo Social Finance, we had a pipeline of investments in several countries and were probably a bit ahead in our thinking in terms of deploying capital. Even in the last 3-4 years, the space for supply chain finance has evolved quickly, and there are many FinTechs that enable better underwriting and portfolio management.  One of the biggest challenges we faced was in enduring compliance with the social impact part of our investments. For us, “ethical” textiles meant moving firms in the direction of reduced water and energy usage, fair labor practices, zero waste and green supply chains. That’s hard to monitor in many countries (including the US and Europe) and we wanted to be able to provide our investors with not just market returns, but an assurance that their investment was meeting our “impact imperative”, as well. Many advances have been made in this area in the last few years, but it’s still a challenge in many markets and populations.

Outside your work, what do you enjoy doing most?

Kaylene Alvarez: I love anything to do with textiles: sewing, weaving, dyeing, you name it. Yoga is my happy place, and I’ve gotten much more into meditation living in India. I took a 10 day vipassana meditation course with no talking, no cell phones, no reading or writing and it was one of the most transformational experiences for me. It’s amazing the power of the mind when we can focus it.

Of course, I like exploring new places and meeting new people—I’ve been to about 80 countries and all 7 continents at last count. Being put in new situations keeps me humble and forces me to not take myself too seriously. Living in India, this is a lesson I learn anew nearly every day!

I have a niece and nephew and like to do anything I can with them. It’s good to see the world through the eyes of kids. Prior to relocating to Mumbai, I was based in Denver for 3 years, and still consider that “home”. I enjoy everything Colorado has to offer: outdoor activities, great community of people, a good vibe, and superb micro-breweries and distilleries. I especially enjoy activities in, on, or around water.

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

Kaylene Alvarez: A single woman doesn’t come to mind. I have been influenced by many women to whom I looked as role models for different parts of my life and at different times. Firstly, the women in my family influenced me. I come from a long line of strong women on both sides of my family that goes back several generations. My great-great grandmother got divorced and raised my great-grandmother as a single mom in the 1920s. My grandmother was a librarian at Beechcraft in the 1950s; and, my own mom raised me in the 1970s to believe that girls can do anything boys can do.

Other women role models that have inspired me in some way to break down gender stereotypes. These women include Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Pink and Hermione Granger. I have a lot of male role models, too, but will refrain here, since the question is about women!

What are your favorite books, websites, films and/or resources?

Kaylene Alvarez: On a personal level, I read anything and everything, so my “favorite” reading kind of depends on my mood. Much of my world view is formed by two parameters in periodicals: The Economist and People (a US-based tabloid magazine). For fiction, some favorites are “The Gollum and Genie” by Helene Wecker, “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant and “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov. For non-fiction, I always go back to “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lecio ni and Leap First by Seth Godin. For non-fiction, I prefer some of the classics: “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk, “The Crusades through Arab Eyes” by Amin Maalouf and “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis.

For an impact investing view, the space is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up with what’s new, but if you’re looking for some foundational reading, a few good ones are:

  • The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Prahalad
  • “Evolution of an Impact Portfolio” published by Sonen Capital (2013) about the Felicitas Foundation portfolio performance
  • Financial Diaries by Daryl Collins

Good online sources include: Sonen Capital, Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), Case Foundation. Additionally, the Omidyar Network has a comprehensive list of resources, publications and organizations.

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