Executive Summary

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Women Entrepreneurs: Foundational to Economic Recovery

By now it’s well understood that entrepreneurship is beneficial to economic growth and development. It has been at the core of every economic recovery in history. The creation of small businesses boosts economic growth by introducing new products, services, and technologies into the economy.  Most importantly, it provides new job opportunities, challenges existing firms, and boosts competition and productivity.

In this note we consider the role of entrepreneurship in fueling economic growth. In particular, we focus on the need for investors to deploy capital to support women-owned businesses as we emerge from the Covid-19 recession, given that women-owned businesses in a post-recession environment have been shown to create more jobs. The gap between supply and demand for capital available to women entrepreneurs must be closed.

The backdrop: statistics on women entrepreneurs

Over the past several decades, women have been a fast-growing segment of small business owners, with entrepreneurial women of color representing the fastest-growing cohort of all entrepreneurs. Women-owned businesses were particularly big job creators and stabilizers of the economy following the 2008-09 Great Recession. Nationally, minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) added 1.8 million jobs from 2007 to 2012, while firms owned by white males lost 800,000 jobs, and firms equally owned by white men and women lost another 1.6 million jobs.  Further, many women-owned businesses focus on sectors such as health care and education, qualifying for consideration as social enterprises, designed for both profit and positive social or environmental impact.

Business ownership demographics

Small businesses currently suffering

Many small businesses are being challenged or even decimated by the coronavirus crisis. A March 2020 survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB)  indicated that over 90% of small business owners had been negatively impacted by this crisis.[i]  About half of small businesses said they could survive two months at best, and about one-third believed they could hang on for three to six months.[ii] In a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Survey conducted April 21-27, 2020, roughly one in three small businesses reported temporarily shutting down in the prior two weeks, up 5% vs. a similar survey in March.[iii]

WEConnect International, a global network that connects women-owned businesses to global market opportunities, conducted a survey in April 2020 of nearly 600 women-owned businesses regarding the impact of Covid-19. More than 85% of those surveyed have been negatively impacted, with 90% experiencing a decrease in sales. Many are adjusting their products or services to changing economic climate and are trying to secure financing so that they can stay in business. On a positive note, women business owners are taking steps to adapt: 54% cut unnecessary expenses; 42% shifted to a digital model; and 37% are growing in response to local or global needs.[iv] [v]

There are reasons for optimism, especially in the medium to long term. According to the Census Bureau, 79% of small businesses that have laid off or furloughed employees anticipate bringing back most of their employees once the U.S. small business climate returns to normal.[vi] Further, more than 500,000 applications for an employer identification number have been submitted since mid-March, an indication of entrepreneurs’ intent to start new businesses soon.[vii]

Crisis fueling innovation

Crises often fuel economic and technological innovation. For example, the 2008-2009 financial crisis led to the development of new business models such as Uber, a ride-sharing platform, and Rent the Runway, an online clothing and accessory rental service. [viii]

Entrepreneurs are already rising to the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. For example, liquor distillers are pivoting to make hand sanitizer needed to deter the spread of the virus. Some small companies are seeing soaring demand for innovative products or services. One such example is Farmbox Direct,  a subscription service that delivers boxes of fresh produce directly to customers. Ashley Tyrner, Farmbox’s founder, saw a massive increase in orders as the nationwide lockdown took hold. New customers are coming from areas where grocery shelves sit empty, or are setting up deliveries for older relatives who don’t want to risk infection by shopping outside their homes.[ix]  Another example is MD Ally, which allows 911 dispatchers and other responders to route nonemergency 911 calls and patients to virtual doctors to help improve the efficiency of emergency response systems. Founded by Shanel Fields in March 2020 just as the US economy was shutting down from the coronavirus crisis, MD Ally is currently hiring while many companies have furloughed or laid off workers. [x]

Innovative new business models will probably lead to sales and employment growth as a route to rebound from the Covid-19 recession. While it may be too early to tell, business models that have gained traction during the era of social distancing, such as telemedicine and remote learning, may flourish longer term as demand for these services grows. The convenience of avoiding a doctor’s waiting room or being able to learn a skill from one’s home on demand may prove to be long-term winning business models.

A compelling analogy: small company performance during the Great Recession

Although businesses owned by women or people of color were more likely to shutter during the Great Recession of 2007-09, they helped stabilize the economy during the subsequent recovery, adding 1.8 million jobs in 2007-12. Meanwhile, firms owned by white males lost 800,000 jobs and firms owned equally by white men and women lost another 1.6 million jobs over this period.[xi]

Some of disparity of experience might be explained by the industries affected. Manufacturing and construction were hit particularly hard during this time — two sectors with a high concentration of white male owners. [xii] Meanwhile, the recovery was largely fueled by growth in industries such as health care and food services, which tend to have more minority and women ownership.[xiii]

The numbers are compelling:  Businesses owned by women or people of color were foundational to economic recovery.  

Women-owned businesses’ role in recovery

The growth trajectory of women-owned businesses, especially those owned by women of color,  suggests that investors who want to 1) support economic recovery overall; 2) support entrepreneurs; 3) support women and people of color; or 4) support social enterprises – or any combination of the above  – should consider investment in these businesses as they may offer the potential for both impact and solid investment returns.

Half of women-owned businesses are concentrated in three industries: professional/ scientific/technical services (lawyers, scientific, architects, consultants); health care and social assistance (child day care and home healthcare services), and other services (such as hair/nail salons and pet care)[xiv] Some or all these industries will rebound once the crisis recedes. An opening up of the economy, an aging population and a return to work should revive demand for these types of services and the emerging companies could represent good investment opportunities. Clearly there will be pent up demand for personal services such as hair and nail care. As people go back to work away from home, the need for childcare and other services will rise. Elective surgeries and other non-essential health care services will be in demand again. Finally, as the economy returns to growth, the need for professional services such as legal or consultant expertise will increase.

Across the board, people are increasingly looking at social enterprises, i.e. businesses that are designed to have both a positive purpose and profit, as vehicles for providing solutions to the major social and economic challenges facing communities. By providing social benefits as well as well-paying jobs, social enterprises offer the potential for rebuilding communities that are stronger than they were before the recession. Social enterprises run by women and entrepreneurs of color, who are hardest hit by the economic downturn, understand their target markets especially well and are well positioned to build successful social enterprises while the economy recovers.

The challenge for women entrepreneurs

BCG, a management consulting firm, partnered with MassChallenge, a US-based global network of accelerators, to review five years of investment and revenue data through a gender focused lens. They found that companies started or cofounded by women received on average less than half the amount of investment capital as male founded companies. Typically, women founders receive only a small fraction of venture capital deals (4.4.%) and only about 2% of all capital invested according to pitchbook data in 2016 through early 2018. However, the women-founded and co-founded companies outperformed their peers, generating 10% more cumulative revenue over the five-year period.  According to the study, this might be attributable to women operating businesses that they have experience with, such as childcare or personal care (e.g. hair salons). [xv]

Michele Bongiovanni is an entrepreneur and CEO/Founder of HealRWorld LLC, a database platform that measures sustainability and creditworthiness of small  and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) for investors and funders. When asked why she believes women entrepreneurs tend to perform better than men, she opined that women business owners tend to be more collaborative in their management approach and make better financial decisions. This combination, in her opinion, often leads to success for startups. [xvi]

There is some data to back up Ms. Bongiovanni’s statements regarding women as better business owners and managers. FitSmallBusiness.com compiled data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Dow Jones, the Harvard Business Review, and others to compare female entrepreneurs to their male counterparts. The analysis combined 10 private and public studies and determined from the statistics that women business owners outperformed their male counterparts, generating higher revenue, creating more jobs. They also tend to significantly improve startup company performance and have a larger appetite for growth.[xvii] [xviii]

Ms. Bongiovanni notes that funding for SMEs was sorely lacking during the Great Recession. This appears to be the case during the current crisis, as evidenced by the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) administered by the Small Business Association (SBA) and facilitated by banks. According to a recent study from ColorofChangeUnidosUS, and Global Strategy Group, close to half of Black and Latinx-owned small businesses expect to close their doors within six months, and may not be able to reopen. A majority (51%) of Black and Latinx small business owners who sought PPP loans asked for under $20,000 in temporary funding from the federal government. Only about 12% received the requested loans. Nearly two-thirds said they either received no funding (41%) or are still waiting to hear whether they will receive  any federal help (21%).[xix] [xx] If these businesses can receive funding to get through the recession, they would help the economy pull out of the recession by providing needed jobs and services in local communities, particularly underserved communities.


As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on communities and the economy sputters back into gear, it is clear that small businesses, particularly those founded and run by women entrepreneurs, can help pull the economy out of a recession by providing needed products, services, and jobs. Such enterprises may also help communities emerge by filling in gaps in social services no longer provided as effectively by underfunded local governments. Investors can step up and provide needed capital and reap positive returns by supporting these women entrepreneurs.

[i] https://www.nfib.com/content/press-release/economy/covid-19-impact-on-small-business-part-3/

[ii] Ibid

[iii] https://www.uschamber.com/report/small-business-coronavirus-impact-poll?iesrc=ctr

[iv] https://www.weconnectinternational.org/en/media-news/ceo-blog/connecting-in-the-age-of-covid-19

[v] https://www.weconnectinternational.org/images/IndPDFs/COVIDInfographicRev2.pdf

[vi] https://www.uschamber.com/report/special-report-coronavirus-and-small-business

[vii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/business/coronavirus-small-business-startup.html

[viii] https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/347669

[ix] https://www.marketplace.org/2020/03/25/some-small-businesses-are-flourishing-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[x] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/business/coronavirus-small-business-startup.html

[xi] http://www.growth-engine.org/news/brookings-businesses-owned-by-women-and-minorities-have-grown-will-covid-19-undo-that/

[xii] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/25/what-the-great-recession-can-tell-us-about-the-covid-19-small-business-crisis/

[xiii] https://www.brookings.edu/research/businesses-owned-by-women-and-minorities-have-grown-will-covid-19-undo-that/

[xiv] https://about.americanexpress.com/files/doc_library/file/2019-state-of-women-owned-businesses-report.pdf

[xv] https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/why-women-owned-startups-are-better-bet.aspx

[xvi] Interview with Michele Bongiovanni, CEO of HealRWorld, LLC

[xvii] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/are-female-entrepreneurs-more-successful-than-males-data-says-yes-300643927.html

[xviii] https://herahub.com/phoenix/celebrate-5-reasons-why-women-entrepreneurs-are-better-than-men/

[xix] https://www.forbes.com/sites/morgansimon/2020/05/22/congress-needs-to-act-before-half-of-the-uss-black–latinx-owned-small-businesses-close/#1e472cb3b242

[xx] https://globalstrategygroup.app.box.com/s/2es493cxqa88381ha6klistcx4ml3tve

Gender Lens Investing 2.0 was originally published by Mission Investors Exchange, one of the foremost impact investing networks for foundations dedicated to deploying capital for social and environmental change.  Cornerstone is proud to support MIE’s mission. 

In 2001, as a philanthropic advisor, I started on a journey with The Denver Foundation to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to the boardrooms of Denver-area nonprofits.  Like many well-intentioned people in the foundation and nonprofit community, we assumed board diversity would address the racial bias that was evident in the programs, management and governance of many nonprofits.  In fact, we were so confident in this as a change strategy that we engaged a group of advisors and developed a program plan.

What we quickly found out of course, was that increasing diversity was only one part of the very complex process that nonprofits would need to take if they were to tackle the legacy of structural racism that affects virtually all of our institutions today. So we rebooted our efforts and like many foundations and organizations in the U.S. and globally, The Denver Foundation embarked on a journey to break down biases and assumptions and began working with nonprofit and philanthropic partners to help the whole sector to become more diverse and inclusive, and ultimately, more equitable. During this process it became very clear to us that the complex issues that affect people and communities cannot be addressed without considering their interrelatedness.

When I reflect on the state of the gender lens investing movement today, I am reminded of this journey from almost 20 years ago and the important lessons we learned then about the essential need to address the root causes of bias and discrimination. The same principles of digging deep to understand why biases exist in the context of race are also critical when it comes to gender. While many foundations have done important and deep work over the last two decades to understand and attempt to address the root causes of many forms of gender bias and discrimination in their grantmaking, there has been scant attempt in the investment field to do the same thing.  The discipline and rigor that many foundations take to understanding what drives inequality and the kinds of interventions that can help bring about true equality is critically needed today in the field of gender lens investing.  Foundations have the unique ability to support critical research; to invest in innovations; to take risks where traditional investors will not; and to convene and shed light on what is needed and what is possible through grantmaking and investment capital.

At Cornerstone Capital Group we work with foundations, individuals, and families who care about an array of social and environmental issues, including gender inequality.  Like our clients, we have been concerned about the discipline of gender lens investing and the limitations of what we think of as Gender Lens Investing 1.0, which has focused primarily on diversity — the diversity of women on corporate boards and in senior leadership, the diversity of fund managers, and the diversity of those who have access to capital.  While all these variables are critically important— and we must continue to exert pressure on those who can have an influence on gender diversity — we cannot stop there.  Like the foundations of the early 21st century that insisted on going more deeply into root causes, we have set about on a journey at Cornerstone to understand how investments can address the root causes of social and environmental issues, using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the basis of our analysis.  We view foundations as natural partners in this work, which we think of as Gender Lens 2.0.

At its heart the challenge we set out to tackle was how investors who care about various Sustainable Development Goals — especially SDG 5 — could align their investments with the SDGs by focusing on common themes underpinning the SDGs. The SDGs provide a framework to demonstrate the inter-relationships between different social challenges including inequality, health, poverty, gender, and much more. They also reveal opportunities, such as the critical role of gender in climate justice, and other related topics such as water management and extractive industries. We were particularly mindful of the challenge that mission-aligned investors face in analyzing the impact of publicly listed securities — including gender lens investors, who have been limited primarily to screening out companies with no women on their boards of directors.

Cornerstone Capital Group’s Access Impact Framework [TM] was created to illustrate the alignment of investment strategies to each of the Sustainable Development Goals. We identified the concept of access — which accelerates the ability of individuals and societies to achieve desired social, economic, and environmental outcomes — as a key common denominator underpinning all of the SDGs. The framework maps 11 such access themes across the SDGs. By facilitating access required for individuals and societies to achieve the SDGs, investors can help address the root causes of inequality and do so holistically by addressing multiple barriers to opportunity simultaneously.

When analyzing SDG 5: Gender Equality, we incorporate traditional gender lens themes with an analysis of seven “access themes” that align most closely to SDG 5. The seven themes are:

  1. access to fair treatment/equal opportunity
  2. access to healthcare services
  3. access to financial services
  4. access to telecommunication systems
  5. access to education
  6. access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene
  7. access to adequate housing and living conditions

These access themes are interrelated. For example, improving women’s access to telecommunication tools such as mobile phones and internet services enables better access to online financial services, educational resources, healthcare, and career opportunities (see related resources). Becoming more educated and having better access to financial services may result in becoming more financially secure. Internet access seems to correspond with improved health for women, as they can learn about disease risks and prevention.  Access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene along with access to adequate housing and living conditions clearly leads to better health and a more stable and secure living environment. The examples are limitless but the amount of investment that is flowing with an intersectional approach is not.

The Access Impact Framework represents a way to analyze the alignment of investments that is multidimensional and reflects how many foundations understand their work: it is rooted in rigorous research; it sits at the cutting edge of a critical discipline; and it has the potential for having an impact at scale.  But we cannot stop here. All of us — especially foundations who are concerned about gender equality — can play a critical catalytic role in advancing gender equality through an intersectional approach using the SDGs.  With virtually the whole world coalescing around the SDGs, the moment is ripe for foundations to ask hard questions of their investment advisors about how their investments are being used to advance gender equality and address the fundamental issues that are impeding progress. By working across sectors we can continue to innovate and develop new tools and products that gender lens investors can use to address the root causes of inequality in all its forms and to realize our shared vision of achieving a more just and equitable world.

In the second part of this series, we will review examples of how foundations can utilize gender lens investing options across asset classes.


I’ll never forget the first investing conference I attended where gender lens investing was discussed. From the mainstage, I listened as three powerful women leaders in finance commented on how much work had been done for women in the industry. At last, the woman who gave the keynote said, “Corporate boards are starting to seriously look at the lack of women in the boardroom… We should be celebrating that a handful of companies now have at least one woman on their board!” You might think this was 20th century talk, but it was not: it was 2014.

After spending more than 20 years in philanthropy, often working with women’s funds, I have accepted that the glacial pace of change in finance on matters of gender is the direct result of the systematic exclusion of women in finance. Research from McKinsey & Company shows that women remain significantly underrepresented in the upper levels of financial services companies. And while women and men begin their careers making up roughly equal portions of entry level staff, white women account for only 17 percent of C-Suite level positions and women of color hold just one percent of C-Suite level positions in financial services.

In investing, women are underrepresented as managers especially in private equity and venture capital firms, holding only 10 percent of all senior positions in the field globally. Further, in 2017, women-led enterprises garnished less than 3 percent of venture capital globally.

What might the world look like if women controlled how investments (of financial, human, and natural capital) were made? Would we continue to promulgate a system of extractive finance, where more value is removed as a result of investment than is returned to a community? Would we define success by the presence of one woman on a board of directors? Or would women tackle problems at their root cause, using an intersectional approach to understanding the interconnected nature of all of the world’s most intractable problems, including poverty, poor health and education, and climate change? I know without doubt that it would be something closer to the latter.

At Cornerstone Capital Group, a women-owned registered investment advisor, we believe that the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a powerful framework for addressing the complex challenges of our time. We believe the goals can help align all communities—regardless of geography, income, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender—to see how we are all interconnected. And, we believe it helps provide a framework for investing that is multi-dimensional and powerful in its ability to affect the root causes of the issues affecting people and planet.

The bottom line? For investments to have impacts related to achieving gender equality and truly supporting women and girls, investors do not have to invest solely in “gender lens funds.” Our approach to gender lens investing incorporates traditional gender lens themes with an analysis of seven “access themes” that align most closely to SDG 5:

It is abundantly obvious that these factors are interrelated, so why don’t we treat them as such?

For example, research from Intel, World Wide Web Foundation, and US AID tell us that improving women’s access to telecommunication tools such as mobile phones and internet services enables better access to online financial services, educational resources, healthcare, and career opportunities. Becoming more educated and having better access to financial services may result in becoming more financially secure. Internet access seems to correspond with improved health for women, as they can learn about disease risks and prevention. Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, along with access to adequate housing and living conditions, clearly leads to better health and a more stable and secure living environment.

The examples are limitless, but the amount of investment that is flowing to women and to women-led initiatives (with an intersectional approach) is not.

We are all guilty of looking for easy solutions to complex problems, but it’s time that we come together to align our efforts to make life better for everyone, regardless of where they live or their gender.

To read more about intersectional approaches to investing with a gender lens, see  Advancing Access: Looking Beyond Traditional Gender Lens Investing Approaches Using Our Access Impact FrameworkTM  in Support of SDG 5: Gender Equality.

This piece was originally published at What Will It Take Movements as part of What Will It Take Movements’ Women and Money initiative. Join leaders in gender lens giving, spending, and investing September 16-17 in Austin.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report earlier this year highlighting the potential for renewable energy to alleviate some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. Their work aligns with Cornerstone’s thinking about the intersectional nature of these issues, as expressed by our Access Impact FrameworkTM. Below is an excerpt from IRENA’s report, republished with permission and lightly edited for length.

The ongoing energy transformation, driven by renewables, is bringing far-reaching, systemic change to our societies. This offers important opportunities for greater inclusion and equality.

Accelerating the deployment of renewables can alleviate poverty, create jobs, improve welfare and strengthen gender equality. Still, to fully realise this potential, the renewables industry has to tap a wider pool of talent – notably that of women, who have been largely underrepresented, depriving the energy transition of critical capacities.

Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective provides new insights on women’s role in renewable energy employment and decision-making globally. This key report aims to help fill the knowledge gap in this field. Based on a ground-breaking, first-of-its-kind online survey combined with in-depth research, the study highlights the importance of women’s contributions in the energy transformation, the barriers and challenges they face, and measures that governments and companies can take to address these.

Adopting a gender perspective[1] to renewable energy development is critically important to ensure that women’s contributions – their skills and views – represent an integral part of the growing industry. Increased women’s engagement expands the talent pool for the renewables sector. In the context of energy access, engaging women as active agents in deploying off-grid renewable energy solutions is known to improve sustainability and gender outcomes.

In recognition of these opportunities, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 introduced a dedicated goal on gender equality (SDG 5), noting that the “systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Agenda is crucial”.

Women in Renewable Energy: Access Context

Energy access and gender are deeply entwined components of the global development agenda. The transformative effect on women of gaining access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy is well-known. Energy access frees up time for women who otherwise may spend an average of 100 hours a year collecting fuel wood and gives them more flexibility in sequencing tasks, since lighting allows them to do more at night. It also improves access to public services and opens new opportunities for part-time work and income-generating activities.

The distributed nature of off-grid renewable energy solutions offers tremendous opportunities for women’s engagement along multiple segments of the value chain. Many of the skills needed to take advantage of those opportunities can be developed locally and women are ideally placed to lead and support the delivery of energy solutions, especially in view of their role as primary energy users and their social networks.

Organisations have found it difficult to ignore the value of involving women in the renewable energy supply chain. SELCO India, for instance, trained female solar technicians in the early 2000s simply (at least initially) as a means to accomplish its business goals: technicians were needed to enter the homes of customers to repair solar lanterns and cookstoves. As women become engaged in delivering energy solutions, they take on more active roles in their communities and consequently facilitate a gradual shift in the social and cultural norms that previously acted as barriers to their agency.

Barriers to engagement

Over two-thirds of survey respondents noted that women face barriers to participation in the renewables-based energy access sector. Cultural and social norms were cited by respondents as the most common barrier, followed by lack of gender-sensitive policies and training opportunities and inequality in ownership of assets. Security and the remoteness of field locations were also mentioned as other barriers to participation.

Policies and solutions

Training is often an integral part of energy access programmes, but greater efforts are needed to make them more accessible to women. Training sessions must be tailored and scheduled around women’s childcare responsibilities and be sensitive to mobility constraints, security concerns and social restrictions that may prohibit women from participating.

Dedicated financing schemes are particularly important if women are to play an active role in the off-grid renewables value chain (e.g., as technology distributors) and tap into the entire spectrum of opportunities created by modern energy access (e.g., investments in productive appliances). The Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, for instance, connects women to financing options through the Thrift and Credit Cooperative, providing affordable payment options so that women can invest in livelihood options, family education and household safety. SEWA also provides a special energy loan product and has set up a company that employs women to market, sell, install and service solar home lighting solutions that benefit over 20 000 people.

Opportunities and gaps will become evident if gender is mainstreamed at the level of energy access policies, programmes and projects. In 2013, the Economic Community of West African States established a programme to mainstream gender in the formulation of energy access policy and in the design and implementation of energy projects and programmes. A dedicated policy for mainstreaming gender in energy access, endorsed in 2015, aims to ensure that women are part of the solution and leverage their role as energy users, community members, business owners and policy makers.

Gender audits, as tools, can ensure due consideration of the known gender differences in household decision-making, preferences and priorities. These have been used in Botswana, India and Senegal, among other countries, to support the integration of gender into energy access projects. The socio-economic dividends of gender mainstreaming are immense; several examples covered in the report suggest improvements in women’s self-perception and empowerment within the community. In Indonesia, for instance, over 500 “wonder women” have been trained as social entrepreneurs, selling clean energy technologies that have reached over 250 000 people. It is estimated that around 20% of women became more empowered within their families – taking on a greater role in household decision making – and almost half of them perceived an improvement in their status.

In closing

Advancing equality and diversity in the energy sector is a compelling proposition rather than a zero-sum game. Establishing gender as a pillar of energy strategies at the national and global levels will produce a swifter and more-inclusive transition to renewable energy while accelerating the attainment of multiple Sustainable Development Goals.

[1] For the purposes of this report, gender refers to men and women.

Gender lens investment approaches have expanded in recent years. All asset classes have seen a tremendous increase in the number of funds and assets under management since 2014. Fund strategies range from empowering women and funding women-run businesses to reducing gender violence and poverty for women and children.

At the same time, investors have also been seeking ways in align their activities in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cornerstone Capital Group has contributed to this effort by introducing the Access Impact FrameworkTM, which illustrates the alignment of investment strategies to each of the SDGs. We identified the concept of access — the ability of individuals and societies to achieve desired social, economic and environmental outcomes — as a key common denominator of the SDGs and identified 11 “access themes” that translate the SDGs into investable opportunities.

SDG 5 is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” For investments to have an impact related to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls, investors do not have to invest solely in gender lens funds. Our approach to gender lens investing incorporates traditional gender lens themes with an analysis of the access themes that align most closely to SDG 5.

In this report we discuss each of the access themes that underpin SDG 5 in some depth. We also offer examples of investment vehicles that bolster access to these themes for women, their families and communities. Download the full report here.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 5: Gender Equality targets the systemic barriers women face and aims to transform cycles of disempowerment into cycles of empowerment. Women are too often denied access to healthcare, education, financial services, housing and employment, or face significant roadblocks to such access. Not only are these services linked to basic human rights, but each is a fundamental building block for autonomy and agency. Though it is a large task, contributions to this goal can reinforce one another from many angles. SDG 5 is further refined by targets that can be more readily translated into actions. These targets highlight the interconnected nature of the goals: For example, strategies to support Gender Equality also promote progress toward SDG 4 (Quality Education) and SDG 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth). Below are a series of synergies that can come from providing access to products, services and systems that address Gender Equality.

Invest in Access to Telecommunication Services

As more of the world’s communications and business takes place online, those without access to supporting tools risk being left behind.1,2 Currently, some 200 million fewer women are online than men, and women are 21% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.3 With access to the internet, women are better able to obtain education, employment, government services and financial services that are otherwise hard to reach,4 and to increase personal income.5 Women’s online participation also sparks systems-level change, as it enables them to engage in self-expression and engage in key policy and decision-making processes.6 Meanwhile, women are underrepresented as workers and leaders in the technology sector, despite the rapid growth of the field and demand for tech skills.7 Furthermore, jobs in which women are widely employed are at risk of automation, necessitating transition to new fields.8 Greater access to telecommunication services will enable women to develop skills required for the future.

Learn More About Investing in Solutions for Gender Equality

Invest in Access to Healthcare Services

The healthcare needs of women and girls in many global regions are not being met,9 especially in reproductive health.10 Women lack adequate access to healthcare due to distant service locations, cost and gendered stigmas associated with seeking treatment.11,12 These access issues are compounded by gender norms in regions where women do not have control over household financial resources and are unable to seek care without partner or employer permission.13 When women have access to healthcare, the benefits multiply. For example, women who receive services to avoid unintended pregnancy have greater educational opportunities and are better able to enter and remain in the workforce.14

Invest in Access to Financial Services

Women have less access to financial services than men globally. Women are less likely to hold an account at a financial institution, especially in developing economies, and they save and borrow less than men.16 Women have more difficulty acquiring external business financing;17,18 for example, in the US, women received only 2% of all venture capital in 2017.19 Access to financial services provides a key pathway to women’s empowerment.20, 21

Learn More About Investing in Solutions for Gender Equality

Invest in Access to Fair Treatment and Equal Opportunity

Despite increasing participation in the workforce, women earn only 77% of what men earn globally and are given fewer advancement opportunities.22 In the workplace, women are given less support, and are more likely to be passed over for important assignments, than men.23 Violence against women is common in all societies and at all income levels, causing more deaths than those linked to civil wars.24 Child marriage, genital mutilation, and assault not only result in serious health problems for a woman,25 but prevent her from attending school or keeping a job, and undermine her ability to make her own decisions. 26

Invest in Access to Education

Promoting access to education empowers women to contribute economically; studies have shown that women’s participation boosts the economic power of a country.27 Access to education also helps break down perceptions of limitations or differences between the capabilities of men and women. 28 Globally, however, nearly 10% of primary school-aged girls are out of school, and only two-thirds of all countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. 29 The disparity is even greater at the secondary and upper-secondary level, where only 45% and 25% of countries, respectively, have reached gender parity.30 Increasing access to education to bridge this gap will open the door for more women to live empowered and prosperous lives.

Learn More About Investing in Solutions for Gender Equality

Invest Access to CleanWater, Sanitation and Hygiene

Women worldwide spend 200 million hours gathering water.31 Water is also closely connected to hygiene and health, which impact women’s livelihood and economic opportunities. For example, clean water facilitates healthier pregnancies. The evidence shows that birthing rates, complications and child growth are affected by the lack of safe, clean water.32

Invest in Access to Adequate Housing and Living Conditions

Unequal access to housing for women limits opportunities for upward mobility. Quality housing leads to increased physical and financial security, healthier living conditions, and the stability to seek employment.33 However, women in many countries are prevented from owning property, including housing, due to gendered laws and social norms.34 Furthermore, women often have greater difficulty securing housing due to their lower economic standing than men.35 In the US, this challenge is intensified as a shortage of affordable housing for low-income households persists, disproportionately affecting the many households led by single mothers.36,37

Learn More About Investing in Solutions for Gender Equality

SDG 5: References

1 The Case for the Web, The Web Foundation, 2018;
2 Women & The Web, Intel, 2012;
3 Closing the global gender gap in technology, Global Fund for Women, 2018;
4 Women & The Web, Intel, 2012;
5 Women’s Rights Online Report, The Web Foundation, 2018;
6 Doubling Digital Opportunities, The Broadband Commission, 2013
7 Making Innovation and Technology Work for Women, UN Women, 2017
8 CSC’s Gender and Automation Report, 2018
9 UN Development Programme Goal 3 Targets, 2018
10 “Issues in Reproductive Health,” Fatalla, Mahmoud, UN News Center
11 “…Gender Inequity in Health…”, WHO, 2007
12 Women’s Lives and Challenges: Equality and Empowerment Since 2000, US AID, 2014
13 Key Barriers to Women’s Access to HIV Treatment: A Global Review, UN Women
14 Promoting Gender Equality Through Health, US AID
15 Global Findex Database
16 “Small and medium enterprise finance: new findings, trends and G-20/Global partnership on financial inclusion progress,” International Finance Corporation, 2013
17 International Finance Corporation Enterprise Finance Gap Database
18 Making Innovation and Technology Work for Women, UN Women, 2017
20 Increasing Gender Equality through Financial Inclusion, GIIN
21 “Empowering Women with Micro Finance: Evidence from Bangladesh,” Pitt, M et. al., 2006
22 “Women at Work: Trends 2016,” International Labour Office
23 Gender Discrimination in many forms for today’s working women, Pew Research, 2017
24 “Conflict and Violence Assessment Paper”, Anke Hoeffler and James Fearon, Copenhagen Consensus Center, 2014
25 “Global and regional estimates of violence against women,” WHO
26 “Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity,” World Bank. 2012
27 Why is Gender Equality Important to Economic Development?, GVI, 2018
28 Promoting gender equality in schools, Gender and Education Association
29 Global Education Monitoring Report Gender Review: Meeting Our Commitments to Gender Equality in Education. 2018. UNESCO
30 Ibid
31 Unicef, 2016
32 Unicef, 2016
33 “Level the Field: Gender Inequality in Land Rights,” Habitat for Humanity, 2016
34 Social and Gender Inequalities in Environment and Health, WHO, 2010
35 Gender Lens on Affordable Housing, ICRW, 2016
36 “The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes,” National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2017
37 “Hunger and Poverty in Female-Headed Households,” Bread for the World, 2016

In the absence of clear and consistent government regulation, corporate policies have been pivotal to the provision of legal protections for LGBTQI workers. For companies, greater inclusion is associated with improved brand reputation, reduced turnover, and increased productivity and innovation. The most progressive companies seek to integrate their values into their operations, using their financial clout to push back on harmful practices even if they risk additional costs in the near term.

To be clear, policies have not eliminated discrimination: More than half of LGBTQI employees report that discrimination negatively affects their work environment.

As bias and discrimination toward LGBTQI people are related, at least in part, to normative expectations of gender within the workplace. Recognizing the intersection between gender discrimination and LGBTQI equity results in a profound reorientation of how investors and advocates can approach companies and their attitudes toward full inclusion.

As investors continue to make the case for full inclusion of LGBTQI people, there is a practical and ethical mandate to align LGBTQI interests with those of gender lens investors and others who recognize that the establishment of corporate cultures and practices that embrace all employees, customers and stakeholders, will benefit everyone.

In this report we make the case for this thematic fusion, discuss how investors and asset managers can consider LGBTQI alongside gender equity in their investment analysis, and highlight existing investment strategies that reflect this approach.

Download the full report here.

“Whether it’s the gender pay gap, board of directors seats and equal opportunity for career advancement, or greater access to private market capital funding for female-owned-and-run startup businesses, women are disrupting the status quo in the banking and finance industry. ” Erika Karp joins sustainability consultant Paul Ellis for a webinar with guests Danielle Kayembe, founder of Greyfire, and Jeff Cohen of SASB, for a discussion on these issues and more. Log on here.

Bloomberg, November 6: Pension fund managers are starting to see sexual harassment as a material risk to their investments, and they’re going to be asking more questions….

“These are early days, and what we’re finding is a mixed bag,” said Katherine Pease, managing director and head of impact strategy at Cornerstone Capital. The New York-based firm said it is also talking to managers about their gender and sexual harassment policies in order to learn more about risks and costs.

Read full article here.

Entrepreneur, June 7: “Women… tend to see their investing as a means to an end — a way of accumulating enough money to, for example, buy a house or retire early. A corollary is that, rather than focus solely on commercial gains, more women look for businesses that have a social purpose or are at least sustainable. This is true for all kinds of investments…

Another reason for this is that women also do more research, according to HSBC, who found that 17 percent of women, compared to 13 percent of men, spend more than a month researching investment options. Erika Karp, the founder and CEO of Cornerstone Capital and the former head of Global Sector Research at UBS Investment Bank, told Professional Wealth Management that transparency is at the core of sustainable investing and women like to be thoroughly informed before acting.”

Read full article here.


Citizen activists are taking to the streets to demand government accountability and action on issues they care about passionately, with groups ranging from #metoo to #neveragain, Black Lives Matter, and the alt-right. Against this backdrop, some of the largest shareholders in the world are now joining long-time shareholder advocates to call for improved corporate governance, equality and environmental stewardship. How will this heightened partisanship and conflict affect relations between companies and shareholders?

Cornerstone Capital Group recently convened our panel of corporate governance experts for a live webinar on hot topics in corporate accountability, sustainability and shareholder engagement. Our Head of Research and Corporate Governance, John Wilson, moderated a discussion with Catherine Jackson of Jackson Principled Governance, independent board director Karina Litvack, and Tim Smith, Head of ESG Shareholder Engagement at Walden Asset Management. Below are the key questions addressed, with video replays of each discussion.

How are shareholders helping to reshape the conversation around gender equality in the boardroom and the workplace?

Accountability and Action on the Slate? Corporate Governance in This Activist Age: Gender Diversity

How are climate competencies becoming a matter of corporate governance?

Accountability and Action on the Slate? Corporate Governance in This Activist Age: Climate Competencies

Some of the largest asset managers in the world have made a new commitment to advocacy on issues such as firearms and climate change—How does their participation change the conversation?

How is the political landscape in the U.S. and Europe influencing the conversation around corporate political activities?

How is the changed political landscape in the U.S. and Europe influencing the conversation around corporate political activities?

Accountability and Action on the Slate? Corporate Governance in This Activist Age: The Asset Manager Role

How are shareholders helping to reshape the conversation around gender equality and overall diversity in the boardroom?

Recently, Cornerstone Capital’s Head of Impact Strategy, Katherine Pease, sat down for an in-depth discussion with two leading figures in the field of gender-focused investment and philanthropy, to discuss the role that investors and finance can play in addressing gender-based violence in companies and society.
Teresa Younger is the President and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women. A noted speaker, advocate, and activist, Teresa has been on the frontlines of some of the most important battles for women’s health, safety and economic justice.

Joy Anderson is the founder and president of Criterion Institute. Criterion is a leading think tank focused on using finance as a tool for social change. Criterion played a significant role in creating and building the field of gender lens investing and continues to shape how gender matters in the analyses, structures, and processes of investment and finance.

The discussion centered on the following questions:

It was evident that society’s awareness of gender-based violence and the impact of gender issues more broadly is evolving. Teresa referred to the “spiral process” of understanding the challenges and potential solutions—i.e., we learn more about a subject each time the topic is encountered, expanding our knowledge and our ability to tackle this difficult issue.

FA Online, April 26: Cornerstone’s Head of Impact Strategy, Katherine Pease, published this editorial regarding sexual and gender-based violence.

This editorial was originally published in FA Online, April 26, 2018.

There was a time when I regularly quoted a well-known statistic that one third of women and girls experience sexual assault from an unknown or known perpetrator in their lifetimes. At the time, that percentage seemed pretty high. And then #metoo happened. The more I heard stories from women—personal stories or stories circulated through social media and then the mainstream media—the more I realized that it was the rare woman or transgender person who I knew or knew of who hadn’t experienced sexual or gender-based violence.

So here we are, in a time where social media has finally made evident the extent of the problem. How did we get here? How is it that the systematic cover-up of violence and abuse in society and in companies is so pervasive?

In a recent article published by Cornerstone Capital Group (where I work), my colleagues Emma Currier and Sebastian Vanderzeil noted that sexual and gender-based violence may present a material risk to companies and industries in three key areas:

Simply put, violence and harassment in the workplace is bad for business. When allowed to run rampant, it can lead to greater turnover and lower performance. It can also create tension with the communities in which businesses work when management is perceived to be complicit with perpetrators and noncompliant with local customs and laws. And, as we have seen with the Weinstein empire and others, when it comes to companies that fail to create inclusive cultures and address harassment, consumers are quick to abandon brands, a phenomenon that is growing thanks to the prevalence of social media.

But there is something that can be done. Shareholders and investors can insist that the companies in which they are invested disclose critical information that will bring to light corporate practices and cultures related to sexual and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done due to the current state of reporting by companies on matters related to an array of issues that are important to women and others who experience marginalization. Consistent with broader corporate negligence around gender equality, there is a serious gap in corporate reporting on sexual harassment and violence, a gap that currently makes it very difficult to evaluate corporate behavior.

Given this urgent need for more disclosure, In the short run, investors should demand that companies disclose:

  1. Sexual harassment claims and companies’ specific steps to resolve the claims
  2. Initiatives to support victims in reporting sexual and gender-based violence

A handful investors are already taking significant steps toward aligning their investments with companies that disclose their practices related to equity and opportunity in the workplace. This is being made possible in part because of new efforts to systematically improve disclosure and reporting practices among corporations. For example, EquiLeap, an Amsterdam-based organization, measures gender equality in public companies against an extensive proprietary Equileap Gender Equality Scorecard, which looks at 19 different data points, including recruitment, training and promotion, the gender composition of management and workforce (gender balance being the ideal), fair wages and equal pay, family leave policies, work-life balance and supply chains. It also includes alarm bells to mark, and if necessary, to exclude companies that have cases taken against them or have been judged to be guilty of gender discrimination and/or harassment. The Equileap Scorecard is inspired by the UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles, and looks at the workplace from a rights-based perspective rather than purely from a diversity prospective, which most gender-lens investment strategies focus on.

At Cornerstone Capital Group, we are also embedding a robust gender analysis into our investment review process given our clients’ interest in gender lens investing approaches that reflect their values and indeed that have the ability to change how corporations behave.

But we can’t do it alone or even with the limited number of investors who are committed to gender lens investing. We will only be successful in making the needed change that #metoo has given voice to if many more investors ask hard questions of their investment managers and the companies in which they are invested. Collectively we must demand more of companies and we must act to ensure that they take the basic step of disclosing the information that investors need to make informed decisions. Because if not now, when?

Katherine Pease is Managing Director and Head of Impact Strat

At Cornerstone Capital Group, we have always been committed to investing with gender lens – it’s part of our heritage as a woman-owned investment firm, and equity and inclusion are core values.  One of our first clients to embrace a total gender lens portfolio was the Ms. Foundation for Women (www.forwomen.org).  We are proud to partner with the Ms. Foundation as their investment advisor and as a thought partner on important matters facing women and girls including addressing the prevalence of sexual and gender based violence (as in our recent report).

On April 10 we were thrilled to welcome Teresa Younger, President & CEO of the Ms. Foundation, for an event we co-hosted in Denver with the Women’s Foundation of Colorado (www.wfco.org).  The event was attended by many leading investors and philanthropists in Colorado. Here are a few photos from the evening.

Phil Kirshman and Craig Metrick with Ning Mosberger-Tang of Innovo Foundation

Katherine Pease, Head of Impact Strategy for Cornerstone Capital Group, with Lauren Casteel, President & CEO, Women’s Foundation of Colorado and Teresa Younger, President & CEO, Ms. Foundation for Women

Lauren Casteel, President & CEO, Women’s Foundation of Colorado; Karen McNeill-Miller, President & CEO, The Colorado Health Foundation; Teresa Younger, President & CEO, Ms. Foundation for Women

Phil Kirshman with Adrienne Mansanares, Trustee, Women’s Foundation of Colorado; Jesse King, President, Fulcrum Advisors.

Katherine Pease is Managing Director, Head of Impact Strategy. In this role she helps develop and monitor impact strategies and provides contributions to Cornerstone’s professional research team. She previously served as the Principal of KP Advisors, Inc., whose mission is to help foundations, nonprofits and investors develop thoughtful, innovative approaches to address the challenges they care most about by using a variety of types of capital and other resources to make the world more just, fair and equitable.

Upcoming Event:

Citizen activists are taking to the streets to demand government accountability and action on issues they care about passionately, with groups ranging from #metoo to #neveragain, Black Lives Matter, and the alt-right. Against this backdrop, some of the largest shareholders in the world are now joining long-time shareholder advocates to call for improved corporate governance, equality and environmental stewardship. How will this heightened partisanship and conflict affect relations between companies and shareholders?

Join Cornerstone Capital Group as we convene our panel of corporate governance experts to discuss hot topics in corporate accountability, sustainability and shareholder engagement, addressing questions such as:

April 17, 2018

11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Register here

FA Magazine, Feb 12: Sexual Harassment Now An Investment Issue, Cornerstone Capital Says


CFO Magazine, Feb 12: Sexual misconduct poses financial risks for companies

“Time’s Up”… #MeToo … allegations of abusive behavior by corporate chiefs … the groundswell of public attention to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is revealing how pervasive it is at all levels of society, in all industries. From an investor’s perspective, the burgeoning movement to root out abuse raises the question of whether capital markets participants might be complicit in its persistence.

It also raises the possibility that issues related to SGBV might evolve into a material financial risk for companies that don’t take appropriate action.

Traditionally, impact and gender lens investing has focused on discrimination, pay equity, and workplace conditions more so than the human rights violations embodied by SGBV. Investors lack access to data regarding the extent of the problem and do not possess the means to gauge the consequences for stakeholders or investment performance. We believe it is incumbent upon investors to demand greater transparency on issues of SGBV related to business activity; to hold companies accountable for reducing SGBV; and to incentivize companies to minimize SGBV.

With this report we launch an inquiry into how investors might better understand SGBV and contribute to a solution, as well as examine what kinds of data would generate useful insights. Key findings include:

Download our full report here.

Emma Currier is a Research Associate at Cornerstone Capital Group. Emma graduated with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Economics from Brown University in May 2016. While at school, she worked with the Socially Responsible Investing Fund and as a teaching assistant for the Public Health and Economics departments. She spent her sophomore summer researching differences between American and Indian educational styles in Arunachal Pradesh, India, and completed a summer investment bank analyst position with Citi in the Media & Telecom group in 2015.

Sebastian Vanderzeil is Director, Global Thematic Research Analyst with Cornerstone Capital Group. He holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Previously, Sebastian was an economic consultant with global technical services group AECOM, where he advised on the development and finance of major infrastructure across Asia and Australia. Sebastian also worked with the Queensland State Government on water and climate issues prior to establishing Australia’s first government-owned carbon broker, Ecofund Queensland.