Jackie VanderBrug is the managing director at Criterion Ventures, where she leads the Women Effect Investments initative. Below, VanderBrug explains the goals of the initative and opportunities in the emerging field of “gender lens investing.” VanderBrug will be a panelist at ICRW’s March 7 Passports to Progress discussion.

ICRW: Describe for us the goals of Women Effect Investments initative and define the “women effect” you hope to achieve.

JACKIE VANDERBRUG: Women are key assets in combating poverty, building their communities and creating new pathways to a more just and sustainable world. Investing in women’s education, economic welfare, health and overall well-being produces powerful results that benefit families, communities and entire societies. When women become economic agents and leaders social change accelerates and returns multiply. This is The Women Effect. 

The Women Effect Investments Initiative envisions a world where we can mobilize both our philanthropic and investment dollars to generate The Women Effect. Women Effect Investments is a field-building initiative – we are building the enabling environment that allows investors to move more money toward women and girls. And when you’re building a market, at a basic level you’re dealing with supply and demand. So we’re working to cultivate a set of investors eager to create a gender lens (this is the demand part of the market) and simultaneously working to create a robust set of investment vehicles that cross asset classes (this is the supply side). In the end, our vision is that more money moves to ventures which demonstrate the Women Effect and that a gender lens is normative in investing. 

ICRW: What are the implications of the “women effect?”

VANDERBRUG: Sometimes when I talk about the “Women Effect,” people wonder if we’re ignoring men. This isn’t about preferring one gender over another. I think the real implications of the “Women Effect” are the ways that investing in women creates a world that works for everyone. Women reinvest in their families and communities to create a more sustainable system for those around them. So, the implications are not necessarily women ruling the world, but rather an equitable society that is creating real value for everyone who is a part of it. 

ICRW: How do you define what Criterion calls the emerging field of “gender lens investing?”

VANDERBRUG: Gender lens investing is making investment decisions that benefit women and girls while seeking a financial return. In mapping approaches to gender lens investing we have found that most include one or more of three primary investment objectives or “lenses:” 

  • Investments that increase access to capital for women entrepreneurs and businesses that have women in leadership positions
  • Investments that promote workplace equity by investing in private sector companies that have women on boards and in senior leadership positions
  • Investments that increase the number of products and services that benefit women and girls by investing in socially responsible businesses that develop and offer these products and services

We consider investing in funds or other investment vehicles that use one or more of these lenses to be gender lens investing. It is possible that as we build the field and learn from gender and investment experts that the definition of gender lens investing will expand to include other lenses. 

ICRW: How do you see this field developing in the future?

VANDERBRUG: Right now, I hold this remarkable birds’ eye view of what is possible in this space. I see new investment vehicles coming together with a gender lens and new ways of using a gender lens as a viewfinder for opportunity. I’m also very aware that – even as someone who is especially equipped to see new opportunities – when an investor comes to me wanting to redirect their money toward generating the Women Effect, the landscape of choices available to them has so much room for growth. All of this growth will be supported by philanthropic dollars – supporting the research, the technical assistance, the measurement and the platforms that allow people to connect. While I’m passionate about investing with a gender lens for return, I’m just as passionate about the role that philanthropists play in creating this market. This is where philanthropic dollars unlock trillions of dollars in investment assets. With time and track record, applying a gender lens will become a valid and normative practice in investing. 

ICRW: Criterion believes that the moment is ripe to insert gender into social investing. What forces are at play that make this a critical time to invest in women and cultivate women investors?

VANDERBRUG: Two huge phenomena are reshaping the world as we know it – and creating this movement for gender lens investing. First – the role of women as leaders and economic agents. To quote The Economist – “forget China, India, and the internet – economic growth is driven by women.”   Research shows gender diverse teams, whether it is corporate board rooms, loans officers, or investment committees – drive better decision making, which drives investor return. The second phenomenon is the growth of impact investing, or ESG, or sustainable investing – whatever moniker you use, the level of investments which are seeking to have both financial return and social impact will soon eclipse philanthropic dollars. Investors looking to have combined impact and return can leverage a gender lens as view finder for opportunity.