A closer look at gender lens investment: Paving the way for women-led businesses to innovate and thrive

Vineeta Rana
Communications Consultant, TIID, ESCAP

Globally, it is estimated that over 70 per cent of women-owned businesses are either financially underserved or unserved. This gender finance gap deprives women and women-led businesses of crucial resources and opportunities that they need in order to thrive and represents a significant missed opportunity. According to 2020 research from The McKinsey Global Institute, an estimated US$13 trillion can be added to the global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 through advancing gender equality and opening economic pathways for women, furthering social and economic growth and resilience for all groups.

In recent years, gender lens investing (GLI) has gained traction as a powerful impact investment strategy aligning the pursuit of financial returns with the promotion of gender equality, underscoring the importance of investing in women as business owners, in leadership roles, in the workforce, and as customers. This strategy is backed by a growing body of evidence that gender inclusion is not only a driver of sustainable development; it is good for businesses and good for investors, with potential to spur market innovations.

Testament to this, in 2012, Vo Xuan Boi Lam, an expert on cardiovascular intervention and distribution of medical equipment, identified a strong need for domestic capabilities that would help Viet Nam reduce its dependence on imported devices. She founded USM Healthcare, the first company in Viet Nam to locally manufacture equipment such as intravenous catheters, coronary stent systems, and orthopedic products. Their stent costs 60 per cent less than those that are imported into Viet Nam from other countries.

Viet Nam has an aging population and an increasing burden on healthcare from chronic diseases. The nation depends largely on imported medical equipment from foreign countries to address cardiovascular and orthopedic concerns. For poorer citizens in Viet Nam, this equipment – and therefore crucial healthcare – often remains inaccessible due to its high costs.

By establishing domestic production capabilities, this pioneering woman-led company has bolstered self-sufficiency and innovation in the Vietnamese healthcare industry, while making healthcare more accessible for the nation’s population.

In December 2023, USM Healthcare received an investment from Sweef Capital – the first women-run and women-focused equity investment firm in the South-East Asia region, which was established with support from ESCAP in 2021. The fund targets businesses such as USM with scalable solutions that meet people’s needs and drive value through diversity and inclusion, prioritizing investments in innovative enterprises led by women. USM Healthcare is the second gender lens investment in Vietnam facilitated by Sweef Capital, with support from ESCAP. Earlier in 2023, Sweef Capital invested in Teky, a woman-led education technology startup that is working to improve the digital literacy and technology skills of children and future generations in Vietnam.

Through its Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship programme, ESCAP is working to cultivate a financial ecosystem in the region in which women-owned and women-run businesses can innovate, compete and thrive. The programme has unlocked over USD 89.7 million of capital for women entrepreneurs, and supported financial service providers and gender-lens investment funds, building momentum for the movement to close the gap in access to finance for women entrepreneurs.

To advance important conversations around gender lens investing and women’s entrepreneurship, through the programme, ESCAP is hosting the second edition of the Feminist Finance Forum in May 2024. The Forum brings together a range of stakeholders – women entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, development partners, and more – to dig deep into questions around women’s participation in the market, and how we can leverage innovative financing strategies to create more gender just systems.

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