The Gender Accelerator

By Katie Drasser and Vanessa Valenti

It costs only $25 per woman per year to save millions of lives, according to a recent UN-backed report by the Guttmacher Institute on reproductive health services in developing countries. The research shows that the low cost needed to cover contraception services, pregnancy and newborn care, and HIV care to prevent mother-to-child transmission would significantly reduce maternal and newborn deaths. Unfortunately, current funding levels for these services—$18 billion annually—cover less than half of the amount needed to make that a reality.

The funding gap for women and girls worldwide is hardly new. World Bank research shows that only two cents of every dollar in international aid funding goes to support programs for girls. In 2010, women’s and girls’ rights organizations around the world had a combined income of $106 million, while Greenpeace made $309 million the same year—nearly three times as much.

This is despite the fact that women and girls are one of the most marginalized groups on Earth, and have the most potential to produce economic growth. When working, women invest 90 percent of their income back into their families (compared to men, who invest only 30-40 percent), creating a “multiplier effect” that boosts social and economic outcomes for their communities. For every year that a girl is in school, her future income level increases, as does the country’s GDP. The numbers don’t lie: There’s a clear return on investment when we put women’s and girls’ lives at the forefront.

These findings have led to a growing number of startups focused on supporting women and girls. Women’s organizations are also increasingly making a shift in their fundraising habits—from seeking foundation funding to generating revenue. A 2010 study of 1,100 women’s organizations from 140 different countries found that one-third relied on income-generating activities as their primary source of support.

Propeller, Echoing Green, and many other institutions have been supporting social entrepreneurs for decades, offering fellowships, training programs, seed funding, and resources. But there has never been an accelerator that focuses solely on initiatives supporting women and girls—until now.

Last month, The Girl Effect Accelerator hosted a 2-week-long program to help 10 organizations fulfill their mission of advancing the lives of girls living in poverty. Backed by the Nike Foundation and the Unreasonable Group, the accelerator provided high-profile mentors, strategic financing, and network partners to promising social enterprises. Ventures included Embrace, which makes infant warmers for premature infants that cost less than 1 percent of the average incubator, and Jayashree Industries, which distributes affordable sanitary pads via 1,500-plus women-led franchises across India. Each company provides different services, but all improve the lives of women and girls.

Programs like this one seem like a move in the right direction—but are impact accelerators actually effective? A report by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) and Village Capital found that only 31 percent of companies that “graduated” from impact accelerators were profitable and/or received a major investment. Meanwhile, a more recent report shows that companies that have taken part in an accelerator program have notably higher revenue generation than those that haven’t.

Other research shows that the general lack of partnerships between impact accelerators and investors leaves a huge opportunity gap for entrepreneurs. The good news is that some accelerators are wising up: A case study on a collaboration between Agora Partnerships and Eleos Foundation to support women-run companies in Latin America, for example, found that when Agora’s impact accelerator prepared Emily Stone of Maya Mountain Cacao to meet Eleos’ specific criteria for investment, the company was able to attract 20 investors and raise $200,000 through the foundation.

Of course, aside from raising capital, there is the question of impact. Kristin Gilliss of the Mulago Foundation warns that impact accelerators have made the mistake of strictly following the business models of tech startup accelerators without taking into account the importance of measuring and scaling actual impact.

Startups supporting women and girls also have their own unique challenges—unlike an analytics software company, for example, they must incorporate the voices and perspectives of the community they’re serving. How can accelerators take these needs into account when creating their programs?

The Girl Effect Accelerator seems to be cognizant of the newness of this kind of initiative, framing itself as a “learning organization.” It will likely make improvements—perhaps by developing more strategic partnerships with investors —but the team is confident about measuring the impact of investment growth and revenue generation, as well as the impact that each venture has on girls in poverty, through tracking one core metric unique to each company.

While we have a lot of learning to do about women’s and girls’ needs, this is an exciting first step, and we believe that impact accelerators could be a game-changer when it comes to improving the lives of women and girls worldwide. We hope other accelerators see the benefit and follow suit to support the thousands of other initiatives targeting this issue across the globe.

Read the original post in the Stanford Social Innovation Review