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Ivanka Trump's We-Fi fund initiative could spark a $1.7 trillion market around the world

While President Trump lays out a foreign policy agenda based on nationalism and "America First" principles, his daughter Ivanka has taken a different worldview.

Three months ago Ivanka Trump stood next to her father and other world leaders at the G20, announcing a plan to bring $1 billion to help women entrepreneurs in emerging markets. The media and the development world scorned, calling it a naked bid for good press and an attempt by world leaders, especially those in Saudi Arabia, to curry favor with the American president through his daughter's pet project.

The World Bank quickly downplayed Ivanka's role, and it's unclear how involved she remains. After Ivanka met with Arab women entrepreneurs, money from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seeded the initiative. But the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative — or We-Fi, as it's called — has spread, with about a dozen other countries, donating a total of $325 million to the financing facility that launched on October 12 to provide funding to women-owned enterprises.

But now We-Fi is emerging as an innovative attempt to spur private investment in women's enterprises in countries around the world. There are already signs that insurance companies, venture capitalists and private equity funds are looking more seriously at investing and designing products with an emphasis on including women. The new managing partner at the Abraaj Group's $1.6 billion impact investment arm, Kito de Boer, for instance, said it is considering launching a fund focused on diversity.

Ivanka's goals seem to contradict President Trump's. In March he said he wants to cut off the spigot that has helped fund many micro ventures around the world: a little-noticed federal agency called OPIC that is a backstop lender for community banks in developing countries.

"This World Bank fund is very important because it cuts through the politics and diplomacy," said Sofana Dahlan, a Saudi lawyer, entrepreneur and government official who met with Ivanka in Saudi Arabia. "A lot of countries do refrain from helping Saudi women, because they don't want to be politically incorrect."

Ivanka, Dahlan said, may have seized a rare moment when the Saudi government was open to change. "Saudi Arabia welcomed the idea. It's very important to act on it right away."
We-Fi — which appears to have rapidly folded in some ideas that the World Bank has been studying and experimenting with for the past five years — is different from other financing initiatives for women.

While most programs for women have focused on grants and low-interest loans, We-Fi is making the money available for equity investments — meaning venture capital and private equity funds will be able to tap into it — and insurance products. That may give big insurers an incentive to develop products for women in emerging markets.

Prince Faisal bin Bandar (L), the governor of the Saudi capital Riyadh, listens on as Ivanka Trump talks to an unidentified Saudi official during a ceremony where her father US President Donald Trump received the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
Prince Faisal bin Bandar (L), the governor of the Saudi capital Riyadh, listens on as Ivanka Trump talks to an unidentified Saudi official during a ceremony where her father US President Donald Trump received the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.

There are only about 60 funds worldwide with a specific focus on investing in women entrepreneurs, based on her research, said Suzanne Biegel, senior gender lens investing adviser at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, part of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. They have a combined $1.3 billion. An additional $500 million to $600 million is sought collectively by the funds. Against this universe, "for women entrepreneurs, $1 billion is a huge number," she said.

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A report from the World Bank, financial services giant Axa and consultancy Accenture found the market for insurance for women, including women entrepreneurs, in 10 emerging markets that it studied would be $1.7 trillion by 2030, up from $800 billion in 2013. Money from We-Fi, which will be distributed through development banks that likely will award the money based on project applications, could conceivably be used in projects like developing insurance products aimed at women entrepreneurs, or to loan money to women-led brokerages. The first calls for proposals will be out in October, according to the World Bank.

"I'm sitting in Tanzania talking to 19 entrepreneurs about scaling up," said Biegel. "Insurance is a huge need. They can't get crop insurance or greenhouse insurance. Without insurance, you are vulnerable."

We-Fi will make the $325 million pledged by donor countries available for equity deals where partners include venture capitalists and private equity funds. That means the World Bank could be an investor in funds that invest in women-led start-ups, or the start-ups themselves, in emerging tech hubs, like Dubai or Nairobi's "Silicon Savannah."

The presence of World Bank money in a deal often reassures co-investors from the United States or Europe and gives funds working in geographies or with populations that investors see as risky a longer time frame. World Bank investments in funds in the Middle East and North Africa has helped launch several venture capital funds there.

The We-Fi money may push more funds to focus on women. For instance, a $150 million Cairo-based fund, Ripples Impact, aims to launch in the second quarter of 2018 to invest in growth-stage companies in the Middle East and North Africa working in health and food security, with women's empowerment one of its guiding investment principles.

If women participated equally with men around the world, $12 trillion would be added to the global economy, consulting firm McKinsey estimated in 2015. Funding women entrepreneurs, especially in traditionally male-dominated industries, is seen as one of the best ways to spur greater equality.

The White House did not respond to questions about Ivanka's continuing role in the We-Fi initiative, though she was involved over the summer, meeting with investment and entrepreneurship experts and hosting meetings at the White House. She is leading the U.S. delegation to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, India. The annual summit is an Obama initiative.

Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, an advocate for women and a philanthropist, investor and the founder of several luxury lifestyle companies, will become an advisor to the fund.

Part of the vitriol directed against Ivanka came from her lack of experience in global entrepreneurship, as well as her father's stated intention to dismantle global financial infrastructure. Her clothing line has come under fire for not monitoring the treatment of factory workers to which it outsources.

"She has got zero credibility when it comes to global women's entrepreneurship, much less financing entrepreneurship," said one expert.

It is a deeply complicated issue, one that has so far defied most solutions. "If we are trying to change patterns of capital distribution, we should be bold and purposeful and choose areas that will demonstrate what's possible," said Laurie Spengler, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Enclude, which advises businesses and financial institutions on how they can serve underserved entrepreneurs. "With $1 billion, you're trying to lead others."

Helping women break barriers

Take Kenya, for instance. It is a financial center, and, as home to a flourishing mobile money ecosystem based on MPesa, an emerging tech capital. But women there still face a long road to working or founding businesses in traditionally male-dominated sectors. On a recent Thursday, about 20 articulate, confident 7th-grade girls at a school in Kibera run by the nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities, sat around a table describing their aspirations. Most wanted to be teachers and doctors. One or two mentioned business. One girl, Susan, spoke up and said firmly: "I want to be a banker."

Despite the top-notch education at the school, the odds are still stacked high against Susan if she wants to work in finance in Kenya. "It's hard to convince a male CEO of a bank to listen to you," said Peris Bosire, co-founder of a Nairobi-based company called Farm Drive that enables small farmers to keep track of their revenue and expenses and apply for loans. As the company gathers more data on repayment rates, she hopes to be able to convince more banks to take a risk on Farm Drive and the farmers it works with, and to find investors to back the company.

"We need to look at building sectors in Saudi Arabia where women can easily operate and take matters into their own hands and open their own ventures." -Sofana Dahlan, a Saudi lawyer, entrepreneur and government official

"Most investors and the people you're trying to do business with, they have subconscious bias against us. They think of us, 'OK, the two young girls' and not in a nice way."

Women provide 80 percent of Kenya's farm labor and manage 40 percent of the country's smallholder farms, yet they own only roughly 1 percent of agricultural land and receive just 10 percent of available credit, USAID reported in 2015.

Closing the gap

While funding for start-up tech businesses is beginning, one of the gaps for women's enterprise in emerging markets is growth capital for traditional businesses, said Spengler. Two she has worked with in Karachi are a pest-control company and Al-Karam Packaages, which makes plastic bags. Founded by a divorced mother, Mussarat Ishaq, who worked days as a babysitter and cleaner while she learned the business, it now has 250 employees. Now, she wants to move into environment-friendly packaging materials.

Banks in Pakistan often don't approve such loans: convincing them to do so involves analyzing new market segments perceived as "too risky" for banks; developing the right bank products and services; training loan officers in cash-flow based lending and demonstrating he positive P&L results that come from investing in underserved segments, Spengler said.

Few banks in emerging markets are willing to make the investment, so some programs to support women entrepreneurs offer banks low-interest capital. The supply of capital for ambitious women entrepreneurs falls far short of the demand. In India, for instance, the World Bank estimated $30 billion in working and fixed capital requirements for women entrepreneurs in India. The supply from banks and other formal sources is estimated at less than $9 billion.

On the edge of a transformation

It is not money alone that enables women entrepreneurs to grow. Saudi Arabia has set aside a budget of $180 million to promote entrepreneurship in its economy, and women are meant to be part of that group. But the reality is far different.

Initiatives need to be carefully calibrated not to run afoul of culture to succeed. Women are entering the tech sector in higher numbers, possibly because it is a new part of the economy.
Dahlan's company helps creative people, like graphic designers, start businesses. She is also cautious, as she talks to women, to tell them they can become entrepreneurs after their children go to school.

"We need to look at building sectors in Saudi Arabia where women can easily operate and take matters into their own hands and open their own ventures," she said. She stays inspired, she said, by something her grandmother told her: "The footsteps of a woman with coins in her pocket has a different sound."

"I can only have a voice if I am financially independent. Nobody can tell me if I can fly or not, because I pay my own ticket," she said.

— Elizabeth MacBride, special to CNBC.com