“There’s Nothing But Opportunity”

March 4, 2020

An interview with Asahi Pompey, President of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, on what she’s learned about investing in women.

Asahi Pompey is the Guyanese-born President of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, which, along with Stop-Winlock’s Banking on Women program, founded the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility in 2014. In its first five years, the facility invested $1.76 billion in financial institutions globally. In this edited interview with John Donnelly, Pompey talks about lessons learned at the half-way mark of the facility and what’s blocking more investment in women globally.

Q: Tell me about your background. When you were a young girl, your family moved from the small country of Guyana to Brooklyn. Who were the early influencers in your life?

A: I was fortunate—a lot of my early influencers were educators. My dad was a schoolteacher; that was his first job in Guyana. And I have this wonderful network of aunts and uncles—over 15 of them—and many of them were schoolteachers. Those educators took every single opportunity they had to underscore the value and importance of education. They taught us that this was the way to have a better life.

Q: Did you also have a teacher outside your family who had an influence on you?

A: I had a teacher in high school, Paul Weiss, who took an interest in me. He wanted me to go to Swarthmore College, but my parents were unconvinced. He took the time to not only convince my parents, but to take me there personally to see it—arranging to come to my family home when my dad finished work to explain how he thought Swarthmore would be a good fit and that I would do well there. As a first-generation college student, I ended up at Swarthmore in large part thanks to his efforts. The lesson is that having a community, a village of people, who see a hungry person and take an interest in them, is very important.

Q: You had several experiences around the world early in your life—growing up in Guyana, being an exchange student in Japan, and working in Germany. How did those experiences shape your outlook in your current job?

A: Two ways. I have a real deep genuine curiosity in people, cultures, and economies throughout the world. And second, all those experiences led me to understand more about the universality of people and the desire to have an impact in the world, to have a purpose, to have a shot.

Q: You’ve been in your job as head of the Foundation for a little more than a year. What’s your assessment of its work in developing countries?

A: People sometimes ask, ‘Are there really opportunities in investing in women in the world?’ In fact, there’s nothing but opportunity. There’s a $1.5 trillion credit gap for women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Women face far too many challenges in getting access to capital. At the same time, women create jobs, they stabilize economies, and they strengthen overall society. That is a tremendous opportunity. At Goldman Sachs, we are committed to advancing sustainable economic growth and financial opportunities. Our facility with the IFC facility provides more opportunity to more people around the world, tackling that $1.5 trillion credit gap.

Q: How is it doing?

A: After we launched the 10,000 Women program, we achieved the goal of reaching 10,000 women in five years with our business education program.

We then partnered with IFC and the World Bank on this facility, and it’s beat our expectations. We’ve reached 73,000 women-owned SMEs, through 57 financial institutions across 36 countries, and we’re on our way to 100,000 women by 2024.

Q: As you mentioned, the world still has a $1.5 trillion credit gap for women-owned businesses. You obviously need more partners. How do you convince others to invest in women-owned businesses?

A:. The numbers speak for themselves. Look at the numbers in terms of job creation of these entrepreneurs—and also look at the fact that they each mentor an average of nine individuals. I also share with them specific stories.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Our work with Bangladesh’s BRAC Bank illustrates what’s possible. They developed an entire business line to better meet the need for women customers. One customer who benefited is a woman named Akhter Anar Begum. She received a loan to grow her bottle manufacturing business. As a result of that loan, she has been able to hire more employees—many of whom are women and were previously unemployed. Thanks to the bank’s new business line, so many other women like her are able to meaningfully improve their own lives and the lives of other women in their communities.

Q:  What’s blocking more investment in women?

A: When we did our five-year impact report, we saw that women-owned SMEs typically receive significantly less financing than their male counterparts: the average loans for women SMEs is around $22,000, compared to $73,000 for men. We want to change that. Our facility is helping banks design financial products that better target women-owned SMEs in the future. For instance, we are looking at the collateral requirements for women. In many places, to get a larger loan, the woman’s name needs to be on the mortgage. However, in many countries, a woman’s name is not on a mortgage and as a result she can’t qualify for a larger loan. These are the types of barriers we are interested in removing.

Another issue is the need for more gender-disaggregated data. If you can’t break down data by gender, it’s difficult to identify where the problems are, where women can’t get access to capital. One area for future focus is helping banks improve their reporting ability, to help build a culture where gender-disaggregated data is mainstreamed.

Q: What has humbled you in this job?

A: I feel like I am humbled every day by the tenacity of women business owners, by the uphill battle they have. Witnessing them persevere and reach new milestones in their businesses motivates me every day.

Published in March 2020