This article is the first of a 2-part series that captures learnings from a ‘co-design’ exercise conducted with investors in India to help the move from intention to action on gender-inclusive investing. The co-design exercise comprised of five 3-hour sessions conducted virtually in October 2021.
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Gender Inclusive Investing, or Gender Lens Investing (GLI), is an approach to investing into companies, organizations, and funds that takes into consideration gender-based factors across the investment process to advance gender equality and better inform investment decisions. Many of the funds deploying capital with a gender lens — approximately 65% of them — are newly established first-time funds (Project Sage 4.0). To close the gender financing gap, we need to bring larger pools of money, more quickly into this space. Activating well-established, mainstream investors to integrate gender into their work holds an opportunity to accelerate impact.
Could co-design — a method of bringing together users and stakeholders to generate more equitable solutions — play a role in building the field?
Inspired by MIT D-Lab’s 15-year track record in organizing design summits around the world and a small grant from Aspen Network Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), the authors of this article went on a listening tour. We interviewed 20 impact investors and 12 ecosystem actors in India looking to learn: What incentivizes fund managers to build gender equity in their work? And also, could we leverage collaborative methods to help them unpack the challenges they face in the very early stages of their gender lens adoption journey?
Bridging the chasm between intentionality and action
We discovered multiple investors in India that were actively experimenting and trying to customize strategies for becoming more gender-inclusive. Despite growing demand, progress was slow. The reason? Creating a gender lens strategy and then leading internal reform can be time-intensive, expensive, and complex. Even the most well-intentioned and well-connected gender-pioneers struggled to bridge the chasm between intentionality and action.
Additionally for new entrants in the gender-inclusive investing space, there is a paucity of Indian role models and actionable guides to draw from. Between the DIY option of using case studies and reports, and the pay-for-support option of working closely with technical assistance providers, there is not much to draw from if neither option worked for you.
D-Lab realized that there was a unique window to use co-design to deliver value to fund managers looking for learning opportunities, actionable toolkits, and peer networks.
We teamed up with Intellecap, a catalytic ecosystem player in India, and organized the Co-design Sprint: Towards gender inclusive investment practices in October 2021. We invited six impact investors: Aavishkaar Capital, UC Impact, Acumen, Villgro, Omidyar India, and Accion Venture Lab, to join us. All six investors were in the process of exploring how to develop more inclusive gender investing practices, and we spotted an exciting opportunity to open up their process to participatory design frameworks and creative collaboration.
Accelerating GLI innovation and equity with co-design
Bringing co-design – the collaborative and creative process of convening a diverse set of actors to unpack complex challenges and ideate together – into the GLI space is quite new. Since GLI work at the fund level has multiple entry points, we focused on three themes: how to improve sourcing, due diligence, and gender data practices. Co-design offers a unique set of advantages for unpacking these challenges:
Inclusive: Co-design brings in diverse voices and perspectives fostering a deeper understanding of the barriers, richer ideation, and more suitable solutions.
Agile: Sprints hinge on a disciplined, facilitated, experiential process that is suited for breaking down complex problems into manageable and addressable challenges, encouraging quick experimentation and iteration to shorten the learning curve towards concrete outcomes.
Collaborative: In addition to solutions, co-design helps build relationships, incorporate different perspectives, and allows for cross-pollination of ideas – all with a focus on building understanding, fostering adoption, and community buy-in along the way.
The Co-design Sprint experience
Over the course of 5 sessions, our co-design summit welcomed 100+ participants – gender lens practitioners, entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders – from around the world to support our investors in the design and development of solutions. The workshop series validated that co-design delivers unique benefits to investors that are new to the GLI space:
Seeing the forest and the trees. Most of the challenges to GLI adoption stem from the difficulty of grappling with deeply rooted societal norms, unconscious biases, and long-established industry practices. Our co-design sessions focused on building mindsets for empathy, bias awareness, creativity, optimism, and openness as prerequisites to exploring challenging themes around power dynamics, privilege, and implicit biases. A participating investor noted “[because of] this workshop, I got a very different perspective on GLI and I realized how many conscious and unconscious biases are embedded in investing practices that I wasn’t aware of…” By inviting cross-pollination of different perspectives and a beginners’ mindset, co-design can offer a holistic yet disciplined approach to help fund managers detect and manage blind spots – both internal and external to the funds – in a progressive and systemic fashion.
Finding the needle in the haystack. It is not always easy to know where to start and where to focus reform efforts when you have never done such work before. The challenges and barriers that GLI advocates uncover are complex, interwoven, and systemic. This explains the analysis paralysis that many fund managers face in moving from intention to action. By emphasizing problem framing over solution ideation, co-design can help investors visualize what to prioritize first (among many possible points of entry) and discover different pathways for intervention. One investor noted: “When we started the whole exercise, the ideas were very jumbled; and now when I am seeing everything in a structured manner, it makes it easier to pick where to focus on first.”
It will take a village. After the co-design sprint, one investor noted: “My biggest takeaway is that there are many others in the ecosystem dealing with similar questions on gender and that we can get a lot more done from working with each other.” Whether it is by pooling gender performance data to build a stronger business case for GLI to LPs, co-developing industry standards for gendered due diligence processes, or collaborating on building pipelines of female-led and gender forward businesses, impact investors realized that they could reap additional benefits from taking a collaborative approach to GLI. By continuing to position forward-thinking fund managers within networks of like-minded peers and ecosystem actors, we can maximize the returns on their individual efforts and accelerate the pace of GLI adoption.
The way forward
Sometimes, co-design feels like a big upfront investment in terms of planning, coordination, and time commitment, but time and time again, we have seen that it pays unique dividends to those that engage in it. Co-design sprints may be less suitable for delivering ready-to-implement gender lens solutions, but they can serve as enriching and generative exercises that build a strong foundation for catalyzing change at both the fund and the ecosystem level.
To move the needle on GLI we should continue to leverage inclusive, disciplined co-design methods that bring industry champions together to build confidence, gain new insights, and build relationships for addressing some of the most complex challenges.