Gender lens investing – A brief guide for innovators in South and Southeast Asia markets

Capital is an essential ingredient of every business. An enterprise needs cash to run its day-to-day operations and longer-term funding to support its expansion plans. Access to adequate capital – and, very importantly, the appropriate type of capital – is frequently a challenge for growth-stage companies and small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), especially in developing countries and underserved markets. For women entrepreneurs founding and running companies in these places, it’s even more complex. Women entrepreneurs face distinct challenges in accessing capital, limiting their ability to scale1. Common challenges include human and social capital limitations, meaning a lack of access to formal education, skills training, and commercial networks; social expectations (balancing dual responsibilities between work and home); and institutional barriers that further limit access to finance (for example, lack of legal ownership of assets that can be used as loan collateral).

Being intentionally focused on closing the gender gap through social impact- and returns-oriented private investment is the first step towards change and equality. This is the notion of gender lens investing (GLI).

What do entrepreneurs need to know about GLI?

Despite being defined broadly and having different applications across practitioners, GLI is essentially an investment approach that considers gender themes across the investment process, intending to better inform investment decisions and advance gender equity.2 

Gender-smart impact investors focus their investments on the following types of businesses3:  

  • Women-founded, -owned, and -led enterprises
  • Enterprises that promote workplace equity (such as a gender-balanced workforce, including senior management positions and board representation) or provide quality employment to women beyond compliance with labor laws (e.g., addressing gender-based harassment and violence, promoting women’s health, or having flexible leave policies and weekly work schedules where appropriate)4
  • Enterprises that offer products or services that specifically benefit women and girls or have business models that provide specific opportunities for women in a value chain 

It is important to note that GLI is not just about women. The role of male-led businesses in GLI should not be ignored, as men play a crucial role in the success of GLI in their roles as promoters of gender equity. Male founders can do this by understanding their unconscious biases, bringing about more gender-balanced management team compositions, and implementing more equitable workplace practices. 5 Importantly, these contributions should not just be seen as socially progressive: male-led businesses can reorient marketing, sales, and distribution practices to better include potential female customer segments – increasing their available customer base significantly and potentially growing sales in a meaningful way.  

Despite the increased attention being paid to GLI globally and across asset classes, efforts need to be more nuanced and multifaceted for a standard approach to be effective. Different geographies and value chains require different solutions, as with any market and sector. Fortunately, there is a growing body of best practices, resources and support that can assist stakeholders with their GLI journey. 

Aggregated financing platforms such as the 2X Challenge6offer an array of resources to entrepreneurs and investors new to the GLI concept. The 2X Challenge provides criteria for companies to quickly assess their current and future integration of gender-conscious practices and solutions, and thus their eligibility for 2X funding, through the 2X Assessment. Like-minded initiatives can leverage such tools. At the Water Energy for Food (WE4F) South and Southeast Asia (S/SEA) Hub, we work with innovative female founders and gender-focused businesses to prepare them for engagement with GLI investors, with the 2X Challenge platform serving as an example of an excellent starting point.

Gender lens ecosystem players in Asia – who are they?

In Southeast Asia, many impact investors do not explicitly adopt a gender lens mandate but may consider gender elements and impact in their investment process. Based on research by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), this is due to investors’ perception that following such a strategy explicitly could limit their ability to source deals or cause them to overlook other investable opportunities7.  

Suzanne Biegel, CEO of Catalyst at Large and co-founder of GenderSmart, has argued to the contrary: while it may be true that there is a lack of investable women-led businesses in certain regions, it is more crucial to redefine what makes a business investable and reconsider how capital is allocated. For example, is there a sufficient amount of the appropriate type of capital to address gender-conscious SMEs’ needs? We will consider this further below, but first, let’s glance at a (non-exhaustive) list of practicing GLI investors active in Asia8.

Investor Geographies of focus
Global investors with more than one regional focus:
CARE-SheTrades Impact Fund South and Southeast Asia (focused on Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, Bangladesh), and Africa
Root Capital Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America
Beyond Capital Ventures   India and East Africa
Women’s World Banking Capital Partners Fund II  Asia, Africa, and Latin America
Global investors with more than one country focus across Southeast Asia:
Capital 4 Development Partners (C4D Partners)  India and Indonesia
Impact Investment Exchange (IIX) Women’s Livelihood Bond (WLB) Asia and Africa
Beacon Fund (seeded by Patamar Capital and 2X-aligned)  Southeast Asia (particularly Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines)
SEAF: Women’s Opportunity Fund Southeast Asia
Sweef Capital Southeast Asia
Angels of Impact Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and USA

Note: For more details on relevant investors with a single-country GLI mandate, please contact the appropriate regional Brokering Unit.

An entrepreneur’s question – how can I benefit from being a gender-conscious enterprise?

Woman-founded, -owned, and -operated businesses are underrepresented when it comes to raising capital and achieving commercial scale. And while supporting such enterprises is a key goal of gender-lens investors, they do so not solely to achieve social impact metrics. The thesis underlying a decision to invest is rooted in sound management and a differentiated view of a market – enabled by the commercial wisdom and sensibilities that women leaders possess but which are all too often a blind spot for their male counterparts. Fortunately, businesses of all sizes, especially SMEs, do not have to be woman-owned or -led to employ such an approach. Let’s take a look at some strategies for SMEs of all types to be more gender-conscious and commercially successful:  

  • Hire more women in higher positions. Numerous authoritative studies9 have determined a strong positive correlation between diversity in leadership, especially gender diversity, and improved commercial performance. Why? Having more perspectives naturally prevents the blind spots and groupthink that allow bad business ideas to gain momentum. 
  • Connect with like-minded investors. A forward-thinking gender strategy tells investors you’re committed to equality and commercial success. This can be a significant differentiator when trying to raise capital, especially if SMEs keep track of quantifiable evidence of their gender-conscious evolution.  
  • Think outside the box. Whether women or men lead them, gender-conscious businesses can have an advantage in accessing increasingly innovative and creative financing tools that reward their approach to gender equality by recognizing that types of available capital must evolve. The WE4F S/SEA Hub team is excited about innovative funding solutions such as:
    • Evergreen funds
    • Collaborative angel funds
    • Blended capital
    • Outcome-based financing 

While some of this may seem puzzling or inaccessible initially, the WE4F S/SEA Hub teams are here to help you navigate your options, as is a growing number of partners committed to the commercial and social aspects of gender lens investing. The benefits that come with gender-focused investors through their expertise, mentorship, networks, and technical assistance can help you achieve the next phase of growth for your business.


  1. Value for Women | Gender Lens Investing in Southeast Asia: A Snapshot of Progress in Indonesia, the Philippines & Vietnam (March 2021).
  2. GIIN.
  3. Gender Lens Investing in Southeast Asia by Columbia University SIPA commission by Value for Women (May 2020).
  6. The 2X Challenge is an initiative launched at the G7 Summit in 2018 as part of the commitment from DFIs to mobilize US$15bn from 2021-2022 in private sector investments towards women’s development. More background information for the 2X initiative can be found here.
  7. See footnote 2 (page 21)
  9. Include amongst others: (1) International Finance Corporation (2019). Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital.(2) ILO (2019). Women in Business and Management: The Business Case for Change. (3) McKinsey (2020). Diversity wins How inclusion matters.