When Mary Ellen Iskenderian told her boss at Lehman Brothers that she was leaving to join the World Bank’s young professionals programme, he looked at her and said: “Well, that’s surprising. You’re not particularly young, nor are you that professional.”
Me: “Was he joking?”
Iskenderian: “I don’t think so.”
Recently, in a top-floor meeting room at the London headquarters of Goldman Sachs, Iskenderian and I met to discuss a very un-Goldman-esque topic: a nonprofit. Since that charming farewell from Lehman, Iskenderian has turned from working for the banks to trying to make the banks work for others.
“In the early 1990s, I realised that my work and values were getting farther apart,” she recalled. “I had studied development economics at college but ended up working in an investment bank. I wanted to do something more.”
So despite—or probably because of—her boss’s comments, she quit Wall Street and headed to the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank.
“I arrived in Delhi on September 4, 2001. Then the whole world changed, so I spent most of the next two years in Pakistan as South Asia regional director. It was there that we partnered with the Aga Khan Foundation to create First MicroFinance Bank. I then realised that the ‘services’ part of ‘financial services’ could actually be just that: a service to the people it was created for.”
We were acutely aware that we were gazing across the London skyline from one of the world’s most powerful financial powerhouses, one that—along with its peers—has been accused of being so far out of touch with its clients as to work against them. But let’s let bygones be bygones.
“Women save more regularly than men, don’t make as many or as large withdrawals, and they are more likely to buy multiple financial products.”
Iskenderian was in London to sit on a panel about Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women programme. The initiative, started in 2008, has allowed women in 43 developing countries to access capital to grow their businesses—and has offered them the technical advice to help them do it properly. So if you’re approached by a woman in India or Liberia offering to sell you subprime mortgage-backed securities, consider yourself warned.
Since 2006, Iskenderian has served as president and CEO of Women’s World Banking, which aims to improve access to the most basic financial services. “Having a bank account is an achievement; for many people it is an aspiration,” she said. “But many women think—and have been told—that it’s not ‘for them’.”
Depending on where you are in the world, women can be up to five times more likely to be turned down for a bank account, despite having identical credentials as men. As customers, they ought to be the more appealing gender. “Women save more regularly than men, don’t make as many or as large withdrawals, and they are more likely to buy multiple financial products,” Iskenderian said. “In fact, we took data from 200 microfinance and banking institutions and those with 60% or more of female clientele outperformed on all growth measures.”
“Sounds like a great investment,” I responded, baiting my own hook.
“It is… in fact, we have created an asset management company with around $50 million currently under management,” she said. “We are targeting returns in line with commercial private equity because we want to demonstrate that focusing on women is a good business strategy for banks. In total, there are 2.5 billion people who don’t have access to banking services but want to save for their and their families’ futures—it’s a huge untapped market.”
I can’t help but think many men would have pitched the fund at the top of the interview and missed out the fundamentally interesting backstory. If they had, this article would never have been written.