Charlotte Keenan on International Women’s Day: “Together, we really can move the needle”

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Charlotte Keenan is Managing Director at Goldman Sachs and leads their 10,000 Small Businesses programme in the UK and France, and their 10,000 Women programme globally. Charlotte is also the Chair of the government’s Expert Advisory Council for the Help to Grow: Management programme and a member of the Council for Investing in Female Entrepreneurs, we caught up with Charlotte ahead of International Women’s Day 2023.

Here, she discusses the challenges – and opportunities – for female business leaders. 

Q. Can you tell us about the history of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women?

We’re supporting women entrepreneurs around the world in over 150 countries. We started in 2008 with the premise that we know women entrepreneurs are severely disadvantaged, with barriers to access finance, education and skills in many of the countries in which we work. There are often societal and cultural norms, or even discriminatory legislation, which are acting as barriers to the success of women entrepreneurs: 104 economies still have legal barriers to women’s entrepreneurship, including laws forbidding women from signing contracts, registering their business, and opening bank accounts.*

We knew that by supporting women with education and skills we could supercharge their growth. This has had a phenomenal impact to-date. After listening to the early graduates from our 10,000 Women business education program, we realized that growth-oriented women entrepreneurs also needed greater access to external capital. This access to investment is the overriding theme for women entrepreneurs. To address this, we then set up a partnership with the International Finance Corporation and created the first-of-its-kind global finance facility dedicated to women-owned enterprises called the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility. This uses blended finance to get loans to female small businesses around the world. As well as aiming to increase and deepen financing available to women SMEs in emerging markets, the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility was designed to bring about a change in attitude and approach toward lending to women.

We want to mainstream lending to women-owned businesses – de-risking women as borrowers and dismissing stereotypes about what a business person looks like. In doing so, the hope is that we start to see changes in attitudes and laws in these countries. 

Q. Can you tell us more about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women in India initiative?

Since 2008, we have trained and empowered more than 2,800 women entrepreneurs from across India and continue to train 400 more every year. India is currently our biggest market for 10,000 Women and will continue to be a major focus for us – just last year, we launched our online 10,000 Women course in Hindi, to enable us to reach and support even more women entrepreneurs across the county. However, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Women desperately still need access to capital.

The pandemic set women back around the world, but particularly in major emerging economies. What we’re focused on now is ensuring the spotlight remains on supporting female entrepreneurs in India. The credit gap is significant in India and we know that it’s a priority of Prime Minister Modi and his administration.

Under 3% of medium sized businesses in India are female-led which is unbelievable. We’re focused on helping small businesses grow and ensuring banks are lending to women. There are cultural barriers and constraints, and so we’re working with finance providers to demonstrate the investment upside that women entrepreneurs represent. There are some incredibly sophisticated women-led businesses so we’re very excited about the potential there.

Q. What are the common issues you see for female entrepreneurs globally?

Access to finance is a global issue. We see it in the UK and the headline statistics from the latest Rose Report shows under 5% of VC funding is directed to female founders. And I continue to hear unbelievably challenging stories. One very successful Israeli female entrepreneur recently told me about her third funding round – she went to the meeting heavily pregnant and was essentially told at the end of it to come back when she’d had her baby and returned to work.

Q. What characteristics do you see in successful female entrepreneurs?

I see the same traits in women around the world. They are more risk averse, more cautious, they don't leap into things without understanding them fully. The positive side of all this is when they do start their business, they are often more successful and their businesses grow faster. Getting women to that point is completely cross cultural which is why the focus on education is fundamental in helping them to get there. I'm lucky that I've spent a lot of time with some amazing women. There are 3 characteristics they all have:

Grit - These women are tough, they work hard, they try hard, they persevere, they balance multiple things - the business, the family, the caregiving. They have that notion of just getting on and doing things smartly.

Effective communication - The female entrepreneurs that stand out head and shoulders above the rest have an amazing ability to articulate their business, their vision, their model and themselves. Communication is such a key quality.

Authenticity - The successful businesses are ones where we understand who the owner is and the value base of that individual.

Q. What's your advice to women setting up their own business?

Persevere, be nimble and be brave about understanding finances and seeking finance. That’s pretty fundamental - if you don't have a deep understanding of the finances of your own business, you’ll fail. The bottom line is, it's about the money.

Q. Goldman Sachs is a big supporter of The Gender Index. Can you tell us more about that?

I’m a data obsessive. It’s long frustrated me that there hasn’t been enough accurate, easily available data about businesses in the public domain. Without it we don’t know where to target interventions, we don’t know how to reach the women who will benefit the most and we don’t know what changes we are affecting and the success we are having. When we found out about The Gender Index and the role they’re playing in doing just that, it was music to our ears. Policy can’t evolve and smart interventions can’t be developed without data.

Q. How do you use The Gender Index?

We track and measure absolutely everything in our programmes. Anything that helps us with that is a win. We use The Gender Index to look at the broader UK landscape and broader peer groups. It’s very valuable to us.

Q. What's your message this International Women's Day?

It’s a moment to shine a spotlight on all the extraordinary work that is happening across the world. This year’s theme is “Embracing Equity” and embrace is a wonderful word in this context because together, we really can move the needle. But for me fundamentally, International Women’s Day isn’t about women. Men need to understand the potential of female entrepreneurs and female businesses. The entire ecosystem needs to support, invest and embrace.

*World Bank: Women, Business and the Law 2022

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