scorecardOPINION: Women-led businesses—an untapped opportunity in sustainable investing
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OPINION: Women-led businesses—an untapped opportunity in sustainable investing

OPINION: Women-led businesses—an untapped opportunity in sustainable investing
SustainabilitySustainability4 min read
Women are leading the world in so many ways. It’s time we really invest in them.
This includes women from emerging markets like India, whose purpose-driven businesses are generating tremendous value for underserved consumers and communities around the world. These companies outperform their peers, create better workplaces for their employees, and drive real social impact alongside financial profit.
Take Ajaita Shah, the founder and CEO of Frontier Markets. Founded in 2011, Frontier Markets today employs 12,000 women across India. It boasts a customer base of 3.5 million, reaching rural communities with essential and affordable products and services, including clean energy and digital financial solutions, agricultural tools, and home appliances. The company earns commission from each sale, plus marketing fees from suppliers; it shares 70% of revenue with its saleswomen, with the remaining 30% used to scale into new locations.
Frontier Markets has overcome many challenges that have prevented other companies from achieving meaningful market penetration in critical sectors among key consumer segments, including women in remote rural communities in areas such as off-grid energy solutions and affordable healthcare. Traditional companies typically lack the insights, connections, and data on consumer demand in these areas and end up paying high supply chain costs since they do not have the networks and resources best positioned to reach these customers.
Frontier markets is one of many examples of profitable, high-impact women-led businesses around the world that reach underserved communities and consumers with innovative business solutions. This is particularly true in developing and emerging markets, where 85% of the world population lives (and 90% of people under the age of 30) and where women-owned enterprises account for approximately 30-37% (8–10 million) of all Small to Medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
Unfortunately, we rarely hear these stories or invest in these women!
SMEs are increasingly important in developing economies, as they contribute to nearly half of the labour force. Yet, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates that as many as 70% of women-owned SMEs in the formal sector in developing countries are unserved or under-served by financial institutions. This amounts to an approximately $260 – $320 billion financing gap per year. A McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. According to another MGI report, the Indian economy alone could grow by an additional 60% by 2025, adding $2.9 trillion, if women were represented in the formal economy at the same rate as men.
Investing in women’s entrepreneurship is not just essential for economic growth - it’s also plain good for business. While marketing firms come up with cute spins for women leaders – branding them as “Girl Bosses” or “Mompreneurs” - the truth is that women-led companies outperform their peers and are smart financial investments for both commercial and retail investors.
For example, data collected by First Round Capital found that, among companies it had funded, the female-led ones performed 63% better than the all-male founding teams. This was supported by research by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which found that women-led teams generate a 35% higher return on investment than all-male teams. On top of that, numerous studies have shown that women-led companies have happier employees due to more purpose-driven work, generous benefits, better leave policies, and compassionate leadership, among other factors.
So yes, women represent a significant business opportunity. And with this sea of data, you would think investors would be lining up to get their slice of the pie. Yet, there is a $300 billion gap in financing for women-owned small businesses, according to the International Finance Corporation. And data compiled from Crunchbase found that global venture funding to women-founded companies fell considerably in 2020 to a low of just 2.3%. Alongside systemic gender inequities, including education, the pay gap, and domestic responsibilities, it’s this pervasive financial inequality that profoundly limits women’s potential as business leaders.
This is especially true in many developing and emerging markets, where the odds are even more stacked against women due to cultural and socioeconomic barriers - in addition to the legal, regulatory, and technical ones.
But when women are set up to succeed, they are an economic force to be reckoned with. I witnessed this first-hand in my journey as an entrepreneur, meeting with women and girls across Kenya, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Haiti. With access to funding and non-financial support, women across emerging markets are starting businesses and creating transformational change.
Take Praava Health as another example. Founded in 2016 by Sylvana Q. Sinha, Praava brings high-quality and affordable healthcare to families and communities across Bangladesh, where barriers to access healthcare are high, and up to 20% of market pharmaceutical drugs are counterfeit. To date, when the world has navigated the greatest pandemic of our time, the company has served more than 3,50,000 patients through doctors practising protocolised medicine, spending real time with each patient, and documenting proper diagnoses.
Praava is tripling growth each year with a tech-forward model designed to be efficient, accessible, and scalable across emerging markets. Today, it has become Bangladesh’s fastest-growing consumer healthcare brand! It was designated a 2021 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer and 2020 Fast Company World Changing Idea and Developing World Technology. Equity investments of $11.1 million made this all possible.
Investing in companies like the Frontier Markets and the Praavas demonstrate what we have been saying all along, which is stated best by Indra Nooyi: “No economy can succeed without tapping the incredible potential of women.”
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Alix Lebec is the founder and CEO of Lebec Consulting. She spent two decades leading successful entrepreneurial efforts at the intersection of impact investing, philanthropy, and ESG—including global efforts on behalf of the World Bank,, WaterEquity, and Giving Pledge member.
Jessica Gisondo is Director of Communications & Partnerships at Lebec Consulting. She has worked at the intersection of philanthropy and social change for over a decade—including at Bloomberg Philanthropies, Open Society Foundations, and the United Nations.
Hannah Kovich is Director of Programs & Research at Lebec Consulting, with 11+ years of extensive experience in non-profit fundraising, grants strategy and management, donor stewardship, investor relations, and in-depth research.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the author/interviewee do not necessarily reflect the views of Business Insider India. The article has been partly edited for length and clarity.