I recently met executives and members of the board at SEWA Bank in Ahmedabad, India — a bank founded in 1974 by women for poor, self-employed women. The leadership, operation heads and board members are women. Some of the bank’s board members include the same self-employed women who have become entrepreneurs with the help of the bank — women who wouldn’t have merited a relationship manager, much less been encouraged to join the board at other financial institutions.
These women entrepreneurs have construction, sewing and paper-picking businesses built with very small loans. Through these small lines of credit, these board members — and many other women in Gujarat, India — no longer rely on money lenders. They have employees. They — and the bank management team — are eager for digital technology to help women transform the bank and create new products and services that will continue to provide opportunities for women in the region to end their dependence on money lenders, increase their productivity, expand their businesses and educate their children. In other words, inclusion is how banking is done at SEWA.
There have already been many articles written — not to mention significant data presented — about how women on boards and in executive suites help corporations grow and prosper around the world, including here in the U.S. And it’s clear that women and others experience discrimination and harassment in the banking industry around the country. But instead of adding to this debate, I’m proposing we embrace a solution like SEWA Bank. To understand why, let’s understand another time when banks didn’t think consumers were ready for a change — the last years of the check-processing industry.
In the early 2000s, bankers and vendors that worked in check processing were confident that consumers would never give up checks. In fact, they were so focused on maintaining an old strategy based on billions of paper payments, banks missed the fact that consumer behavior was changing, albeit incrementally. Consumers increased their use of debit cards for payments and, on their own, abandoned checks. Blame the debit card or the rise of the mobile device, it doesn’t matter. Because banks were so focused on doing business the way it had always been done, they missed what was going on around them.
Now we’re experiencing a similar problem — only this time it’s a cultural resistance to female empowerment. Women are speaking up about long-standing harassment and discrimination in their lives. And they’re demanding a bigger seat at the table in business. If banks don’t take notice, and if they fail to take real steps to acknowledge and solve problems, perhaps it’s time for women to take matters into their own hands.
It’s time to stop shouting, complaining and explaining. Now is the time for women to build their own banks, to create the products and services that help us live our lives, grow our businesses and raise our children.
Admittedly, this is not a new idea. Women — and men — have been creating and running banks like SEWA for women for more than 40 years all around the world, including in the U.S. Yet now is the time for women to start thinking of new solutions to solve the problem of inclusion and diversity in financial services. Women want to work in banks where sexual harassment isn’t kept a secret or ignored. And they want banks where women’s voices are listened to — about IT strategies or innovation or wealth management services for elderly, widowed women. Women want to work in banks where women are promoted based on their skills, not on whether they ignore harassment.
It’s time to change the game. It’s time to build banks for and by women. SEWA is an example of a bank created by women and for women to address the needs that were beyond the scope of traditional male bankers. It’s time for women to change some rules, to harness their own visions for financial services in the U.S. and other developed markets and to create banks that meet their needs.
A bank created by and for women will create an atmosphere of innovation to create empathic products and services that address the needs of all women’s lives. Such a bank could focus innovation efforts on how financial services can help women manage a financial settlement after a divorce. It could also provide guidance on the financial implications of going from being a part-time worker to a breadwinner or create new ways to lend money to woman-owned small businesses in poor urban and rural areas.
These innovations will demonstrate that banks must go outside the usual ways of marketing, selling and servicing customers to create new sources of revenue. Banks like these will challenge less diverse banks to make the organizational and cultural changes necessary to adapt to a new era in financial services.