The hope of making it big in business attracts many entrepreneurs to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The area is known for “disrupting” business and creating new products and services that challenge traditional frameworks. However, in the sea of this “disruption” there are few that focus on the most marginalized populations in the world: girls. One incubator program is addressing a global problem through the start-ups focusing on girls first. The Girl Effect accelerator aims to tackle these problems not through nonprofit philanthropy or government aid, but through social impact businesses. The Girl Effect Accelerator Program is supporting its first round of businesses with a two-week workshop that took place in early November. These new businesses address the most pertinent challenges girls and women face, such as healthcare, education, personal finance and safety. The program chose ten companies that specific focus on girls in developing countries.
So, what is an accelerator program? An “accelerator” is a program where participants apply and those who are accepted are able to start or expand their businesses. Once they join a cohort they are able receive mentorship from leaders and build their skill sets. On the last day, they get to pitch their idea or show a demo to investors. These programs have become popular for entrepreneurs since other companies like Airbnb and Dropbox have been incubator graduates and have succeeded later on. Most accelerator programs only focus on building enterprise. The Girl Effect program is a first to use accelerators for different purposes. The Girl Effect is backed by the Nike Foundation and the Unreasonable Group. They are sponsoring this not just because fighting poverty is the right thing to do, they see it as a business opportunity. As research continues to show, educating, supporting and protecting girls in the developing world can be a catalyst for creating economic growth and opportunity within developing communities. Shaifali Puri, executive director of global innovation at the Nike Foundation, said at the opening remarks of the program, “these entrepreneurs have made the impossible merely difficult.”
One company in the Girl Effect program is specifically addressing education, is Bridges International. It is a for-profit school that costs students about $5 per month to attend. At first glance, their program is quite similar to what the Education for All Initiative (EFA), tries to achieve. EFA was first launched in 1990 by the World Bank. Upon inspection, it is hard to see how Bridges is addressing girls access to education. Furthermore, how is their model different from EFA and other initiatives that take a top-down approach to education? Hopefully, the Girl Effect program will help them fine tune their approach to create inclusive education programs for girls.
It is inspiring to see programs like the Girl Effect are trying to take an innovative approach when tackling complex issues like girls living in poverty. In the past, this has been traditionally addressed by Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and more recently Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). These approaches were developed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and their missions are to alleviate poverty through economic growth. These programs have been criticized in the past and might be able to reduce poverty for some, but they can also exacerbate inequalities for others. The Girls Effect shows promise to get things done faster, by working through the business lens, instead of aid organizations or local governments. However, there are several considerations that need to be addressed in order to distinguish these programs from the traditional approaches that have been previously implemented:
- Beneficiary voice needs to be incorporated to find sustainable solutions.
- Understanding and respecting cultural contexts should be taken into account.
- Business is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. There needs to be collaboration from different sectors.
- Development work already exists in many of the areas where these businesses are starting. Will these projects overlap with other initiatives in the area? Is there potential for partnership and will this be encouraged or as seen as competition?
These considerations are not easy to discuss, but as the Girl Effect scales, they will need to be addressed and incorporated into the program curriculum. Nevertheless, the Girl Effect is the first of it’s kind in the accelerator space to focus on girls in developing countries, so there is promise that other businesses might want to shift their focus on girls as well.
Entering this new space in social impact and business to address real-world problems with market solutions is a trend I like to see. Hopefully, with this new approach, these new businesses will better promote opportunities for girls within the communities they serve. The answer of “how” this will be done is not clear yet, but the Girl Effect is off to a good start. Nevertheless, I believe we as global citizens are only as strong as our weakest link, so I encourage many different stakeholders and sectors to come together to change the future for girls in developing countries.