Breaking Barriers: Women Changemakers in Financial Inclusion, Ep. 1 Featuring Samit Ghosh

September 11, 2019

Intro clip (Samit Ghosh):

In Bengali there is a song, which is a very famous song, which is “Ekla Chalo Re.” Which means be ready to walk alone, even if no one hears your song. Just walk alone and go achieve your purpose.



Karen Miller, Host: Women’s World Banking is bringing you a series of podcasts about trailblazing women leaders who are driving change to ensure that women worldwide have access to and usage of the financial products and services they need to build a better life for themselves and their families. I am your host Karen Miller, Vice President of Knowledge and Communications for Women’s World Banking.

Four years ago Samit Ghosh, founder and CEO of Ujjivan Financial Services in India and Women’s World Banking board member, came to us at Women’s World Banking and said we should be doing more to highlight women leaders from around the globe who have been at the forefront of financial inclusion. That sparked the idea to produce a digital anthology of these pioneers, sharing stories of women such as Ela Bhatt founder of SEWA and Michaela Walsh founder of Women’s World Banking. Fast forward to 2019 with Women’s World Banking celebrating our fortieth anniversary, and Samit, you came to us again and asked what more we can do to promote women leaders. And thus this podcast series was born. And I couldn’t be more pleased and honored to start this series by talking with the architect of this idea, Samit Ghosh today. Samit, thank you for joining us late in your evening from India.

Samit Ghosh, Guest: Thank you, Karen.

Miller: Samit, why even do this series focused on women pioneers of financial inclusion? Why is it such a priority for you?

Ghosh: Well Karen, I’ve been involved in this financial inclusion space since 2005. And especially after I’ve been involved with Women’s World Banking, I had the opportunity to meet outstanding women leaders from across the world. But somehow I found that they got eclipsed by the men and the rock stars of financial inclusion usually turned out to be men, and women tend to be self-effacing. And I felt it is necessary that we highlight these amazing women through a series of podcasts so that everyone gets to know what these outstanding women have done.

Miller: Are there particular stories of women leaders that stand out for you and that have really just been a highlight of your work in financial inclusion?

Ghosh: I mean there’s two sets of women who really impressed me tremendously. First, obviously are the pioneers of financial inclusion space which includes Ela Bhatt, Michaela Walsh, Marguerite Robinson, Beth Rhyne. This whole set of women who started from the 60s, working towards financial inclusion across the world including Jennifer Riria from Kenya and the three women in the Philippines who started the NWTF program. They are one set of women who really impressed me. The others who impressed me were those who worked on financial inclusion in very challenging areas, especially in the Middle East, Essma Ben Hamida in Tunisia, Muna Sukhtian in Jordan. And also in places where there was war, civil war like in Bosnia where Nejira Nalic set up MI-BOSPO. So these women really impressed me and they have done outstanding work.

Miller: What about them in particular has impressed you so much? Because you mentioned earlier that the men seem to eclipse the women in this area. What have they been doing that now has been that spark?

Ghosh: That they’re able to go on their journey virtually on their own without any help. And they’ve been at it, their persistence in achieving their goals. Those are the things which impressed me, also. As I said, in very difficult environments like where there is civil war or where there are countries where male domination is very high in the societies, for the women to stand up and start a program like this is really outstanding.

Miller: Samit, in thinking about these leaders that you’ve encountered throughout your career, how do you think the challenges women leaders face today and financial inclusion differ from 10, 20, 30 plus years ago? Things that Ela Bhatt encountered back in the 60s with leaders that are creating new institutions now, are these challenges easier, or harder, or are they just different?

Ghosh: Today it’s much easier because the pioneers have paved the way. Today also people can build careers around this in which earlier times it was not possible. Obviously challenges are different today from those days because technology especially has been changing so dramatically. And technology had such an impact on financial inclusion. So there are different kind of challenges. But overall I think it’s easier.

Miller:  We’ve all seen so much data about the business case for gender diversity in financial services. The IMF has done some fascinating research about women in finance and closing the gender gap. And that report specifically found that women accounted for less than 2% of financial institution CEOs and less than 20% of executive board members. Why aren’t we seeing more women at senior levels in financial services and more specifically within our industry of financial inclusion?

Ghosh: Karen, in India we’ve had a lot of women who’ve been CEOs of banks and financial institutions of late. I would say in the last 5,10 years. When I went to find out how did they come up and what facilitated that, I found that the organizations they worked with had outstanding leaders who gave them the flexibility of working within that organization. Given the fact that women have to take some time off for childbirth, or the early years of the children, etc. I think of organizations which were flexible enough to allow that to happen and not impact their careers were very successful in having women who came up to the leadership positions in various banks. Unfortunately, that is sort of rare. Often what happens, I’ve seen here in India, because women have the responsibility of childbirth and children, they lose out in that ability to get ahead in their career. Very few institutions actually give this kind of flexibility. And those who have, we have seen their outstanding women leaders in that. And we’ve seen a number of them in India recently.

Miller: And so how do we get more institutions then to adopt that model? And if we’re seeing success in India how do we expand that to other markets?

Ghosh: So, I think that is something we have to build into human resource policies of the various organizations. Understanding that you know women have other responsibilities to the family, etc. And the organization needs to be flexible enough to give them time off if necessary, or let them work from home, or work part time during these periods, and then come back to work on a full-time basis. That I found was a critical element which would facilitate women to come up to the top.

Miller: And so for you as leading Ujjivan, and Ujjivan for the last 15 years has been a leader in financial inclusion efforts in India and the vast majority of your clients are women, so how do you approach gender diversity within your institution? Particularly as it’s evolved over the years and into your small finance bank now?

Ghosh: Karen, unfortunately we are not very proud of what we have achieved in terms of gender diversity in Ujjivan, despite the fact that 99% of our customers are women. In our leadership position probably today only 30% are women. This is something we’ve been trying to work on for a very, very long time. We have to keep reemphasizing that you have to ensure that there is gender balance. Somehow the balance, if you’re not looking and you’re not conscious of what’s happening, shifts towards men. And often you hear complaints saying that all women find it difficult to be field workers, etc. Yet, when we have the award ceremonies annually we find that the women field workers win all the awards. Somehow, if you’re not completely focused on it, in the recruitment and all that veers towards men. But you have to be very conscious.

The other thing which we are working on now is gender diversity. Not only gender diversity, but total diversity inclusion that would try to include employees from the LGBT community, and also differently-abled employees. So we are now trying to be a much more diverse organization. But that is a conscious effort and you have to put it really on the key areas or goals of every manager in the organization. And that’s the only way to achieve it.

Karen:  And I think we’ve certainly seen that from the Women’s World Banking Capital Partners Fund is that once we start mandating that data of our investees to see what percentage of women employees you have at all levels, what’s the gender pay gap, what’s the percentage of promotions men versus women. Once an institution has that clear picture it is much easier to take the necessary steps to try and address that and it doesn’t happen overnight. But if there is a deliberate acknowledgement of the challenges the institution faces there, certainly that is the first step.

Ghosh: So, Karen we’ve always been one of the greatest places to work in India. We are very proud of that. Today what we are trying to achieve, gender diversity of course is the minimum, but also diversity in terms of recruiting our staff from these LGBT community and also differently-abled community. We’ve been working with the differently-abled community in the past and we find their productivity levels and their focus on work, it’s far superior. And their productivity actually raises the productivity of the rest of the organization. Gender is minimum. You have to be a totally inclusive organization where you include everyone from the society.

Miller: And if there was one recommendation you could give to other leaders, what would that be, to build that inclusive work environment?

Ghosh: Despite the fact people think women are going to find it very difficult to be field workers in microfinance etc., they turn out to be the best performers. And with differently-abled people, their productivity levels are so high that they build up the productivity of the rest of the organization. Staff from the LGBT community actually brings in such diversity within the organization. It enriches the organization.

Miller: And so what do you think today’s financial inclusion leaders, whether they’re male or female, can learn from the efforts of some of these early leaders of financial inclusion?

Ghosh: So I think, as I mentioned earlier, they were the pioneers. And they were focused on something, the objective at that time and they did not deviate. They were persistent. In Bengali, there is a song, which is a very famous song which is “Ekla Chalo Re.” Which means be ready to walk alone, even if no one hears your song. Just walk alone and go achieve your purpose.

Miller: That’s an amazing line, so thank you for sharing that. Thinking about all of your staff, both men and women and particularly the younger staff that have come on board, if there was one woman leader that you would say this is the type of person you should emulate and understand her career, who would that be?

Ghosh: The first name which comes to our mind is Elaben Ela Bhatt. She spent her entire life on this course. And today her approach is not only from the financial side, but she has a very holistic approach to development which includes all the aspects, including the whole aspect of saving the world. We are out today, the way we are moving, we are destroying our world. So, today her model encompasses all these different aspects, not just one aspect. So, she is for us the one leader who is very inspiring.

Miller: And how do we build up that next generation of inspiring leaders? How do you become for those young women out there you know the next Elaben?

Ghosh: Well you know one way to do this, to make them be aware of women like Elaben. And what we do in Ujjivan is to whenever we can we get them to come and interact with leaders like Elaben in the organization. We invite them to give us a talk. Tell us about what they’ve done. And that’s I think a great way to inspire the young generation.

Miller: And I think finding that purpose is so important. Samit, thank you so much for joining today and for really pushing us at Women’s World Banking to make sure that these stories are told.

Ghosh: Thanks Karen, I think you’ll have a great time interviewing all these great leaders. And I am looking forward to hearing them on the podcast.

Miller: This episode was produced by Jessica Bodiford. Thank you again Samit Ghosh for sharing your wisdom with us. For more podcast episodes and to learn more about Women’s World Banking, visit