Member Spotlight: Sophie Romana
Sophie Romana, international consultant with Althaë Strategy, sat down with us to discuss the importance of building gender-inclusive workplaces, her recent work in gender-smart investing, equity for women entrepreneurs and more.
FinEquity: Tell us a little bit about yourself. A fun fact? Something that might surprise most people? Your superpower?
Sophie Romana: I have the privilege of living in Maine. Three times a week I start my day on an hour-long hike with my dog, Castine, who has also inspired me to start an organic dog biscuit business. In fact, she is the Chief Quality Control Officer. I am not sure I have any superpowers - I can think of a few I would love to have, like unlimited language skills – but I do like to ask “Why”? Why are the things the way they are, and how can I make them better? I love getting to the bottom of an issue.
I do like to ask “Why”? Why are the things the way they are, and how can I make them better? I love getting to the bottom of an issue.
FinEquity: How did you get involved in the women’s financial inclusion and economic empowerment space?
Sophie Romana: I worked with different NGOs, mostly on microfinance and savings groups. Along the way, I worked with global teams who kept creating new trainings for women so they would increase their skills, improve their livelihoods and be better equipped to advocate for themselves and their communities. It became clear that my focus was no longer just “microfinance”, but also women’s empowerment. I love working with women and designing together how to break the barriers holding them back. Whenever I have the chance of visiting a team or partner in a country where I work on a project, I always look for a chance to sit down and talk with women. I always learn something new - about their worries, their businesses, their ambitions and what they need to be successful. They give me so much energy.
I love working with women and designing together how to break the barriers holding them back.
FinEquity: You’ve worked across various aspects of the women’s financial inclusion world throughout your career – what are you working on recently that makes you excited?
Sophie Romana: It’s interesting to see gender-smart investing, gender bonds taking off with a lot of corporations and organizations looking for ways to become more gender-balanced. Now that we have made the business case for investing in women, there is a ton of data showing how much better companies are doing when they have more women in positions where they make decisions. What is surprising to me (a happy surprise, of course!) is to hear the moral imperative coming back into the discussion. My colleague Barbara Magnoni recently reminded me that “With so many of us working with public funds, we need to tackle gender equity to meet SDGs, not just because it makes economic sense.” The arc of justice is long and a bit twisty, but overall, it tends towards more rights, more progress. Financial inclusion and economic empowerment are stepping stones towards improving women’s rights and we should not be shy about saying that.
The arc of justice is long and a bit twisty, but overall, it tends towards more rights, more progress. Financial inclusion and economic empowerment are stepping stones towards improving women’s rights and we should not be shy about saying that.
FinEquity: You recently contributed to a FinEquity blog on strategies for organizations to build gender-inclusive workplaces – what is the importance of this for the broader women’s financial inclusion community?
Sophie Romana: Financial institutions who serve women are increasingly aware that they will be able to better serve that market with a better representation of women internally: in executive teams and boards, and, as Ruth Baider Ginsberg used to say - “Everywhere decisions are made.” There is an increasing body of work and data that show the multiple benefits from having diverse teams, from improved operational efficiency to lowered bankruptcy risk and better talent. What is also striking when organizations become more gender inclusive is that the policies and actions they put in place create better work environments and organizational culture for everyone, not just women. To me that is a very powerful argument - when we design for women, everyone benefits.
FinEquity: On a related note, what do you see as top priorities for gender work in 2022?
Sophie Romana: On the financial side, I think it’s time we seriously look at equity for women entrepreneurs – to stop piling debt on young, promising businesses. But we also need to do something on the debt side of the capital structure – so many women entrepreneurs have multiple loans from different institutions that they waste so much productive time reimbursing, whereas loan syndication could be a boost for them. One thing struck me during the pandemic: microfinance institutions did not restructure women’s loans as often as men’s because they did not pause a risk to the portfolio. If in times of crisis women’s loans are less risky, then why would they become riskier in regular times? We really need to tackle issues of collateral and guarantees and make it easier for women to borrow.
If in times of crisis women’s loans are less risky, then why would they become riskier in regular times? We really need to tackle issues of collateral and guarantees and make it easier for women to borrow.
The second issue I am concerned with is the rapid digital transformation happening worldwide. In emerging economies and fragile contexts, women are often less literate than men and less likely than men to own a cell phone. But when they do own one, we also know that they don’t necessarily have the skills that allow them to safely transact online and take advantage of the massive opportunities offered by technology. It goes beyond financial transactions as well - it's about online safety, identity and asset protection, protection from online sexual harassment and from human trafficking. It is about designing algorithms that are not biased against women. There is still time to create a safe mobile internet, with much more cooperation.
FinEquity: What can our members connect with you about/what can they ask you about?
Sophie Romana: They can ask me about Gender Lens Investing, digital financial education, and about equity to help women entrepreneurs access different forms of capital, beyond debt.
FinEquity: What role does FinEquity play in your work? Where do you see value in this community? How has being a member shaped your work?
Sophie Romana: FinEquity is a great community with passionate members who are always willing to share what they know and question the status quo. I have met a lot of colleagues in this network and learned a lot about social norms and how to tackle them, about customer centric design and about gender inclusion work.