In 2014, Daniel Epstein, founder and CEO of the Unreasonable Group, sent me a message on Facebook to inform me that Zoona had been selected for the inaugural Girl Effect Accelerator. I was not familiar with the work of Unreasonable and had never heard of the Girl Effect. Zoona is a money transfer and payments startup in Zambia, so naturally the question in my mind was: What did we have to do with girls?
As it turns out, a lot. I knew nearly 50 percent of our agents are young women under the age of 25, but after doing some digging, I discovered so were more than 70 percent of the tellers working for our agents. I then zoomed in on an agent named Misozi Mkandiwire, who operates in Lusaka, and found out that despite being just 23 years old, she had grown her Zoona agent business to employ 15 young girls and turn over nearly one million dollars per month within a four-year period. I was flabbergasted. I promptly responded to Daniel’s message and set up a phone call.
One billion women around the world are excluded from the formal financial system.
A few months later, my colleague Lelemba Phiri and I went to California for a three-week accelerator program with nine other phenomenal entrepreneurial teams. We learned all about the Girl Effect and worked with mentors — some of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest — to grow our business and increase our impact on girls.
Zoona has a unique ability to empower girls and young women like Misozi and her team of tellers by helping them increase their earnings to invest in their future. Also, as a payments company, we are focused on helping close the gender gap in financial access, which today excludes one billion women in the world from the formal financial system. At the end of the Girl Effect accelerator program, I had a brand new mission for Zoona: We would dedicate our business to helping communities thrive.
We’re doing this through focusing our support to help young emerging entrepreneurs like Misozi build profitable enterprises that create jobs for other young women. And, we found out, one of the best ways to reach women with new earning opportunities and financial services is through other women.
As the recent “A Buck Short” report shows, women tend to have more horizontal social networks compared to men, who often prefer to build vertical relationships with those of higher social standing who can offer them opportunities and new job connections. Women tend to build broad social networks with their peers, which can be extremely helpful in recruiting new agents and tellers.
What have we done since the Girl Effect Accelerator?
First, we set out to build an ecosystem of products and services that improved the financial health and wellbeing of women. We created the Z-Labs innovation team, which was tasked with understanding the real needs of financially excluded women to help us create and actively experiment with new financial products that better serve them.
Next, we changed our agent selection and training processes to focus on recruiting women. This was particularly useful when we expanded into Malawi and set up a network of 400 agents — of which 60 percent are women.
We started running a Girl Effect project in Zambia, where we deliberately started recruiting high potential young women from underprivileged communities between the ages of 18 and 22 to become part of our teller pipeline. Most of them had never used a computer before, but through the project, they were provided with basic computer literacy, specific training on how to transact using the Zoona platform, and other skills needed to become a successful teller. We then match them with agents who need tellers. The idea is for Zoona agents to employ these recruits as tellers and mentor them in the business until they are ready to become entrepreneurs themselves.
We also launched the social media campaign “Helping Communities Thrive,” which asked people from communities we operate in to nominate young women under the age of 35 who were benefiting their communities and to vote for their favorites. The campaign reached 500,000 people and more than 10,000 people engaged with it. It received massive media coverage in Zambia, and we awarded cash prizes to three young women, which could be used toward growing their community-building initiatives.
At the Zoona offices, we doubled down on being a purpose-driven entrepreneurial business that walks the walk when it comes to providing growth opportunities for women. We have changed our recruiting processes, establishing a policy that 50 percent of our team needs to be female, a goal that has been already reached across most of the business. At the executive and board level, we have cultivated a good pipeline of talented women who want to join us and are working to get to the 50–50 ratio soon.
It is still early in our journey. Our ambition is to improve the financial health and well-being of one billion people and to unleash emerging entrepreneurs to create one million jobs by 2025. We have no doubt that women play a key role in achieving these goals and fulfilling our mission of helping communities thrive.
This article was originally published on Omidyar Network’s Medium.