Ceniarth’s Diane Isenberg: ‘I am a gender-lens investor’



ImpactAlpha, February 4 – Truth be told, these statements of affiliation do not come naturally to me.

I have never been a big fan of joining clubs and recoil at the over-simplification often inherent in these types of identifiers.

That said, I have found myself, circuitously, embracing this new badge.

When I first casually glanced at promotional materials for last November’s Gender Smart Investing Summit, organized by Suzanne Biegel, I was not sure that it was a forum that would be relevant to me or my team at Ceniarth.

Yes, we deployed over $40 million last year in a range of global funds and enterprises, almost all of which, given their rural focus, must be attentive to gender and power dynamics in underserved communities. Yet, I still did not consider myself a gender-lens investor.

How Ceniarth is seeking higher impact on rural livelihoods – while preserving its own capital

At the time, my perception of the gender-lens dialogue was a relatively narrow one. Most of the discussion and strategies that seemed to be getting air revolved around relatively blunt and superficial gender-based assessments – public equity funds that screened for a specific number of women board members, venture funds investing solely in women founders. Given that, for purposes of our mission alignment, we are actively divesting from our public equity portfolio and generally steer away from venture capital, I had assumed this gender lens conversation was not particularly germane to my work.

That is until more emails started turning up in my inbox. Emails from funds in our portfolio inquiring if I would be there. Emails from prospective investees requesting time for pitch meetings during the event. Industry coverage of the impending Summit was filled with references to relevant themes. Perhaps, I had been missing something and should attend.

The catch: I did not have an invitation to this invite-only gathering. Just as I did not see myself as a gender lens investor, clearly neither did the conference organizers. I dutifully filled out the conference web form, waited, politely nagged, and was finally able to secure a last-minute seat to the Summit.

Fighting poverty and remaining rich: Ceniarth shifts portfolio to impact-first capital preservation

I am very glad that I did. I emerged with a much fuller picture of the gender-lens dialogue and a conviction that not only is it relevant, but, given our work at Ceniarth, we have a leadership role to play in the field.

If I now see a richer, wider spectrum to the gender-lens conversation, where do we fit in? Upon reflection, our gender-lens strategy at Ceniarth has three clear components:

1. We invest in funds and enterprises that serve women as primary customers and assess their effectiveness in doing so

Our mission at Ceniarth is to invest to improve rural livelihoods. Given the population and gender dynamics in many of the regions that we invest, our mission is synonymous with investing in women. Women as customers, entrepreneurs, service-providers, advocates, and decision-makers. Many of the organizations participating in the Gender Smart Investing Summit were investees in our Ceniarth portfolio. For example, we have over $10 million ($7.5 million committed, $3 million pending) invested with Global Partnerships in large part because of their women-centered investment initiatives and their thoughtful impact assessment.

Our investments in Pro Mujer ($2 million of revolving credit), WaterEquity ($3 million invested in their newest fund), and Women’s World Banking Capital Partners ($1 million invested in their first private equity fund) were predicated on their explicit focus on women as customers for financial services. Similarly, our investments with Root Capital ($3 million of revolving credit) and Frontier Markets ($500,000 grant) are based on their emphasis on serving women in rural communities. Women are at the heart of these places and any funder hoping to make a lasting difference must have a gender-lens to their work.

2. We aim to, pragmatically, invest in diverse management teams, including women-led funds and enterprises

If a fund or an organization is demonstrating real success in addressing issues core to our mission, and if they are doing so with thoughtfulness and integrity, we tend to reject dogmatic approaches to filtering them. We understand that in some parts of the world, it is incredibly challenging to build diverse, talented teams. The work of supporting rural communities should not go unfunded because an enterprise is having a difficult time finding qualified women managers.

That said, when our investees do not have a woman on the management team, they better have a damn good reason why they do not. There are numerous women-led funds and enterprises in our portfolio. We were an early, catalytic investor with Advanced Global Capital (more than $5 million invested), founded by Janet McKinley, have deployed capital (more than $6 million) in multiple Bridges Fund Management vehicles, co-founded by Michele Giddens, and recently made a program-related investment commitment ($1 million) to the Community Outcomes Fund, founded by Andrea Phillips. In scanning our prospective pipeline of enterprise lending and fund investments, I am heartened by the number of talented women at the helm of many of these organizations.

I was further moved, at the Gender Smart Investing Summit, that the ranks of female leaders in the field is multi-generational. While millennial women are in fashion and garner the majority of press platitudes, it should not be forgotten these women stand on the shoulders of previous generations. I was proud to see a broad representation of women leaders, some of whom started work as finance professionals at a time when the only other women in the office would have been secretaries and assistants. I recognize the complexity of the dialogue around women’s issues has changed over the decades and that differing generational attitudes exist. That said, what unites us should be bigger than what divides us and I am hopeful we can continue to listen and learn from each other.

3. I am committed to building a team at Ceniarth that is made up, predominantly, of women

As the leader of my own family office, I have complete autonomy to shape our team. The investment field is ripe with sexism and gender-based discrimination and impact investing is no exception. I know this because I have suffered through it over the past five years even as a woman responsible for a vast sum of capital. If I am regularly condescended to, I can only assume what it is like for rank-and-file women working their way up the ladder.

I own my own destiny, so I feel responsible for hiring a team that lifts up women in the field. That does not mean that we do not have men at Ceniarth. We do, and, from time to time, they are allowed to have an opinion (just a joke!). Ceniarth’s first employee, my co-cirector Greg Neichin is a good man and from day one has been focused on empowering me to achieve my vision. And while I appreciate Greg, and the other men on my team, I have been very active in recruiting women to Ceniarth. Our women, including me, now outnumber our men (7-4).

We still receive vastly more submissions from men for any open position, but the caliber of the women that we see in our hiring process is humbling. I know that our ability to attract incredibly talented women to our team is not only a product of our growing brand in the impact investment field, but is also a product of having an office led and founded by a woman, and an office with a majority of female employees. In addition, we have a variety of flexible work policies that are appreciated by women and men alike. In the pursuit of building diverse teams, success leads to more success.

Beyond the office walls at Ceniarth, I am similarly committed to supporting women in the broader world of business. It is equally, if not far more important, that women make strides not only in elite niches such as impact investing, but that they populate the management ranks of mainstream finance, accounting, and consulting firms. The Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts bears my family’s name. It is a public institution that gave my father, the son of immigrants to Massachusetts, a chance at the education that would fuel his success. I am incredibly proud that it has grown into one of the finest public, undergraduate business programs in the country educating a student body that is 42% female. Not yet full equality, but impressively close.

Later this month I will be venturing to the school where I have the distinct privilege of delivering the opening keynote to this year’s Women of Isenberg Conference. I will return to campus with a message that tries to inspire and empower this next generation of women leaders and also includes a proud proclamation that I am a gender-lens investor.


Diane Isenberg is the founder and co-director of $400 million family office Ceniarth.

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