The COVID-19 economy will belong to the creative, the resourceful, and the collaborative

Suzanne Biegel believes that the businesses that are going to survive the pandemic are the ones that are focused on solving real problems. The ones that believe their responsibility is not just to shareholders, but to their customers, employees, supply chains, and the good of the whole planet.

In the face of a global crisis the magnitude of COVID-19, each of us have different ways of coping.

For me, I cope by focusing my attention on the places I have influence and make an impact. Like so many others, I have been hit in the last couple of weeks with stories of friends and colleagues around the world getting sick. But I find hope in difficult times by turning my attention to the people who are working to transform our planet and financial systems, and then doing everything in my power to support and elevate their work.

Every day I am having conversations with extraordinary gender-smart fund managers, entrepreneurs, funders, investors, and intermediaries who are directing their resources and brain power to where it is needed most: around issues such as health care, food security, mental health, health care, and digital and financial inclusion. 

They are being creative, resourceful, collaborative, and community-minded. And the optimist in me believes the post-COVID-19 economy will be theirs.

I think of Lisa Calhoun, the founder of Valor Ventures, whose investments include Physician360, a female-led company that provides on-demand video consults with rapid tests for common health problems including Strep, Flu, UTI, and Anemia and makes them readily available to consumers through a network of independent pharmacies. They’re working right now on providing rapid tests for COVID-19 and need to scale up massively.

I think of companies like Unilever, which on March 24th announced they were donating €100 million worth of their products - including soaps, sanitisers, bleach, and food - to support efforts to fight COVID-19 around the world. They further committed to support their small and medium sized suppliers with €500 million in cash flow relief, and to protect their own workforce from sudden drops in pay. Unilever also happen to be one of the most gender-equal corporations on the planet.

I think of Vicki Saunders of SheEO, who responded to the COVID-19 crisis by immediately bringing together the Ventures SheEO has funded to talk about their needs and concerns, and taking their asks to SheEO’s global community of Activators. During the first call, one entrepreneur loaned another the money she needed to make her March payroll. 

I think of all the businesses that are pivoting their focus right now to meet the needs of this moment. The beer companies that are making hand sanitizer. The fashion designers sewing face masks.

It should go without saying that it’s both women and men who are being creative, resourceful, and collaborative right now. But at a moment when we need every smart leader we can get, I’m hopeful that this crisis can be the turning point where more investors and institutions start choosing to invest their capital in the talent and ideas that will get us to the “new normal” — and that means a lot more women, and women of colour, in the picture. 

For too long, the investment world has overlooked and undervalued talent when the people at the helm don’t fit their preconceptions of what a successful founder looks like, be it due to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or where they went to school. Now is the time to throw those preconceptions out the window and shift our investment capital to the people and companies with the best solutions. 

There are other reasons smart businesses and investors should be paying attention to gender in this moment, too. Although early numbers suggest that women are less likely to die from COVID-19 than men, they are more likely to be adversely impacted by the pandemic in other ways. Women’s greater care responsibilities for children and older relatives mean they are likely to suffer greater economic setbacks during the lockdowns. A healthcare system under stress is likely to see declines in quality of maternal healthcare and access to contraception. And when families are kept together in a small space, incidents of gender-based violence increase. 

But none of these outcomes are inevitable. Imagine if, instead of accepting the idea of care work as women’s work, businesses selling child-oriented products began marketing to men as well as women, using their platforms and advertising budgets to tell stories about men as caregivers. Imagine if employers accepted the fact that many of their employees, male and female, are now very explicitly juggling work and care responsibilities at home, and developed new, more flexible ways of working that allowed them to fulfill both sets of obligations.

Imagine the impact on health outcomes if we threw our capital behind femtech companies like Mahmee, which allows pregnant people to access pre- and postnatal health care from a distance, Pandia Health, which delivers birth control straight to women’s doors, or Kasha, an e-commerce platform focused on reproductive health, menstrual health, and other products serving women and girls in Kenya and Rwanda. As a colleague from The Case For Her put it on a call last week, “Periods don’t stop for pandemics.”

And imagine the lives saved if we used our philanthropic dollars to increase resources to organizations that provide assistance to survivors of domestic violence - or to programs focused on men that prevent it from happening in the first place. 

As an investor, you have the power to influence the businesses and funds you invest in to use their assets in these ways.

Over the coming months, the world will need vaccines, and masks, and ventilators. But COVID-19 will bring other challenges to solve, too. As work and life become more virtual, digital inclusion will become even more paramount: women in the global South will still need greater access to mobile phones, and clean, reliable energy with which to charge them. As many people lose work and income, we will need to make sure that the new jobs created are “good jobs” and distributed equitably. And as the public sector becomes a more powerful engine for economic stimulus, how do we make sure that their decisions are informed and shaped by gender analysis?

Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen over the coming months. But I believe that the businesses that are going to survive this are the ones that are focused on solving real problems. The ones that believe their responsibility is not just to shareholders, but to their customers, employees, supply chains, and the good of the whole planet. And that understand that gender matters now and in the future, and shape their businesses and investments accordingly. 

When all of this is over, it’s going to be very visible who were the good actors and who left people or the planet on the side of the road; who thought long term, and who prioritized short-term gain. 

But we don’t have to wait until all of this over. We can make these choices now, and the choices we make will shape the outcomes of this crisis.




Suzanne Biegel is a globally recognized adviser and speaker on gender lens investing. She is the Co-Producer of the GenderSmart Investing Summit. Her advisory roles span the intersection of investment, philanthropy, entrepreneurship and international development. She is personally an active investor with a gender lens. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.