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Ruth Goodwin-Groen: Driving Financial Inclusion in the Digital Age

By Maura Hart

Ruth Goodwin-Groen’s advice to young women: “Be excellent.” She offers this advice having dedicated her career to opening up opportunities for low-income women through access to financial services, advocating for all women to have the opportunity to “be excellent.”

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Ruth first turned her focus to access to financial services while pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard Business School. She worked on a case study developed by Women’s World Banking’s then-President Nancy Barry. The case captured Ruth’s imagination so, after graduating in 1992 with one year left on her student visa, she reached out to Nancy asking for a job.

“Nancy offered me a position but only if I could fund myself. I fundraised enough to cover six months under a special program for women in agriculture, then worked to make myself indispensable to Women’s World Banking. Nancy hired me for the remainder of the year,” recalls Ruth.

In 1992, Women’s World Banking’s network of affiliated local financial institutions around the world were primarily nonprofit nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) formed to make small loans to low-income women with no previous access to financial services.

“At that time, most affiliates hardly did any financial or portfolio projections, so they couldn’t assess whether they were eligible for a capital injection from Women’s World Banking to grow and offer more products and services to women,” Ruth says.

As Women’s World Banking’s first Financial Products and Services Manager, Ruth set to work helping these institutions set up financial management systems. In some cases, she helped built systems from scratch in organizations that were driven by their mission and had already overcome so much merely to exist.

“These institutions were founded and run by women who cared deeply about other women entrepreneurs but didn’t have the basic financial management skills,” says Ruth. “They would give loans to women who needed them without doing the proper cash flow assessment. For them it was about solidarity. They were saying ‘I’m giving you this loan because I believe in your business. I will stand with you. I don’t know about portfolio at risk, but I will stand with you.’”

Ruth worked closely with early Women’s World Banking affiliates like Gambia Women’s Finance Association (GAWFA) and Uganda Women’s Finance Trust (now Finance Trust Bank), which had a deep understanding of what women clients needed but few systems in place to manage the numbers. Ruth would spend hours working with them to develop basic finance spreadsheets.

“We owed it to them to make it happen,” says Ruth. “Those organizations would never have started without founding women who had incredible drive. Women in these communities were discriminated against in so many different ways with no means for loans. These women created institutions to prove that women matter—for women, for the community, for the economy, financial services matter.”

After a year with Women’s World Banking, Ruth knew her work wasn’t finished. With her visa running out, she received a special waiver from then-US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin to stay, which she would do until 1996.

She joined Women’s World Banking at the 1995 Fourth UN Conference on Women in Beijing, China. The agenda at Beijing reflected an important shift in the strategies used to achieve women’s equality, and Ruth’s colleagues advocated for critical language about access to financial services to be included in the conference platform.

Alongside the main conference, Women’s World Banking participated in an NGO forum held in nearby Huairou. Ruth moderated a debate between two microfinance pioneers: Professor Mohammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and Ms. Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India who also served as Vice Chair of Women’s World Banking’s board. The debate topic was “Does microfinance lift women out of poverty?” Professor Yunus made his argument in the affirmative, explaining the value of small loans for women entrepreneurs to build their businesses and support their families.

“Then I turned to Ela, wondering what she could possibly say to refute Professor Yunus when we were all there talking about financial services for women,” recalls Ruth. “She simply said, ‘Microfinance doesn’t lift women out of poverty, women lift themselves out of poverty.’ Of course, the crowd went wild. That was all she needed to say.”

After Ruth left Women’s World Banking in 1996, she went on to consult for CGAP and the World Bank, witnessing microfinance grow into what is now referred to as financial inclusion.

“Anyone in the development community knows that if it doesn’t work for women, then it doesn’t work.”

“Financial inclusion is at the intersection of financial sector development and social inclusion, which have both been major priorities in the development community over the last decades,” says Ruth. “Everyone began realizing that, if we’re going to make development work for low-income people, then they must be included in the formal financial system and economy.”

Today, Ruth is promoting the advancement of financial inclusion through a critical gateway: digital payments. As Managing Director of the Better Than Cash Alliance, she works with a partnership of governments, companies, and international organizations that accelerates the transition from cash to digital payments in order to reduce poverty and drive inclusive growth. Working across all of these sectors with a variety of stakeholders, Ruth is still constantly advocating for low-income women.

“Anyone in the development community knows that if it doesn’t work for women, then it doesn’t work,” says Ruth. “Women who are receiving payments digitally—government support, salaries or other payments—now have control over that money. They can no longer be strong-armed to give some of it away.”

“Digital payments can and do drive financial inclusion, but they also drive efficiency and transparency,” she says, citing governments who are recognizing the win-win of digital payments.

“Our government partners know it’s good for the economy to have women included in the formal system. Without them, 50 percent of the workforce is not counted. Count women and everyone wins.”

Reflecting on her career, Ruth believes her own success is an example of the evidence of the value of women’s access to economic opportunities. This is why she encourages all women with access to financial services and education to “be excellent” in all of their pursuits. She has a special message for those entering financial inclusion:

“If you care about what you’re doing, then work really hard and be excellent. The world is still not an equal place for poor people or for women. There’s still a massive job to do. The pace of financial inclusion is increasing for poor people and women because of digital technology, but if you want it to speed up the pace of change further then nothing less than your very best is needed.”