Much celebration and excitement accompanied Melinda Gates’s recent announcement that she will devote $1 billion in new funding to women and girls over the next ten years.
There is good reason to be excited. This new funding will be disbursed by Pivotal Ventures, the investment and incubation company founded by Melinda Gates in 2015. Pivotal Ventures is going to do things differently, it seems, with the ability to come in with either philanthropic or investment capital. Perhaps Melinda chose to start a new company for this work because she realized it would be easier to start from scratch and be less confined by other Gates organizations in philanthropy or business.
It’s also heartening to know that Melinda Gates has defined a clear strategy for doing this work:
- Dismantling the barriers to women’s professional advancement, which include norms around caregiving, sexual harassment & discrimination, and stereotypical representations of women.
- Fast-tracking women’s entry into and advancement through critical sectors, including technology, media, and public office.
- Mobilizing stakeholders like consumers, employees, and shareholders to amplify external pressure on institutions in need of reform.
We like these goals. They are very broad goals and involve systemic pressures to realize change. It will be particularly interesting to see how Pivotal Ventures invests to “amplify external pressure on institutions in need of reform.” Hopefully these institutions will include governments, a very large driver of employment and culture in our society, and will encourage and protect political activism. Will this stakeholder mobilization also bring forward a call for higher taxes on the rich, so that other layers of society can enjoy a few more gains?
Let’s just try a thought experiment. What if, and I’m not saying this is going to happen, but what if Melinda Gates decided to make public women’s funds the hubs for disbursement of this new capital? What if women’s funds began providing not only grants but also angel investments for women-owned start-ups? What might this look like in real time?
To answer this question, let’s first look at just how much of an infusion $1 billion dollars will be in the current funding allotment for women and girls. We know from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute that about $6.3 billion a year goes toward causes aimed at women and girls. One billion from Melinda Gates stretched out over ten years means $100 million a year added to that $6.3, increasing the activity in the sector to $6.4 billion a year the first year, along with any other gains that may occur in giving for women and girls.
Let’s just pause here and notice how unequal things have become, when one person can swoop in and add $100 million a year in economic activity to a relatively small subsector of our economy. While this is a great gesture on the part of Melinda Gates, it is also a stark example of how easily the 1% can wield influence.
But back to our thought experiment: Let’s say that Pivotal Ventures identified 100 public women’s funds across the country that would be ideal candidates for partnerships to disburse the $1 billion. In this scenario, each of the 100 women’s fund would get $1 million a year to provide in new grants and investment support for the next ten years.
That is an exciting prospect, and it might actually be a plan that would work very well with minimal infrastructure costs, since we know women’s organizations and funds tend to do more with less. The amount of public attention to gender equality that this new funding would garner, along with the actual economic activity it would support, could have a significant social impact.
But I’m going to be perfectly honest: the real promise for me in this announcement lies in the possibility that it will inspire others in philanthropy to do the same. If every billionaire in the country took the same level of responsibility for directing their money back into the community to solve particular social problems, we could have a very different world, one in which women’s equality was accelerating enough to really make a difference.