How Much Money Is Enough?

Mary Ellen Iskenderian is President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, the world’s largest network of microfinance institutions and banks. Ms. Iskenderian leads the WWB global team, based in New York, in providing hands-on technical services and strategic support to 39 top-performing microfinance institutions and banks in 27 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. WWB’s network members consistently rate among the top three microfinance institutions in their countries and 82 percent of their clients are poor women entrepreneurs.

Ms. Iskenderian, who joined WWB in 2006, has more than 20 years of experience in building global financial systems throughout the developing world. Ms. Iskenderian is a leading voice for women’s leadership and participation in microfinance, and a strong advocate for the role of capital markets in the sector. She has spoken widely on microfinance at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Wharton and at numerous industry and banking forums including the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, the Council on Foreign Relations and European Microfinance Week 2009. She has been profiled in Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal and is frequently quoted in the media, including Reuters, Newsweek, Time, BBC News and Voice of America.
Her recent awards include the 2009-2010 NYU Stern’s Distinguished Citi Fellowship in Leadership and Ethics, the 2009 Isabel Benham Award from the Women’s Bond Club, and the companion 2009 Women’s Finance Award given by the Institute of Financial Services at Lucerne University, Switzerland.

Prior to WWB, Ms. Iskenderian worked for 17 years in senior management at the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, where her numerous leadership positions included Director of Partnership Development, Director of the Global Financial Markets Portfolio and Director of the South Asia Regional Department. Previously, she worked for the investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Ms. Iskenderian is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Board of Kashf Microfinance Bank in Pakistan. She holds an MBA from the Yale School of Management and a Bachelor of Science in International Economics from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

  • Transcript


Mary Ellen Iskenderian:  I have been in the development world for far too long  not to believe that an individual can have an enormous impact.  And in coming to Women’s World Banking, I’d say the greatest privilege is that I meet, literally, daily, women who are clients, who are leaders of our institutions, the founders of our organizations, whose lives, if left to their own devices, would have gone in a very, very different path.  But because of their commitment, their dedication, they’re seeing a wrong and not allowing it to stand, have made an enormous impact.  I am a great believer in the individual’s impact and the individual’s impact on the system to change that system. 

You know, there’s always an opportunity to give money, if that’s an option.  But giving money is just not sufficient.  You’ve got to really make sure that the people that you’re giving your money to are keeping their eyes on the things that really matter to you, and, if you are passionate about women’s empowerment, making sure that the organization that you’re supporting is paying particular attention to the things that might stand in women’s way.  If there were a silver bullet, what would it be?  What would you want to track?  What is the intervention that does or doesn’t make a difference?

What we found is, if you have explicitly in your mission statement that you want to serve low income women, it’s really quite remarkable the number of indicators that you hit right on the money as they pertain to women.  You know, it’s the old, “What gets measured gets done,” but that’s every bit as true with social mission as it is, you know, on the entirely commercial side.

And so, even in our network . . . we have 39 institutions in our network, 27 countries, all of them don’t have that explicit commitment to women.  Everyone either wanted to alleviate poverty or, you know, they were very lofty missions.  But it was the ones who specifically communicated, “We’re about serving women,” that then when they measured themselves against it, really were.  

You know, philanthropy is wonderful, and we in the United States are the most generous people in the world.  But being smart about what your money is actually out there doing, I think, is a real responsibility of the philanthropist.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd