From Vision to Action: A Spotlight on Social Entrepreneur, Elizabeth Kalu.

Elizabeth Kalu is a social entrepreneur, tech enthusiast, and speaker. She works as a senior innovation manager in the financial security sector, where she designs innovative tools and products to support wealth-building opportunities for low and moderate-income individuals. She is an alumnus of the New York University School of Public Service, where she served in multiple leadership roles, including President of the African Graduate Students Association, Chair of the Black Students Association, and Vice President of the Wagner Students Association Executive Board.

Before her current roles, Elizabeth designed and implemented innovative solutions for social impact initiatives with a focus on education, digital access, youth, and women’s empowerment in Nigeria. She worked with Innovative Growth Hub (IGHUB) to implement digital access pilot initiatives sponsored by Facebook and Google in Nigeria, where she helped implement strategic programs that impacted over 50,000 small and medium-scale businesses in the areas of digital skills training, and entrepreneurship.

Elizabeth is passionate about tackling poverty through quality education, and economic growth. At Slum2School Africa, she worked with the team that designed and launched the first virtual learning studio in Nigeria, while supporting other education initiatives that have directly impacted over 170,000 children to receive quality education. In 2018, Elizabeth served as a team lead for Google WomenWill, a Grow with Google initiative where she trained women by supporting their economic potential through digital skills and community building.

Elizabeth, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Suffolk University, Boston, has spoken on several platforms, including TEDx Abia, Techstars Startup Weekend, Live Your Dreams, Africa, Social Media Week, Total Startupper Program, and Technovation, just to mention a few. In our conversation with her, she discusses being a leader, her passion for social impact, financial inclusion for women, and more!

Laiza, Tell us a little bit about your background.

After completing my undergraduate studies in the U.S., I felt a strong desire to return to Nigeria, driven by my goal to play a significant role in driving forward initiatives that have a profound and positive effect on society. My passion for social impact led me to spearhead initiatives aimed at education, digital access, and the empowerment of youth and women. These experiences laid the foundation for my belief in the transformative power of innovation, inclusion, and education in tackling poverty.

One of my notable contributions was working with Slum2School Africa to launch Nigeria’s first virtual learning studio, and supporting other programs that directly impacted the educational journeys of over 170,000 children. Additionally, my role as a digital and project manager for the Google and Meta social impact initiatives – Grow with Google, and Boost with Facebook – allowed me to empower businesses economically through digital skills and community building, impacting tens of thousands of small and medium-scale businesses.

Why did you choose to study a Masters in Public Administration (MPA)?

I initially contemplated a joint MPA and MBA degree, however, I chose to start with the MPA to directly align with my experience in the social impact sector in Nigeria. Choosing to pursue a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) was a decision deeply rooted in my desire to enhance my impact on a global scale, and deepen my understanding and skills in creating sustainable change. I was motivated by the opportunity to learn how to effectively design and implement strategies that address complex societal challenges.

During your time at the New York University School of Public Service, you served in multiple leadership roles. What is your idea of impactful leadership and what was the most significant leadership lesson you learnt while serving?
Yes! During my time at New York University (NYU), I founded the first African Graduate Students Association (AGSA), as a platform for Africans across all NYU schools. I also served on different boards/committees, advocating for the needs of students.

I see impactful leadership as the ability to inspire and guide individuals or groups towards achieving meaningful and sustainable changes that positively affect communities, organizations, or societies at large. It involves setting clear visions, motivating others, and creating an environment where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute towards common goals. This has been a common thread across all my experiences. 

I’ve learned several lessons, but having a heart of service, vision, and the courage to guide others in realizing that vision are themes that stand out in all my experiences.

In the past, you have designed and implemented innovative solutions on social impact initiatives. How do you define social impact? And how does it differ from traditional philanthropy or corporate responsibility?
Hmmm, good question. Interestingly, social impact has over 6,600,000,000 results on Google. This goes to show its importance, and the millions of articles that have been written about it. Social impact involves projects, and activities that have a direct effect on people and communities. To be honest, I see this as similar to corporate responsibility. However, traditional philanthropy involves individuals and organizations giving support to important causes, which can include donating money, time, and other acts of kindness. Social impact has been refined to include frameworks and measurements that allow individuals and companies to track the progress and impact of these initiatives. This contrasts with some past philanthropic actions that were carried out from a place of kindness but lacked a system to guarantee the funds reached the intended recipients or were used for the right purpose.

Your earlier report on the “State of Women” discusses the positive impact of advancing women’s equality at various economic levels. Why is financial inclusion for women so vital to overall economic development?
Financial inclusion refers to equal access to financial services, products, and education. This encompasses banking, loans, insurance, and financial literacy programs. In our world today, financial inclusion is vital for promoting gender equality, empowering women, and stimulating economic development by leveraging women’s contributions. The findings from our research “State of Women: A Look into the Financial Stability of Today’s Nigerian Woman” research reveals stark realities: 39.2% of Nigerian women report not being financially stable, 35.2% feel somewhat stable, and only 18.4% consider themselves financially stable. These figures highlight the urgent need for measures to improve financial stability among Nigerian women, emphasizing the importance of targeted interventions to address economic disparities and empower women financially.

When women have access to financial services such as bank accounts, loans, and credit, they gain the ability to manage their income, save, invest, and increase their economic independence. This empowerment can lead to increased participation in economic activities and entrepreneurship. In addition, financial inclusion for women, helps to address the systemic barriers that have hindered access for several years.

To show how important financial inclusion is, let’s paint a picture here: Chioma is a small business owner who sells ankara materials in Balogun market, Lagos. Her dream is to transform her modest business into a flourishing enterprise with multiple outlets across Lagos and to launch an online store that offers her clients the convenience of shopping from anywhere. After meticulous planning, Chioma calculates that an infusion of $3,000 would set her expansion plans into motion. Yet, despite her proven growth and diligent bookkeeping, her aspirations hit a wall when the local bank turned down her loan application, citing doubts about repayment. This rejection not only halts her business’s growth but also leaves Chioma questioning her next move. Fast forward six months, and Chioma’s fortunes take a promising turn with the introduction of the SheBiz Program. This groundbreaking initiative is dedicated to empowering women entrepreneurs, particularly those in underserved areas, by providing them with collateral-free loans. Tailored to the unique needs of women in the business world, the program offers financial support to launch or scale operations like tailoring enterprises, market stalls, and beyond. For Chioma, the SheBiz Program is a beacon of hope, offering not just the financial resources she needs to expand her business but also affirming her potential as a woman entrepreneur poised for success. With this newfound support, Chioma is now poised to bring her vision to life, setting the stage for a future where her Ankara business isn’t just a feature of Lagos’ markets but a celebrated brand accessible from the click of a button.

As Chioma’s business grows, it has a multiplier effect on her family and society. Access to financial services like savings accounts, credit, and insurance enables women to invest in businesses, education, and health, leading to increased confidence and agency in both their personal and professional lives.

Are there any cultural or societal factors that hinder women’s financial inclusion? How can these barriers be overcome?
Of course, there are several cultural and societal factors that hinder women’s financial inclusion. Systemic barriers and traditional views, especially on the African continent, have hindered women from having access to property, banking, credit, and generally making decisions in households and communities. Societal norms have historically constrained women, pushing them towards domestic responsibilities at the expense of entrepreneurial or investment pursuits. While there has been progress compared to past decades, this shift means many women are still in the process of catching up financially. This ongoing inequality shows the need for continued efforts to dismantle these norms and provide women with equal opportunities to thrive economically. Traditional views on gender roles often restrict women’s access to financial resources and decision-making power within households and communities.

There are several ways these barriers can be overcome, but I will highlight some of them:

  • Promote Gender Equality: Ensuring equal access to education for girls and boys early enough, including financial literacy, can empower women with the knowledge and skills needed to participate in financial systems. When we empower and make them aware from a young age, we give them opportunities to thrive. 
  • Legal and Policy Reforms: Governments and policymakers definitely have a role to play, by reforming laws and regulations that limit women’s financial inclusion. This includes ensuring women access banking and credit and participate equally in the economy.
  • Design Gender-Sensitive Financial Products: Financial institutions and fintechs need to understand the needs and circumstances of women and provide solutions that cater to them. Understanding the lived experiences of women, and ensuring that women are part of the decision-makers in financial institutions (leadership, design, product teams, etc), can ensure that financial products are created with women in mind.

We know that you are passionate about tackling poverty through quality education, and economic growth. What are your expectations for the future of financial inclusion for women, and what steps do you think need to be taken to ensure continuous progress in this area?
While progress has already been made, we still have a long way to go when it comes to financial inclusion. Below are some initial thoughts:

  • Research and Data: I strongly believe in the power of research and data and I’ve seen its impact in my work. We definitely need continuous research to understand the barriers to financial inclusion for women and to measure progress. Data-driven approaches can help tailor interventions more effectively and track their impact over time
  • Entrepreneurship Support: This one is close to my heart. I definitely want to see more Initiatives that support women entrepreneurs, including access to seed funding, business training, mentorship, and networks that connect women with markets and opportunities
  • Partnerships: Partnerships are super important! When governments, banks, charities, and businesses all come together to help out. They can share what they know, put their resources together, and work as a team to make sure women get better access to financial services
  • Inclusive Design: Financial institutions and fintechs must innovate and offer products that meet the unique needs of women. This could involve microfinance options, savings programs, and insurance products designed with women in mind.

Looking ahead, what are your plans for the future?
My career aspirations are deeply rooted in continuing to make a meaningful impact in the areas (e.g., education, financial inclusion) that I’m passionate about, which include social-impact, innovation, and human capital development. I aim to further develop, collaborate on, and champion initiatives that drive sustainable societal transformation. 

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