Ogunte: Monica, how would you describe yourself in 5 words?
Monical Middleton: It depends on which day you ask me, so I’ll steal a Myers Briggs (Jungian-type) classification. Apparently, I am an “ENTP” – an extrovert, intuitive, thinking, perceptive type. And perhaps a little eccentric too.
Ogunte: You have a wide and hybrid range of interests, how does this shape who you are and fuel your focus on creating impact through the power of inclusive finance?
Monica Middleton: Yes - all in danger of becoming confined to my CV!
Social investing brings together the greatest diversity of people, ideas, passion, energy, intelligence and imagination. It’s more complicated than traditional business, but oh, so much richer. Every day, I witness the phenomenal spirit and creativity of those who have driven social investing over the decades and those who benefit from it. In this space I can gratefully combine my business self with who I am as a person. So, in any one month, I might be speaking to a woman in rural Kenya who has built a tailoring enterprise from an initial loan of £100; a London fund manager from a traditional finance institution grappling with the concept of a triple bottom line return; a body of religious leaders from multiple faiths pushing for investment capital to flow where it is needed most; a Dutch couple who ‘gave it all up’ to travel around the world in a campervan, taking photographs of people who benefit from social investing; a lady who runs a small Alpaca farm high in the Andes; a CBE who has driven one of the most successful Fairtrade companies of all time…
Monica Middleton: I go home at night in awe that all these people, in their own special way, are striving for a different, better system that benefits many more people while helping to overcome some of our world’s biggest problems. What’s not to love?
Ogunte: Talk to me about believing, which is at the source of Oikocredit’s name!
Monica Middleton: Having spent many years in the corporate sector, I became increasingly disillusioned with how many people give up trying to change anything. It’s too much effort, so they resign themselves to the 99 reasons why they can’t do something differently, going through the same old motions, rather than dedicating their energy to the 1 reason why they can. It is this latter concept which is about belief for me: belief in the power of imagination; in challenging the status quo; in directing one’s intention towards something different, positive and purposeful. And it’s about belief in people – in giving people a hand up (in our case, in the form of loans, equity and many other areas of support) to create their own destinies through creativity and entrepreneurialism. This ability to create and, specifically, to create one’s own destiny is, for me, the essence of what makes us human beings tick. It is also what makes Oikocredit tick.
Ogunte: We talked once on the same panel about social finance, women and love. We talked about “turning good intention into good money”. Could you share stories of a how women use the power of money to create better business, and intentions, while making a lasting change?
Monica Middleton: There are so, so may wonderful stories from our c. 800 investee partners and it’s these that really get me fired up. But I’ll pick two, from different parts of the world, that I’ve selected recently for International Women’s Day 2018:
Coopfam are a smallholder coffee co-operative in Brazil who focus on empowering women to play an equal role to men in producing the Arabica coffee that has been a part of their lives for decades. So much so, that women in this farming community have dedicated plots of land for producing a female-branded blend of Arabica.
Dayany de Assis dos Santos Ferreira, is one of these female farmers and explains: “In the past, my work was just to produce coffee. There was no difference between the coffee I produced and the rest of the farm. Now I have a separate plot that only I look after. It’s very important to me and all the women in the group have supported me in my activities. We put a lot of love and care into the Café Feminino crop and it is this care and attention which results in the premium quality of this coffee. It’s tough work, but I feel we can do the job and I feel rewarded for the things that I do”.
Ogunte: What were the top three encounters that challenged your thinking the most in the past 5 years, and what did it enable you to do/deliver or to think?
Monical Middleton: They are all quite similar in their unusual impact on me. The first two are from my extended visit to the Philippines last year, but I have noticed similar qualities elsewhere in other low-income countries.
A group of women from Oikocredit (including investors) had the good fortune to spend a week with a few of our partners and their end clients in the Philippines last year. We spent two days with one such partner, Abrasa, who focus on the poorest farming communities in the North of the Philippines, particularly women.
At the end of our few days, after speaking with a number of these farming women, we were overwhelmed to receive the most beautiful bunch of hand-made paper roses (featured here in my home over Christmas).
So… in among the really, really hard work and long hours in the fields, these women still find time to reach out to beauty: Some make flowers, others tend to their orchids, others create the most elaborately decorated food. This creative spirit is something that somehow touches me over and beyond the farming activities that are funded by our social investments.
The Philippines has some of the poorest farming populations in the world, who also have the extra hardship of extreme climate events, natural disasters and typhoons devasting their livelihoods on a regular basis. Just £50 granted by Oikocredit partner, Filipino social enterprise, Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation (NWTF) can enable women from these rural communities to start up small shops selling a mixture of wares to generate additional income beside farming. After paying the interest on these microloans, they use their modest profits to improve and expand their businesses. NWTF also encourage these women to form small groups of like-minded women, meeting at regular intervals to receive basic training in business and financial literacy skills and provide one another with practical and emotional support.
The most unusual aspect of this training is that NWFT encourage song and dance to develop confidence, self-expression and communication skills. Every group meeting usually begins with a song or dance before moving on to more practical matters. Again, it is this creative expression which somehow speaks to me.
Here in London I come across equally impressive women. Women who have been movers and shakers in the social enterprise/investing space long before I arrived. Some for decades.
Each time I share a platform, or forum, or coffee with some of these women, I am inspired and energised. Not just by their knowledge of the space in general, but by the unique ways in which they bring so much of themselves to the equation.
If I could summarise the impact that the above three examples (and many others) have had on me, it would be that these women bring their “whole selves” to the fore: Their business savvy, passion, knowledge and resourcefulness, their networks and communities, their emotions and vulnerabilities and, above all, their imagination, humanity, energy and creativity.
Ogunte: If I say: “diversity and inclusion”, how does it serve your customers but also your investors at Oikocredit?
Monica Middleton: Some of the world’s greatest inequalities have always been at the heart of Oikocredit’s social mission. And the sectors we prioritise are as important in addressing these issues today as they were when we were founded in the 70s.
For example, by 2020 there will be 3 billion adults in low income and developing countries who still don’t have access to basic finance - particularly women and rural smallholder farmers. Despite lack of access to finance - and often clean, affordable energy (estimated at 1 billion people) – these latter farming communities produce much of the world’s food. And our demand for food will increase 70% by 2050, needing social investing worth $80 billion per year to ensure supply meets demand. It is particularly the women in these low-income and farming communities that have proven able to multiply the return of loans, other investments and capacity-building support by looking beyond themselves to focus on wider family and community development.
So, for these financially-excluded, disempowered groups; for us, for our investors and perhaps the world at large, we will continue to prioritise our investments in favour of positive social impact and outcomes for these people, then work back to a modest financial return for investors.
Ogunte: If the outlook is not bright generally about diversity and inclusion… What impedes it, and what accelerates change? You said once, “Take care, there are people in your shopping basket”. How can we help people move from awareness to action and a different type of consumption? How can we help them grow a more proactive and impactful, individual investing power?
Monica Middleton: In fact, I poached that phrase from the Fairtrade Foundation who I believe poached it from the Church of Sweden!
Without a shadow of doubt, consumer and investor demand can really change the way in which retailers/manufacturers/financial institutions/governments behave. However, I believe that accelerated systemic change must also be driven by the financial institutions, manufacturers, retailers themselves. For example, if retailers and manufacturers universally develop their supply chains to make them fairer, more diverse, more inclusive; or produce environmental packaging instead of single-use plastics, it is then that I truly believe we will get lasting, positive systemic change in the world. Governments, of course, can aid the situation by penalising or rewarding such organisational behaviour.
Monika from @OikocreditUK on why she is an #ethicalconsumer ..."because it makes sense to spend my money or invest my money where it does good for everybody" https://t.co/s39U6BBvIq pic.twitter.com/CkB3SwAgP4— Ethical Consumer (@EC_magazine) February 16, 2018
Ogunte: What are the top three leadership lessons you’ve learned from a journey that has involved Oikocredit, Dyson, Age UK, Cafédirect, and many other spaces...
Monica Middleton: I think I’ve benefited from some of the best and the worst examples along the way. But I’ve always learned the most important lessons of leadership from those who have inspired me as role-models. Not just in the way in which they lead and direct people, but also the way in which they lead ideas/products/concepts/strategies and processes. So, I’ve always held that managing, directing and leading should be viewed within these three areas - the 3 ‘p’s’: people, products (concepts/ideas/projects/ventures/strategies) and processes. Those who have inspired me the most can juggle all three areas with aplomb, while being fiercely intelligent and thoroughly decent at the same time. A sense of humour goes a long way too.
Ogunte: Finally, who are the top 3 women in social enterprise, in the UK, who inspire you?
That would have to be Sophi Tranchell, CEO of Divine Chocolate and Suzanne Biegel, founder and catalyst of many successful social investing ventures. Both are powerhouses of knowledge and action, and I regard them very much as my mentors in this space. Also, Amy Clarke from Tribe Capital, who fires me up every time we meet.
All three women have been challenging the status quo of business and finance for decades while creating highly successful award-winning ventures in the process.
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