Founder Builds A Global Market For The Advancement Of Women
By Amy Shoenthal
Women’s advancement goes well beyond the dollars they earn. It encompasses women’s agency over their own time, bodies, resources and lives. Experts in this space have frequently pointed out that when women have this agency, their impact is exponential. But what if that impact could be quantified?
That’s exactly what Rachel Vestergaard is doing with her organization, Empower Co. The mission-driven entrepreneur is working to help the private sector understand the monetary value of women’s empowerment by creating a new market to advance women globally.
This is possible because of something called the W+ Standard. Developed by WOCAN, (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management), this is the first women-specific standard that measures women’s empowerment in a transparent and quantifiable manner, assigns a monetary value to the results, and creates a new channel to direct financial resources to women.
I had the opportunity to speak with Vestergaard shortly after Empower Co’s March launch.
Amy Shoenthal: Standardizing units of progress for women’s global advancement is a complicated topic so help me understand it. What exactly are these W+ units? Are they similar to carbon offset units?
Rachel Vestergaard: Women’s advancement has never been acknowledged in this way before.
The W+ Standard is the first women-specific framework to quantify and monetize the social capital created by women. It recognizes and rewards their contributions to economies, environments and local communities.
Impacts are measured in six key domains: income and assets, food security, time-savings, health, education and knowledge, and leadership.
Each unit has a serial number associated with it. It lives on something called the IHS Markit (owned by S&P Global) where other securities and units are traded on a secure platform. This is where the monetary value is assigned to a unit.
There’s a process to creating a unit, and the simple version is this – a project or initiative submits a plan detailing the activities they intend to implement in one or more of the six domains, each with their own methodology and requirements, which is reviewed by the W+ Standard. The W+ units are only issued when such a project successfully demonstrates verified outcomes, including a third-party audit. Each unit is equivalent to a 10% positive change in a woman’s life. For example, if a woman has to take two hours out of her day to collect fuel or wood to bring home for cooking, and a project solves for that with something like biogas, it can be categorized as time-savings. As a project reduces the time a woman spends on such drudgery work by 10% or more, it generates a unit.
I strongly believe to build a market of integrity there has to be a level of understanding, respect and connection to what is actually happening at the project level with the woman herself.
Empower Co. requires that 50% of proceeds from sales of units go directly back to the women involved, creating a new source of revenue for the women and a ripple effect of positive impact into the community.
What W+ units and carbon offsets have in common is that they both advance companies’ commitments in a transparent, low-risk and quantifiable manner. One key difference is that carbon offsets are to account for unavoidable emissions produced by a company. It’s like a trade-off. Whereas, W+ units exist as a net positive benefit, meaning companies purchase these units to verifiably contribute towards their gender goals outside of their operations in order to be part of valuing women’s contributions and advancing women’s work globally. There’s no compromise, only upside.
Shoenthal: How are you assigning a monetary value to these units?
Vestergaard: We’re launching with a specific price per unit based on what the market value is, what is required to cover the operating costs of the projects and deliver meaningful funds directly back to women.
What’s so innovative about this is that the value and work of women is finally being highlighted on a transparent platform, on the same place where millions of assets live.
There are few models that allow corporations this level of transparency. And these are outcomes that have gone through a robust certification process. So a corporate buyer or ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) investor can know exactly how the women are being supported and where the money is going. It’s also extremely low risk because the outcomes have already occurred. You’re buying an impact that has already been made.
50% of the funding goes directly back to the women, a process required by the W+ Standard. The women then have the ability to decide exactly how that will be spent. With all certified projects to date, the majority of women have put those funds towards climate adaptation initiatives. When you involve women in any type of activity that has to do with climate mitigation or adaptation, they are proactive, efficient and their efforts are sustainable over time. They stay really committed to it.
Shoenthal: Creating a marketplace around something that hasn’t yet been monetized is pretty revolutionary. Outside of wanting to do the right thing for the planet and for humanity, why do you think companies will invest in this, meaning, what’s in it for them?
Vestergaard: To put markets and the power of women into perspective a bit, it’s estimated that the global voluntary carbon market could be worth upwards of $50 billion by 2030. Achieving the single goal of gender equality could contribute up to $28 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. So, there are a few trillion timely reasons for corporates, financial institutions and even governments to get involved in scaling this market for women’s empowerment as quickly as possible.
Over 85% of the 500 largest global corporations now disclose information on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) as well as ESG risks and opportunities in their financial reports. Given that Gender Equality (SDG-5) is one of the top areas of focus for companies that have established SDG targets, there is a tremendous opportunity for companies to support their gender goals by purchasing units of measurable women’s empowerment in a low-risk and transparent manner.
These companies don’t have a clear way to fulfill those commitments other than writing a check. That falls into a void. Recently, there’s been criticism of SDG and ESG goals because what’s missing is credibility of claims. We need this kind of rigorous outcomes-based approach to actually deliver on those commitments.
Shoenthal: Are there any specific companies that have these types of commitments in place?
Vestergaard: L’Oréal is big on ‘empowering communities‘ with a heavy emphasis on women. Some examples of their initiatives include the Fund for Women. launched in 2020 the L’Oréal Fund for Women, a three-year charitable endowment fund of 50 million euros to support grassroots associations and organizations in their efforts to get women out of poverty and break the cycle of domestic abuse. They have a quote that I love, ‘Supporting women is not only the right thing to do: keeping women safe and healthy will help us all to forge a pathway towards a sustainable, fair and inclusive future.’
General Motors is another company, and one you might not have expected me to cite, as committed to multiple SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals). Most of their SDG commitments, even those which aren’t called out as gender-specific, rely heavily on the work of women to have a chance at being successful. Their gender equality goals include ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere, ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life and more.
Shoenthal: What is the relationship between Empower Co and the W+ Standard?
Vestergaard: The W+ Standard is an independent international standard that quantifies women’s empowerment. Empower Co. partners with such projects to exclusively deliver their units to the market with integrity, effective storytelling, and with a wealth of understanding around how to assign value to such an asset in the global voluntary market. Currently, you can’t buy a W+ unit anywhere else.
Right now we have a limited number of issued units available from projects in Nepal, Kenya and Morocco. What’s exciting is that there’s already a demand for these units, and we have a pipeline of projects currently going through the W+ certification process.
Shoenthal: This is complicated work that requires a ton of education and might require organizations, investors and even regular people, myself included, to rethink how previously undervalued work of women worldwide can now have a monetary value attached to it. Where does your drive to do this work come from and what keeps you committed to it?
Vestergaard: I could give you the whole background of how I started my career in banking, how my upbringing encouraged me to focus on sustainability, climate and gender issues or how I’ve been working in this space for the last 11 years, but I’ll skip all that because there’s one thing that keeps me going day after day – I’m a mom.
I want to solve the climate crisis for my son. We’re out of time, and we know empowering women works. It’s also about the pace. There is no other way we’re going to meet the scale that we need to in order to address the most critical issues humanity faces. Given the task at hand and the timeline, we’re past due. This is our best shot.
I’m open to other ideas, but what else has been proven to be this effective? Show me something that can scale as fast as a market.
And it’s not just scalable, it’s that we can get there quickly. If we can all unite around a comprehensive way to measure and direct funds effectively towards women’s empowerment, we could literally change the world in less than a decade.