The power of collectives – with Isabel Guerrero


About the episode

In the first episode of the Swashakt podcast, 3ie evaluation specialist Aastha Dang speaks to Isabel Guerrero, who is the co-founder of IMAGO Global Grassroots. Talking about the amazing source of power collectives have, Guerrero says the sense of balance women bring will help overcome several global challenges. Listen in to find out more.

This podcast series has been produced by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) and is inspired by our Swashakt evidence program and our Rural India Livelihoods Project. The views expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of 3ie.

Host: Aastha Dang
Production team: Annie Vincent, Durgadas Menon, Kirthi V Rao, Shailendra, Tanvi

Disclaimer: The podcast has been edited for clarity.

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  • [Intro]


    Aastha: The world is not on track to achieving Sustainable Development Goal #5 on gender equality and women's empowerment. Where have we reached and how far do we need to go? While data can throw light on this question, there is no substitute for the wisdom of practitioners. Join us for this podcast series as we try to understand empowerment better and explore the pathways towards economic empowerment, in particular self-empowerment for women who are part of collectives in low- and middle-income countries. We are talking to a series of women whose training and experience can act like beacons on this journey. I am Aastha Dang, an Evaluation Specialist at 3ie. In today's episode, I'm speaking to Isabel Guerrero, the co-founder and director of Imago Global Grassroots, a nonprofit organization that works with social entrepreneurs and governments around the world to scale up innovations.

  • [Interview begins]


    Aastha: Thank you so much for taking out time and joining us for this podcast series. I'll jump straight into the conversation now. So my first question to you actually is: whom do you see as an empowered woman?
    Isabel: Yeah, so I have a lot of problems with the word "empowered women".
    You know, when we talked about empowerment in the World Bank in 1990, I think it was, we got a lot of pushback from people saying what do you mean empower? Especially people in civil society. It's not that you have the power and you empower others. And so after that, I feel much more comfortable with the notion of a woman who has agency or a person who has agency.
    And for me, an example of somebody that has that, I don't know if, like the first person that comes to mind that really has that agency is Alexandra Ocasio Cortes in the US. For me, she is, you know, beautiful. She speaks the truth. She doesn't mind you know, irking people, ruffling feathers. She just had a, it was not a podcast, but she had something where she was saying "You know, this is such a bad week, but every moment you can make it a sign of resistance. And what I'm going to do today, I'm going to have my nails painted red. This is my sign of resistance." And then she tells why. She was in a very conservative family and she wouldn't wear red until she was on the campaign trail. For me, she's an empowered agent. A woman who's not scared. Who might have been scared at different moments, but you see her fearless, willing to do, you know, whatever it takes to change the world around her. So that was the first person that came to my mind when I thought about who would be a woman with real power and with real agency.
    Aastha: Thank you Isabel. You really brought agency and empowerment to life, you know, with your example. So my next question then to you would be: what is the link between women's collectives and their empowerment?

  • [Power Group collective experience]


    Isabel: Yeah. So I think, I think women, we are stronger when we are together. I think that's not necessarily true for men, but for us, we have been brought up to think about others, to think about the group.
    And I have seen it so many times. Starting when I was young and growing up in my career, where we had a group that... we called ourselves the Power Group. We were a collective. We met once a month with women, they were all much older than me., we were in different jobs, completely different organizations, and we talked about the things that were happening at work and we supported each other and this name of the power group just emerged. And I really experienced what that collective was for me as a young economist. And then I've seen it in SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association, India), big time. I see so many women that come and say, you know, I felt afraid, I felt alone. But when I come to SEWA and I meet my sisters, I feel strong.

  • [Transforming how you see yourself]


    Isabel: The same happens, there's a lot written about it in psychology, about how a group is able to help you change the way that you see yourself, the way that you think about yourself. A group, by mirroring to you the fact that you have power, can really be profoundly transformative in the way that you see yourself. And so I think groups, collectives, community are an amazing source of power. And sometimes I feel very sad to see how many young people are disconnected, which of course got worse with COVID. But how many people don't have that source of community and collective.

  • [Questioning common beliefs]


    Aastha: Isabel, my next question actually is connected to something you said in your first answer: what are some common beliefs about women's empowerment that you would question?
    Isabel: So I would question that women have to be given the power. I think women are amazingly power. We all have the power inside and so we don't need anybody to give us the power. Of course, if you're in a patriarchal society, you need stuff, but it doesn't mean that you cannot do it. So for me, the biggest misconception is that we don't have it. We have to ask for it, or somebody has to give it to us. No, it's ours. We have it. We have it big time. It's just a matter of tapping into it, believing in it, and going into the world from it. So is there something that excites you about promoting women's economic empowerment? Yes. I mean, you know, I think that the world is in a crisis.
    I think that we're really seeing the death in a way of a civilization. I mean you look all around the world and you see things sort of falling apart, decomposing. COVID has just accelerated this. You see it in many industries. You see disruptions all around. And I think part of the reason is that, as Christine Lagarde, who was the head of the IMF, used to say. Part of the reason for the 2008 crisis, the financial crisis, is that there was too much testosterone in the rooms of power. And I think it's that lack of balance between that very driven, individualistic, go-getter, competitive attitude and where at the end, what matters is who is right rather than what is right.

  • [Women bring a balance]


    Isabel: I think that has run its course and we're seeing it in climate change, we're seeing it in wars, we're seeing it in economic crisis. And I think women have a lot to offer. We've learned, from leadership, that women, if you I remember the first very deadly months of COVID, that countries led by women, had half the deaths than the countries that were not led by women. So there's something about women, by thinking of the other, which brings a balance to this very individualistic driven society that is really falling apart. A new one is emerging and I think women will have a huge role in that new one because of their caring, because of their thinking about the group, because of their counterpoint to the excessive individualism where we are today.

  • [Ecosystem not used to seeing women in charge]


    Aastha: I mean this was this was so nice because the way you connected the 2008 economic crisis to the COVID crisis now and all the impending crisis that we are seeing and how women's collectivization and empowerment is the way forward. My next question then to you is that in your vast experience, are there some women empowerment interventions that you feel like we know enough about but they are yet to be seriously implemented?
    Isabel: Yeah, so the problem is the ecosystem where we are. So, for example, accelerators that I think are wonderful instruments to accelerate both, you know, success and failure, but it helps a lot of innovation. There's a study that the Inter-American Development Bank did about accelerators in Latin America. And it found that when women and men went to an accelerator, the women actually became less equal because the men would have a probability of increasing their capital by 2.5 and the women didn't. And so they started to analyze and look into what was the problem.
    And then they started to control by age. They started to control by industry. And they couldn't find anything. And so eventually they concluded that the risk perception of having women-led organizations is what led to the lack of success in terms of raising capital when you had a good project in an accelerator. So investors are part of this ecosystem that is not used to seeing women in charge, leading organizations, making money. And I think the most important, really the most important way for women's empowerment is to get economic independence, to be able to generate revenues, to be able to, you know, you mentioned cooperatives. There's a lot of interesting cooperatives now because of this idea of going beyond capitalism.
    One of the most popular courses in Harvard Business School, right now it's called Reinventing Capitalism. And so there's a lot of searching. You know, what can we find to solve the problems that we all see? And in that, the cooperatives are an interesting question, because if you think about COVID, for example, Mondragón in Spain, which is one of the largest cooperative movements in the world, is a conglomerate. They didn't fire people. They just decided to have everybody work less days. These are workaround cooperatives found a social solution to this huge economic shock. And guess what? Now everybody has a job, the same jobs that they had before and are not facing this huge crisis that we have right now.

  • [Collectively getting through shocks builds resilience]


    I mean it's so clear for example with all the, I don't know if it's happening in India, but it's happening in the UK, it's happening in the US, it's happening in Europe. Huge crisis in airports now as people finish COVID and start traveling back again. Why? Because they had fired everybody. They had fired pilots, they had fired the people who got the bags. They had fired security personnel. And so now they are struggling to ramp up with this demand. So that shows you that this more socially responsible, aware way of collectively taking a shock and getting through a shock is much better, much more resilient than this very individual profit-maximizing only way of organizing or producing.

  • [Women establishing their goals themselves]


    Aastha: You've beautifully established how women-run collectives and training them into entrepreneurship is important and the next way forward. But my next question then is what kind of trainings or capacity building do you think is most important as collectives, as women collectives embark on entrepreneurship?
    Isabel: So it depends. In my experience with SEWA where many of the women who are employed in these social enterprises or in these cooperatives are really from the grassroots. So, the training starts from how do you sell. The training starts from keeping accounts. From very basic training. So I think that the training has to be on the job and the training has to be in a way that is not lecture type of training that it's actually doing, you know, again, failing fast, pivoting, finding new ways until you find something and keeping everybody understanding.
    And this is the example for me of RUDI (SEWA's rural distribution program) in Gujarat where the goals had been established from the top down by the board. And then the women said, but this is not the way that we work. And so they started to establish the goals themselves, they change the goals – from number of sales to number of RUDI bens (sisters), which are the women that go and sell. They basically reported to the board whatever was emerging from there and that's when RUDI took off. And so I think that is a very different way of working, but it needs a lot of capacity building and a lot of patience because the way to do it is you need master trainers who have actually emerged from the grassroots to train others. And that takes time.

  • [Government support remains crucial]


    Aastha: You've been working in this sector with women collectives for so long. How do you think government figures in achieving this ambitious goal of, you know, women gaining agency and women's empowerment and in poverty alleviation?
    Isabel: So government has a huge role to play. The only way that you can really scale up many of these enterprises is with a lot of government support. Eventually they can become in the private sector like Mondragón has. But initially the capital, the patience, both the patient capital but also the patient capacity building has to be done by the government. A private sector is not going to do it. And so the government has a crucial role to play and then, just like you know, we have had in Imago to learn a lot, the government also needs to understand what is the best way to hold this and to help this new collective enterprise emerge, understanding it as being more than, again, setting goals from the top.
    Basically holding this, it's like a garden where you get, you know, good soil, you put good seeds and then you weed and then you water and then something emerges. So it's a very different mindset needed for this. Including the patience so that you're not, you know, taking out the flower and seeing is it growing already. But rather being patient that it will take the time that it will take and it's going to be much longer than a typical for profit enterprise.

  • [Women entrepreneurs – it’s a different mindset]


    Aastha: I have one subsequent question to this if you can just give some example where women did some advocacy through their collective work and you know they got the buy in from the government and then government took it forward. If there is some example that just comes to your mind, I think it will be very you know, useful for our audience also to listen into it.
    Isabel: So I think advocacy is one thing and what I'm talking about is a bit different. I think the example that I was giving of RUDI is not one of advocacy. It was that the government was, basically the National Rural Livelihood Mission, was looking for examples of where women collectives have been able to generate profits and become sustainable and eventually scale. SEWA never advocated, SEWA does advocate a lot, but that's a different stream of work.
    In fact, being a woman entrepreneur is very different than being a labor organizer, it's a completely different mindset. And so the advocacy I don't think works that well with the government. It's better to showcase. It's better for 3ie, for example, 3ie called for an open proposal looking for examples and we were one of the one of the examples that was chosen by 3ie, but there were many others.
    So in a way tapping into all this innovation that is going on and having an intermediary like 3ie to help bring that forward and also incubate. Because 3ie has helped us for over a year to really incubate this innovation well, to understand the markets well, to choose which would be the districts where it would be more likely to succeed, what would be the adaptation. That requires a lot of again patience and resources to adapt it. And only when it's ready for prime time, which is a different moment, then you can think about scaling through government, but you cannot scale it too quickly.
    Aastha: Thank you. Thank you so much, Isabel. I think this was a very, very enriching conversation. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you.