While at the 2017 World Cornerstone Conference in Stockholm, Sweden, we asked impact investor Anna Ryott to answer questions about her career and experiences for the May edition of In the Lead. Ms. Ryott currently serves as Managing Director and CEO of Swedfund, the Swedish Government’s development finance institution. In this position, she oversees the Swedish Government’s impact investing in emerging markets. Ms. Ryott was a featured speaker during the conference plenary, ”Solve Problems: Shape Opportunities.”
Could you tell us about Swedfund’s work in emerging markets?
Swedfund has worked in the world’s most challenging regions since 1979. Our mission is to fight poverty through sustainable businesses. We have about 75 percent of our investments in Sub-Sahara Africa and focus on three sectors: finance, energy, and manufacturing and service. We invest in equity, loans, and funds. Our focus is to invest where the needs are the most urgent, where the positive impact of an investment is the greatest, and where the risk is often considered too high for private investors.
History has clearly proven the correlation between poverty eradication and the impact of growth. The Millennium Development Goal 1 outlined by the United Nations Development Programme to eradicate extreme poverty has been so successful because of the impact of growth, with two-thirds of the goal accomplished to date. Nine out of ten employment opportunities in developing countries are created by private enterprises, according to the International Finance Corporation. One new job creates 7 to 25 jobs, and every person who gets a job will be able to support up to five people. For Swedfund, that means the 111,000 jobs in our portfolio companies have the potential to create another 777,000 to 2.8 million jobs. These employees pay taxes, are consumers, send their children to school, and participate in the larger economy and society. That is true leverage. To eradicate extreme poverty in all its forms everywhere, we need more and better jobs.
You began your career in finance and management consulting, but have now been with humanitarian and international development organizations like UNICEF and SOS Children’s Villages Sweden for many years. When were you first drawn to a new path in international development? Was there any specific event or moment that inspired you to enter this field?
There are plenty of moments that have brought inspiration to my passion for international development. When I gave birth to my two children, I had the opportunity to reflect on my life and on their future. At that time, I went to listen to the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who spoke here in Stockholm. She urged us to act and to take responsibility for ourselves and for others and for development in the world. I interpreted her speech as a powerful call to accelerate change and to act on what you believe. I looked at my children, Leo and Julian, and I felt that I wanted to do something for the children who are growing up under more difficult circumstances. That was one moment that made me feel that I needed to act.
As a speaker at IWF’s 2017 Cornerstone Conference in Stockholm, we know you believe in the importance of economically empowering women and girls. Could you tell us about Swedfund’s initiatives related to women and girls and their far-reaching impact?
Investing in women has a ripple effect. For Swedfund, achieving gender equality is two-fold. It is essential for sustainable development, but it also means increased profitability in our portfolio companies.
“We need more women in the formal sector – with recognized incomes and normal working hours.”
We have a partnership with the international retailer H&M and Bangladeshi industrial group DBL that will contribute to the development of a sustainable textile industry in Ethiopia. Together, we have agreed on the same sustainability indicators. For Ethiopia, this will be a strong factor for job growth and export incomes. This investment will create 4,000 jobs in the formal sector. This program will employ a majority of young women, who otherwise would have extremely limited access to formal job opportunities.
“We need more female-led and -owned enterprises.”
Another interesting example is our investment in Acleda Bank PLC, in Cambodia. Not only are 40 percent of the bank’s employees female, but the group also has an investment focus on products for inclusive finance and women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to help them grow and expand their business.
“We need more women in leadership positions.”
We are trying to promote women working in our portfolio companies through the talent program Women 4 Growth which aims to ensure that companies make full use of the potential of their female workforce. So far, we have successfully carried out the program on a number of our investments.
In an interview with your alma mater, Stockholm University, you quoted former UN Secretary of State, Ban Ki Moon: “We’re the first generation that has the ability to eradicate extreme poverty, but may be also the last one to save the planet.” What does that quote mean to you?
I love this quote because I am strong believer in people, change, and the ability to mobilize resources if you have a clear, measurable, and inspiring vision. For me, it feels amazing that our children have the possibility to grow up in a world without extreme poverty.
I strongly believe that we can use globalization as a positive force for change, if we are willing to tackle negative influences. It has brought enormous progress, complete with technological development, a huge increase in health and wealth, and a reduction in absolute poverty. Globalization has also led to an increased understanding of the needs of the world today. A majority of today’s leaders share the same vision and have adopted an agenda intended to eradicate poverty and inequality, and to fight climate change. The United Nation’s Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development is a holistic and transformative plan of action – an investment in the future, and the future is now!
What do you hope to achieve next?
Going forward, job creation will continue to be one of our top priorities. We need a more inclusive growth strategy that is closely linked to sustainability and environmental goals. That means we need to focus on excluded groups like migrants, youth, and women. Job creation is not only related to increased welfare and poverty reduction, but also peace, security, and people fleeing their homes. In my view, job creation is therefore an important tool to prevent conflict and refugee crises.
We need to continue to get more women formally employed, more female entrepreneurs, and more women in leading positions. This will cause our portfolio companies to become more profitable, and allow us to work toward Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Sustainable Development Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).