Cate MutherFunding Serious Change(WOMENSENEWS)–In giving, as in many things, it helps to have a focus.


Mine is economic equity for women. I believe that education and financial independence for women creates a better world for all.

How I came to this belief is a personal story.

I grew up with three brothers. At age 10, my two older brothers each got a paper route. With my father’s encouragement, so did I. Back in the 1950s, the neighbors were more than a little surprised to see a girl tossing the Boston Globe onto their porch steps.

In promoting his daughter’s equality and independence in the realm of earning money, my father was a forward thinker. He had learned from his mother, who had carried pickets for suffrage and birth control.

Of course, my opportunity was not equal in all things. I was an athlete, but before Title IX. I took note as my brothers played Little League, organized soccer and football while our town or school offered no teams for girls.

I went to Sarah Lawrence College before it admitted men. Having female professors and a woman as college president reinforced an expectation about the way things should be.

I harbored an early ambition to follow my father’s post-graduate path and study at Cambridge University. The best-known route for Americans was the Rhodes scholarship. At the time, women need not apply.

I entered the world of work when the want-ads were still segregated by gender. In 1972, I took a job in college admissions; when I pushed back at the salary offer of $9,000, the male president asked why the pay was important: "You have a husband, don’t you?"

Discovered Woolf at Cambridge

Wanting more for myself, a year later I followed my father’s footsteps to Cambridge. A new British friend gave me Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, "A Room of One’s Own." To succeed as a writer, Woolf famously wrote, "A woman must have money and a room of her own." Set in the fictional "Oxbridge University," the book describes life for the university’s early female students in a college isolated from the campus center and access to the library barred by their gender.

The description resonated. In the 45 years since it was written, the structure and symbols of privilege had diminished only in degree. Women were still not allowed at "high table," the elevated setting where the dons and their guests were served in the dining rooms of the men’s colleges. The women’s colleges featured deferred maintenance; the men’s featured vaulted libraries and grass croquet courts.

I absorbed well the lesson taught by Woolf, Cambridge and my own experience: Along with education, a bank account is critical to independence. In 1976, I was accepted at Stanford’s business school, where a few short years earlier a woman would not have had the chance. Again, however, I took note; there was not a single tenured woman on the business school faculty.

Entering, I expected to take my MBA to a women’s college or the World Bank. But the constant buzz at business school is profit, entrepreneurship, corporate finance, return on investment. In 1978, like nearly half my classmates, I left Stanford for life in management consulting.

After five years of rotating clients, I went seeking a closer connection to entrepreneurial companies in Silicon Valley. My third employer was a pre-public company, where sales were $25 million: Cisco Systems. Four years later, sales reached nine figures.

Good luck, they say, is where preparation meets opportunity.

The Three-Guinea Giveback

In my case, unexpected wealth created opportunity not only for my family, but also for me to decide how to "give back" to other women. In 1994, I shared this idea by telephone with the same British friend who had introduced me to Woolf two decades before. My friend told me to read Woolf’s 1938 essay, "Three Guineas."

In it, Woolf mused on a friend’s metaphorical request for three "guineas," the street term for a one-pound coin of gold. One guinea was to help fund the building of a women’s college, another to help promote women’s employment. The third was to help prevent war and protect liberty. Woolf connected the ideas of women’s education and financial independence–ideas that already had personal importance for me–with a better society.

At about the same time, I attended the Philanthropy Workshop run by the Rockefeller Foundation, a yearlong program that teaches early philanthropists, taking small groups to visit not-for-profits around the world. In Bangladesh, I learned about the model of microfinance. We met with Muhammed Yunus, who in 2007 won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Grameen Bank.

Yunus described how he began lending small amounts to poor people to whom banks would not make small business loans. His lending led to a discovery. More often than not, his male borrowers consumed their returns: motorbikes, cigarettes, alcohol. Not only were his female borrowers better at paying back the loans, they also reinvested their gains by digging a well, securing a roof or sending a child to school. Illiterate women were using earned capital to educate the next generation.

Thus, Yunus shared what struck me as a live, operational model of Woolf’s thesis: There is a cascading social effect that comes from investment in women. The Grameen Bank revised its strategy and focused on lending to women.

I crystallized a similar strategy: Invest in women and girls by supporting their equal access to education, employment and civic participation; the social returns will multiply. I set aside $2 million, and later $5 million, to start the Three Guineas Fund.

Modes of Giving

It has evolved through several modes of giving.

As a grant-making foundation, we’ve funded groups such as the Lower East Side Girls’ Club of New York, where low-income girls run a storefront and online bakery after school in New York. They learn every aspect of keeping a small business afloat, from budgeting to negotiation to nurturing suppliers to Internet marketing.

In 2000, we also extended start-up funding to Upwardly Global, located first in San Francisco and now expanded to New York City. It partners with corporations to employ skilled immigrants, primarily women. Seven years later, UpGlo is independent of our help, and its work placing highly educated and trained people in jobs challenges anti-immigrant stereotypes.

In 1999, Three Guineas also created the San Francisco-based Women’s Technology Cluster, a business incubator that provides cross-pollination and support to young technology companies where women hold principal positions. Women are tremendously underrepresented as leaders of such companies; giving them professional services and support helps access the venture capital needed to scale enterprises.

Lately, we’ve been leveraging our assets. That means we use our credit and capital to help others gain access to credit and capital of their own. For instance, Three Guineas recently pledged a $1 million guarantee for loans to global microfinance organizations.

Women’s disempowerment is limited to no place or time; the problem is historic, systemic and global. Its resolution calls for what Woolf envisioned: women around the world becoming educated, economically independent and equal participants in civil society.

Cate Muther retired from Cisco Systems as vice president of marketing in 1994. She currently serves on the boards of Acumen Fund and PolicyLink, and is on the Advisory Council of Stanford Social Innovation Review and the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].