ABANA Board Member, Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, Featured on ENTERPRISE Publication

My Morning Routine: Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, president, founder and chair of the Global Fund for Widows

Wednesday, 1 May 2024

The Global Fund for Widows is a global non-profit that aims to help widows and female heads of households get out of poverty

Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, president of the Global Fund for Widows: Each week, My Morning Routine looks at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Heather Ibrahim-Leathers (LinkedIn), president of the Global Fund for Widows.

My name is Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, founder, president and chair of the Global Fund for Widows, a global non-profit that builds microbanks for widows called the Widow Savings and Loan Association (WSALA). We work off a gameya (AKA money circle) or village savings and loan structure, but on steroids. It’s a model that can be taken to any country and modified to fit the needs of the widows and the culture of the country. So far, in Egypt we’ve partnered with HSBC Egypt to build 40 WSALA’s.

The fund started from my kitchen table: After the passing of my grandfather, my grandmother’s life went from being really wonderful to impoverished overnight and I wanted to understand why that happened. It came down to the moment she was widowed and basically disinherited by family members, who took all of her assets and her wealth, leaving her to make decisions like which of her children she could afford to educate, a choice that caused multi-generational impoverishment for some of her children, while those that were educated went off to have incredible lives.

It’s a sustainable option to traditional microloans: Traditional microloans tend to require collateral or a male co-signer, making widows ineligible. Plus, we found that while we could provide widows with funds to build a farm or a palm oil mill, it wasn’t a sustainable, prepackaged, elegant solution. I realized that financial inclusion was the key missing element.

True sustainability provides financial inclusion and wealth: I always say that it’s not enough for me to teach the widows how to fish, I want them to own the lake, because then they can charge for shipping, concession, and parking rates — that’s true sustainability, financial inclusion, and wealth creation.

A virtuous cycle: What we found is that widows who come in use the funds to send their children to school, with their second priority being the health and nutrition of their family, leaving any excess capital to go back into the bank in order to purchase more shares. In our first year of establishing WSALA’s in Egypt, we found that education spending increased some 304% amongst widows.

Our teams across the world are facing many of the same challenges, whether its inflation, the fallout from the war in Ukraine, fuel price impacts, or post-Covid issues, while other issues, such as climate change, tend to affect each country differently.

The work day starts at 9am with a Wall Street-style morning meeting — it’s my one constant of the day. Everyone dials in from around the world and provides a daily update so that we get to build relationships and then it’s back-to-back calls with our partners in Kenya, Tanzania, and Egypt. In Egypt, Alfanar serves as our management partner and members from NGO Future Eve Foundation serve as our boots on ground.

Later in the day, the team and I attend meetings with investors and funders. We could have meetings at the UN or with different ambassadors and heads of committees to talk to them about what our fund does, how we can collaborate, and to hear their thoughts, so largely I spend a lot of time on Zoom. Our in-country teams do the heavy lifting, I’m kind of just doing it all from behind the screen.

Moms just have to work a lot harder, and it’s probably not fair. I was lucky, I was able to leave my day job and start the Global Fund for Widows with the flexibility to work around family. It’s important as you’re balancing work and life to think about yourself, because at the end of the day our children leave us to start their own lives — it’s an indicator of success — so you can’t give everything to them and lose yourself.

Friday date nights: Ever since the kids were born, my husband and I have done something together every Friday night, like going out to eat, to museums, a play, or a baseball game followed by dinner where our rule is that we’ll only talk about the kids for 15 minutes. It doesn’t always work out, but at least we try.

A podcast I love is called Founder Spirit with Jennifer Wu, she has the most incredible speakers and conducts such in-depth research on each of her guests. I also normally have Bloomberg TV on in the background from when I wake up, I need the noise in order to focus and it takes me back to the trading floor.

The best piece of advice I’ve seen was written on the whiteboard of a JPMorgan director that I could see across the trading floor that said “know what you don’t know.” It took about a year for it to hit me and I think it underscores a growth mindset. We don’t have all the answers — nor should we — there’s a lot of talent out there and we have to be humble enough to know that.