We launched the ABANA Spotlight last year to showcase exceptional members of the ABANA community. We are thrilled to return with our second feature on Heather Ibrahim-Leathers, one of our new board members and the Founder and President of the Global Fund for Widows.
Sixteen years ago, after nearly 20 years on Wall Street, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers stepped down to focus on her family. Along the way, she came to new realizations about the generational impact of her grandmother’s widowhood and disinheritance in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Global Fund for Widows was born.
Today, active in Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Malawi, GFW has raised over $1,000,000 for economic empowerment programs, supporting over 20,000 widows. Its work has been recognized by the UN Secretary General and Michelle Obama, among others. In a major victory last week, the UN General Assembly adopted the first ever UN Resolution on widowhood, by consensus. Last year, in recognition of her advocacy, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize!
We sat down with Heather to discuss the plight of widowhood, how Heather’s experience in banking informs her advocacy, and where GFW is headed next. We are delighted to share this conversation.
ABANA: Let’s begin by focusing on your work at the Global Fund for Widows and how it ties back to ABANA and our community.
Heather: Sixteen years ago, I retired from a nearly 20-year long career on Wall Street to become a mom. I wanted to teach my children our Egyptian and Arab culture, values, and the language. Shortly thereafter, my grandmother passed away, leaving me to question in grief: why was my grandmother’s life so miserable? She was a widow living in Alexandria, Egypt. A 35 year-old widow and the mother of four children, my grandmother went from being a wealthy woman, to impoverished, overnight, as family members prevented her from inheriting, in a practice we now know as “disinheritance.” She had to make the difficult decision of which child she could afford to educate, and it would not be my mother, the youngest and only girl, but instead the oldest son, who she would rely on to care for the rest of his siblings.
I realized just how divided our family had been because of that one incident and when I started researching, I found her situation was not unique. Widowhood began to emerge to me as human rights crisis that hadn’t been brought to global attention, certainly not to western consciousness. It was for me, my moment of obligation. Originally, I thought I would start a small nonprofit to help a bunch of grandmothers in Egypt and give back to my country. Then I learned that widows are not grandmothers – the average age of a widow is 38 – and they were invariably mothers of young children. So, we started an economic empowerment program because, as a banker like many of our ABANA members, I subscribe wholly to the Golden Rule: “she who has the gold makes the rules.”
ABANA: What are global consequences if we fail to act to support widows?
Heather: Twelve of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are related to goals such as eradicating poverty, educating our children, sustaining population health and nutrition, gender equality, and everything that makes society equitable, prosperous, and advanced. All 12 of these are linked back to widowhood. Disinheriting widows – and 83% of all widows in Africa are disinherited – launches a vicious cycle of poverty moving us away from the global goals such as SDG 1 [ending poverty in all its forms] and exposing the widow and her family to hunger, poor health, child marriage of their daughters, extremist or criminal recruitment of their sons, and even human trafficking.
When Covid hit, the vulnerability of widows became an acute issue because they didn’t have anything to fall back on. They immediately began to starve. We saw heartbreaking levels of human trafficking: daughters being sold because the moms were promised that the girls would be “well fed.” All of these vicious cycles are a result of that one event of widowhood that creates this gap from which widows are forced to make tragic decisions. I don’t think we can ever achieve the SDGs if we’re not addressing root causes.
ABANA: Is neglect of widows an oversight?
Heather: No. Widows are deliberately excluded, guided by the desire for the families to control wealth. Widows endure three egregious forms of human rights violations.
The first is this act of disinheritance which is a deliberate economic property smash and grab. They can evict the widow from her house, and coerce her into surrendering money, land, or other valuable assets. She may even be disinherited from her own children if they have a greater right to the inheritance than she does. If there was a dowry paid for the bride, then she is considered family property, and is forcibly married to her husband’s next of kin.
The second violation is systemic discrimination. Because of patriarchal norms, laws and policies are fundamentally discriminatory against widows. Thirty-nine countries prevent a widow from inheriting while 102 countries have legal or policy barriers that make inheritance, accessing capital, or accessing social protections either difficult or impossible.
The third violation is what we call harmful traditional practices. Those practices are violent cleansing and burial rights that are designed to impose devastating physical harm to widows. They are meant to permanently destroy the widow so that she cannot challenge her disinheritance or move forward with a normal life.
ABANA: How did your experience in banking inform the creation of the WISALA (Widows’ Savings and Loan Associations)?
Heather: Coming to this work with an economic lens enabled us to create this award-winning solution and deploy it around the world with such high demand.
At Wharton, I created my own major to focus on financial institutions, as I knew that I wanted to become a financial institutions analyst upon graduation. And that’s exactly what I did! I joined JPMorgan as an emerging markets fixed income research analyst and focused on financial institutions in Latin America. In our first year, we received the coveted Institutional Investor award for our groundbreaking analysis and soon my work was being translated and distributed globally. Later, I moved to the buy-side where I invested in various financial institutions.
When I came to work with widows, I always started by asking them what they needed, and invariably they would respond that they needed access to capital to start businesses to survive, care for their families, and send their children to school. I also realized that traditional microfinance institutions would not help widows, as they often required collateral and a male guarantor, neither of which widows had. I realized that there were major gaps in microfinance that needed to be addressed.
I had been working with the World Economic Forum to address financial inclusion for the worlds’ marginalized when I had a cocktail party at my home, and a very senior executive of a major bank was one of my guests. In casual conversation he asked how my project had been going and I told him how we were focused on financial inclusion. “It is so interesting,” he chuckled, “every year the governments come to us, and give us a ton of money, and ask us to financially include the marginalized, and every year we say, ‘oh yes, yes,’ and we take their money, but we have absolutely no intention of doing anything about it, isn’t that funny?”
That was my second moment of obligation. As a banker that specialized in financial institutions, I understood the economics made no sense, but if governments were subsidizing banks’ corporate social responsibility initiatives, they at least needed to make the effort and not profit at the expense of the poor. I was incensed and appalled. I decided that I had to create my own bank.
That’s when I started thinking about the village savings and loan model, which is a basic banking model that’s used all over the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It’s the way that the unbanked bank. A group of people save a set amount of money monthly, and at the end of each month, one member of the group collects the cash so that they can afford a large capital purchase. In Egypt, it’s called the “gamaa’aia.” That was how my mother, the daughter of a widow, was able to purchase her first sewing machine, and eventually, that’s what started her off on her path to becoming a fashion designer. It’s how my father purchased the first refrigerator and stove in his house for his family, as well.
I decided to use this model to create the Widows’ Savings and Loan Association, or WISALA. Our microbank would be a simple village savings model, well understood by our widows, but boosted by a 2-to-1 grant from Global Fund for Widows. The widows would own their WISALAs and be required to co-invest, register their banks, elect leadership, receive training on loan underwriting and equity purchases, and meet several times per month. I even added an impact investment component to the model so that social and impact investors could earn a return on the WISALAs.
Once the WISALA is launched, it becomes a permanent and sustainable source of money from which widows can access capital to suit their needs. As co-owners of their WISALAs, they enjoy the agency that comes with ownership and wealth creation, and dignity that it brings to them.
Our widows have been extraordinarily successful, enjoying an increase in their income of over 2000% and an increase in their savings of 500-700% in just the first year of joining the WISALAs. We have built over 109 banks thus far and are working hard to address the 23,000 widows that have placed themselves on our WISALA waitlist.
ABANA: Wow. Do you see more room for growth over the next five years?
Heather: By the end of this month, we will have the first-ever United Nations General Assembly resolution on widowhood adopted by all countries, inshallah.* This will be the world’s first body of law recognizing widows, their rights, and their plight, and creating frameworks to protect them, and will be a game-changer for widows around the world. We’re in nine countries now – in five years, I see us in at least 20 countries. We will have built banks for at least 100,000 widows and spread an awareness of this issue whereby domestic laws have changed, and women in the Middle East have more say and agency in their future. There will be more social protections for their children so that we can achieve those SDGs. Bottom line, in the next five years, my goal is to have addressed the economic needs of at least 100,000 widows.
*The resolution passed on March 15, 2022!
ABANA: After your successful finance career, you pivoted your focus to the Global Fund for Widows. What is your advice to others seeking to pursue causes they care about?
Heather: I know my view may be slightly controversial, but I mentor quite a number of youth, and I always give them the same advice. There is limited and sometimes complicated money in the nonprofit world for talent, and while indeed there is a great satisfaction to serving those in need, talent will never be appropriately compensated according to their contribution, innovation, or skill. I encourage youth especially to enjoy successful careers in private sectors and volunteer or sit on boards of causes that they care for before they forfeit career and compensation to enter the nonprofit world. For those that have accomplished all that they want to have accomplished and are ready for a meaningful change, nonprofit work is a rewarding endeavor that is desperate for your skills and talent.
ABANA: Can ABANA members engage on this issue?
Heather: YES!!! ABANA is a unique network of financially and culturally like-minded risk takers, and change makers. We are an organization rich with ideas for innovation, and people that have already changed paradigms. GFW is always looking for supporters who use their impassioned voice and networks to bring awareness to this emerging human rights issue. We also have exciting events throughout the year that we would welcome all ABANA members to join, such as our Burberry runway show around Valentine’s Day, our Double Happiness shopping event before Mother’s Day, and our main fundraising gala in November.
ABANA: Outside your work, what are some of your favorite pastimes?
Heather: I love collecting art, especially Egyptian, Spanish, and Korean art. I trained with a celebrity chef for a few years and love to cook. I am currently training for my first half-marathon which somehow a dear friend has convinced me to do. But honestly, as the kids get older and need me less, I am finally able to focus on my first love of driving and racing cars.
Founder & President
Global Fund for Widows
Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers founded Global Fund for Widows following the passing of her grandmother in 2009. Since then, the Global Fund for Widows has raised over $1,000,000 for economic empowerment programs in Egypt, India, Tanzania, Nigeria, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. With its focus on training and financing widows and female heads of households into building sustainable and inelastic micro-enterprises, the Global Fund for Widows has enabled more than 10,000 widows to become economically empowered and self-sustained. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers has further ensured the sustainability and economic viability of each widow’s micro-enterprises by developing intricately interdependent value chains, affording purchasing power and high visibility into their income streams.
In addition to technical and economic programming, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers is an active advocate for the rights of widows and child widows at the United Nations, presenting regularly including at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015 in New York. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers has also presented on widows at the United Kingdom’s House of Lords.
Prior to her career in non-profit, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers served as a Vice President, in Credit Suisse’s Leveraged Investment Group, where she was directly responsible for over $1 billion in high yield and leveraged loan assets. Prior to Credit Suisse, Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers worked at JPMorgan where she was an Emerging Markets Fixed Income analyst responsible for over $4 billion worth of debt issuance. Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers earned the coveted Institutional Investor Award in 1997 for her seminal research on Brazilian banks.
Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers co-authored Toddlers ON Technology in 2013, a parental guide to explaining the benefits and risks of toddlers and their use of touch screen technology.
Ms. Ibrahim-Leathers earned her Bachelors in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is a Chartered Financial Analyst.