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How life’s twists helped Lisa Mensah find her passion

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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of interviews between expert panelists for the Impact Challenge for Women and Girls. 

Lisa Mensah works to make sure business owners who “don’t get a fair shake” can get the capital they need to grow. She’s the president and CEO of the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), which provides capital, advocacy, and capacity building to community development financial institutions (CDFIs). Driven by a mission to serve rural, urban and Native communities underserved by mainstream finance, CDFIs lend to small businesses and community developers who build thriving communities. 

Lisa brings her experience working at the crux of finance and advocacy to the Impact Challenge for Women and Girls. As one of our expert panelists, she helps us decide what organizations will receive funding from to help women and girls reach their full economic potential. I recently sat down with her to learn more about her path to OFN and why supporting women-led businesses is crucial. 

What got you started on your path? 

I’m from a bi-racial, bi-cultural family, and lived in Ghana as a young kid. I always thought I would do something in international relations. 

While I was getting my master’s degree, I was most interested in helping refugees and women in developing countries. But I felt I was missing out on powerful conversations — often led by men — on how nations develop. These conversations were frequently about money. So, my path pointed me to the financial industry, where I could be involved in strategic decision-making that would ultimately affect issues surrounding women. 

I began my career in commercial banking at Citibank. From there I moved to the Ford Foundation where I used my banking knowledge to help the Foundation build its program in microfinance and development finance. That’s where I fell in love with CDFIs, and I’ve worked with them ever since. Life’s twists pointed me to my true north, which is a combination of finance and advocating for change for people in poverty. 

What sparked your interest in inclusion for women in finance?

From an early time, I was interested in the economy at the grassroots. That’s usually the economy that women inhabit. I wanted to understand: Who is really feeding everyone? Who is keeping kids healthy? Who is providing income to families? Women across the world, often in informal employment, were leading this.

Poverty in the U.S. is a phenomenon that is quite gendered, often women-led households are lower income. By getting involved in development finance, I was able to see who controls the money and found that women-led enterprises and activities were being left out. 

How have CDFIs been transformative for female-led businesses?

Female and minority entrepreneurs have a harder time accessing affordable bank financing than their male counterparts. This is where CDFIs shine: where others see risk, we see opportunity. CDFIs take time to understand our clients and tailor products for them. This played out again and again during the pandemic when CDFIs provided great relief to women-owned small businesses.

Why did you get involved with the Impact Challenge for Women and Girls?

The Impact Challenge will surface leaders that are flying under the radar in their countries and areas of work. We'll resource them to operate at a new level, like a venture capitalist finding the next big company. There aren’t enough philanthropic dollars for all the ideas that are out there in the world, but’s intention is to find efforts that are benefitting women and girls and support them at scale. That’s powerful, and I’m really pleased to be a part of it. 

Pretend you have a megaphone to reach every little girl around the world. What’s your message for them?

Your dreams are yours and they are real. They’re in you for a reason. You’ve got your contribution to make to this world — don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. And even if your path changes, like mine did, you’ll find your way. Along your journey, look for your cheerleaders and helpers — find the people who believe in you and will support you in your dreams and ambitions.

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