Wedu on the New York Times!

Investing in a Future for Asia’s Young Women



This article was originally published on the New York times website on September 1, 2013. For the full article please click

MariSINGAPORE — Mari Sawai and Mario Ferro, who graduated in 2009 from the Masters in Development program of the London School of Economics, founded Wedu last year, a program to help women in Southeast Asia gain access to higher education through microfinancing, mentorship and counseling.

Their aim, they say, is to apply private sector investment practices to a nonprofit organization.

In the 18 months since Wedu — an acronym derived from Women’s Education — conducted its first workshop, the organization has raised about $130,000, providing backing for just five students, but it plans to expand fast and to be working with as many as 1,500 students by 2017.

The organization, which is registered in Britain but based in Bangkok, aims its outreach efforts at top high schools in developing Southeast Asia — that is, countries other than Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, which are generally classified as developed. The target schools tend to have students with sufficient academic ability to go to university.

Wedu has a 10-person admissions panel that screens candidates, relying partly on referrals from the agency’s supporters and looking for students who have leadership capability and the grades to go to university but lack the necessary financial resources. “We are supporting students for their leadership potential, besides their grades in, say, math or English,” Mr. Ferro said. “Having donors as part of the selection is also a way for us to stay accountable to the quality level that we commit toward to the funders. If the quality goes down, our funding will go down immediately.”

The screening process is rigorous, he said, to protect Wedu’s credibility.

In June, Jacqueline Novogratz, an author and chief executive of Acumen Fund, which invests in businesses aiding the world’s poor, publicly endorsed Wedu and became its global ambassador.

Mr. Ferro, 31 , who previously worked for three years as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers in his native Italy, said Wedu wanted to apply investment practices usually associated with the private sector, rather than just handing out funds to students.

“When there is a bright entrepreneur, a venture capitalist will give money and advice in return for a seat on the board,” he said. “He has skin in the game.”

“In education, you see that there are a lot of scholarships,” Mr. Ferro added. “But it is like an investor giving you money and then running away.”

Wedu’s model envisages a limited number of scholarships; most students will receive microfinancing, requiring them to repay up to 10 percent of their future earnings over a 10-year period — with exemptions for those who take low-paying jobs with high social value. Repayments will complement fresh donor financing for Wedu’s expansion.

Wedu asks its donors to be involved actively in both student selection and mentoring.

Mr. Ferro said one of the challenges was to persuade potential Asian donors and volunteers to engage with a program that had yet to build either name recognition or a track record. That would be a problem anywhere, he said, but was particularly challenging in brand-conscious Asia.

As a consequence, most of Wedu’s seed money has come from Western sources, either as donations or prize money: in 2012, it was named Social Enterprise Startup of the year by Cambridge University, an award that netted it £5,000, or nearly $8,000.

Similarly, the program’s operating staff — half paid, half volunteers — and volunteer mentors are largely Europeans and Americans. “It is important for reasons of sustainability to invest in local leaders, and the reality is that there are too many Westerners,” Mr. Ferro said. “The brand effect means that we are struggling with attracting local talent, and this has clearly affected the composition of our team.”

Wedu’s focus on Asia is reflected not only in its Bangkok location, but also in a policy of directing its efforts only to students who are interested in remaining in the region for their studies — partly for fear of encouraging a brain drain.

For Ms. Sawai, 29, who manages her responsibilities at Wedu with a job at the United Nations in Bangkok, one of the big challenges of economic development in the region is derived directly from traditional attitudes to education and gender, and particularly the relatively small number of women going into higher education.

“We’re targeting the development of young female leaders and found that certain positions need people with university educations,” she said.

United Nations’ data show that in several less developed Asian countries like Bhutan, fewer than 10 percent of lawmakers are women. Wedu is not currently operating in those countries, but it plans to expand across the entire region.

Behavioral patterns that already keep girls behind in school are among the cultural factors limiting their entry into universities.

“When we did a workshop in Cambodia, there were only three to four boys who sat in, but during the question and answer session, they were the only ones raising their hands,” Ms. Sawai said. “After five questions, we asked the girls if they had any questions and had to wait a bit and encourage them to speak up.”

Wedu addresses other fundamental barriers to education, including the reality that many Asian students from low-income families do not know the basics of college admissions. Some may not even know how to navigate an airport to get to an overseas campus.

“Our students often don’t have the basic knowledge a lot of Western students have about university rankings, so we support them through the process of finding a university and how to access financial aid,” Ms. Sawai said.

“One of our students from Cambodia sat for an exam in Phnom Penh to attend university in Bangladesh,” she said. “It was the first time she had been out of her village.”

As Wedu scales up, it plans to operate by creating country-specific funds, each adapted to local norms: “Not separate companies but separate departments of the same company that can work autonomously,” Mr. Ferro said.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 4, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated Ms. Sawai’s professional status. She currently works for the United Nations in addition to her job at Wedu. She is not a former United Nations officer.

A version of this article appears in print on September 2, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.


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