Andrea Jung Draws on Avon Background to Bring Power to Poorest Women

(Bloomberg) -- Andrea Jung, the former Avon CEO and one of the first women to run a large U.S. company, is now focused on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Grameen America, the non-profit Jung has led since 2014, claims to be the fastest growing micro-finance organization in the U.S., and in September topped $1 billion in loans to 100,000 low-income women over the last decade. The loans go directly to women, allowing them to establish a credit history and develop a new business, Jung said in an interview on Bloomberg TV.

“A lot of times it allows families to have more than one credit score because she’s coming in with no credit, no banking, doesn’t have a bank account,” she said. “And those are really powerful things to help in this country. Financial inclusion is a problem in the United States.”

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Micro-lending, which started as a way to empower the ultra poor of Southeast Asia, has an opportunity in the U.S. to assist an estimated 16 million women who live in poverty, Jung said. Half of households headed by a female lacks a bank account and women are disproportionately rejected from loan capital, a 25 percent higher rate than men when they apply.

“It is about an even playing field,” Jung said. “Giving a woman access to capital, which has not been the case around the world or here in the United States as well, is one of the first steps.”

Grameen America was founded by Muhammad Yunus, who won a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for the concept he started in Bangladesh. The idea has since spread: Grameen opened its first branch in Queens in 2009 and now has 21 branches in 14 U.S. cities, with a new location planned for Houston, Jung said.

Jung said her tenure as CEO of Avon, which she ran from 1999 to 2012, gave her perspective on what’s important for women to gain power. She’s also on the board of Apple Inc. and Unilever Plc and is a former director at General Electric Co. and Daimler AG.

Serving on a European board, she saw how quickly a national mandate was able to shift female representation of boards, she said. The recent California law that would require companies to add more women directors over the next three years is another “interesting” approach.

“Men have demonstrated, I think, at this point that if you leave it up to them to develop the pipeline, it will be a male pipeline,” Jung said.

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