A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

When inclusion isn't enough: designing for inequality

4 min
A woman sits at her garment booth while on a phone. A sewing machine sits on the table with garments hanging behind her for sale.
Photo courtesy of Tala
Early in my career, I came across a problem I couldn’t stop thinking about: The financial system was closed off to too many people, especially those in developing markets. I decided I was going to find a way to make people more visible to that system.

So I led a team that developed an SMS reporting tool to gather data on our customers’ lives, which we used to build a nontraditional credit score. We would then pass this score over to banks, in the hopes of helping our customers get credit.

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We realized we couldn't help our customers succeed in the old system—so we decided to build a system of our own.
The problem? The banks hardly budged. They treated our customers poorly, charging high-interest rates or developing unfavorable terms. Sure, they had included people outside of their typical customer profile, but these customers were now merely outsiders on the inside—playing by a different set of rules.

We realized we couldn't help our customers succeed in the old system—so we decided to build a system of our own. We spent time listening to our customers in order to truly understand the pain points in their financial lives. We used these insights to develop an Android app to instantly credit score people using the data on their smartphones. We also decided to do the lending ourselves, bypassing the banks entirely. Today, we’re growing our app on three continents, and more than three million customers have borrowed with us. The majority of these customers previously had no formal credit history. Now they do.

This highlights an important lesson: Adding outsiders to a flawed system is simply not enough to make it work for more people. Those of us who want to see change—in the world or in our industries—need to play a role in rebuilding old systems from the ground up, so that everyone is starting from an even playing field, with the same opportunities to get ahead.

This is why simply starting with inclusion can feel insufficient. To be sure, inclusion initiatives have made important strides in many industries, bringing underrepresented people and voices through previously closed doors. But the very idea of including someone else depends on a relationship in which one person — the includer — is more powerful than the other, the outsider. And inclusion does not always subvert or challenge this power dynamic. At its worst, it only reinforces a broken system. True economic empowerment cannot take place when outsiders are “let” in through an open door. The whole structure must be redesigned to serve people uniquely and equitably.
So instead of focusing solely on inclusion, I urge others in this space to instead focus on equity by designing first for the margins. This is what we're trying to do at Tala.

If we get it right, our success will be a validation not only of this approach, but of the potential of this market: billions of outsiders, with the power to change their communities and the world.