Cover From left: Sophia co-founders Tanya Rolfe, Nicole Denholder and Christine Yu

From the fundamentals of money to angel investing and crypto, education platform Sophia wants women to engage in their financial futures and talk about money. Co-founders Tanya Rolfe, Christine Yu and Nicole Denholder explain why

Every week Tanya Rolfe sits down with her two children, aged five and seven, and presents them with their pocket money and three jars. They must divide their S$5 between them. One is a savings jar where the money is put towards a bigger ticket item. One is a spending jar—this money can be used immediately, as the kids please. The third is for investments, and Rolfe takes anything that goes in this jar and puts it on the stock market on their behalf, checking on it with them each week to see how it’s faring.

This is the first step on a financial literacy journey that many will not have taken, and is one that came late for Rolfe too. “I was ill-equipped through formal education; I had none of those life skills,” says Rolfe. “If I look at my children now, they have more financial literacy and education already than I had by the time I was 20, and I think that will make a huge difference to their lives.”

Awareness of the importance of financial education—and its lacking in traditional curriculums—is growing. It’s something that Rolfe, who is based in Singapore, and co-founders Christine Yu and Nicole Denholder, who are in Hong Kong, want to address, particularly with regard to women, through their financial education platform Sophia.

Today there are more women in the workforce than ever before, earning more money and accumulating more wealth at the fastest rate yet, but many are lacking in financial knowledge and confidence and don’t know what to do with their money. The three co-founders of Sophia, all seasoned entrepreneurs, are on a mission to get women talking and learning about money and investing. We asked each of them about the lightbulb moment that illuminated the need for greater female financial literacy.

Women are interested and engaged, but there is a knowledge gap – Tanya Rolfe

“I was running Her Capital, a venture capital firm in Singapore for female entrepreneurs across Asia, and I was going out raising the fund, and I realised that I wasn’t talking to any women. There were very few women that wanted to invest. And I was scratching my head thinking, ‘Where are all the women?’. Because there’s a lot of money held by women. We are the majority population, and we are holding around a third of the world’s wealth, and wealth accumulation is increasing at the fastest rate in the world in Asia. What are these women doing with their money?

"I started talking to my professional girlfriends in Singapore and I realised these ladies were what would be termed accredited investors—medium to high earners, highly educated and in professional careers, and yet they were doing nothing with their money and shying away from the topic. I often found that my girlfriends didn’t even engage me about my work. I think it was because they thought, ‘Oh, it’s finance—it’s either boring or complicated’. And it’s neither of those things!

"So, I decided to run a session to take women through the steps—what is a startup, what is angel investment, what is venture capital and how does it work, and why does it matter to us as women that women entrepreneurs are not receiving capital? And I did that—I ran a workshop and 450 women signed up. And it was, ‘Eureka! I’ve got it!’ Women want to do these things. They are interested and engaged, but there is a knowledge gap. How do we plug that knowledge gap? It’s education."

There are still not enough women in financial decision-making roles professionally – Christine Yu

"My background is in banking and while there are a lot of women in finance with many of them leading teams, and the numbers are increasing all the time, the jarring thing for me is there aren’t enough women making the big financial decisions around trading, businesses, investing. According to a report by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, just 4 per cent of women in investment management roles are actually in leadership positions. So, we are not seeing enough women making these financial decisions professionally, and we don’t see enough women taking these investing roles in their own lives.

"I’m a self-taught impact investor and angel investor and in 2014 I joined [international investment group] Angel Vest knowing nothing. I wasn't the only woman in this network, but I was definitely one of a handful in the region, and now I run it for Hong Kong. Learning and teaching myself angel investing was a great experience, but looking around at who else was doing it there were very few female angel investors.

"Soon after that I joined The Women’s Foundation, and the structural and systemic issues around gender and money came to the fore for me. With five other women, I launched an NGO called Girls Just Want to Have Fund$, which is a community focused on helping women break down barriers to be able to talk about money with other women.

"More recently, Tanya, Nicole and I were having conversations about the decreasing amount of funding going to female founders. The number we always hear is 2.9 per cent, but during the pandemic this dropped even lower, so we were all very concerned and started discussing what we could do to get more money into the hands of female founders. The answer is that we need to have more female investors, because female investors are twice as likely to invest in female-founded teams. This led to another conversation—why don’t we have more female investors? And we zoomed in on the role of financial education in creating a pipeline of female investors, and that’s when Sophia was born."

Women want to feel confident and in control when deploying money – Nicole Denholder

"I became interested in financial literacy at a young age. There's often a separation between men and women and who is talking about property and taxes, and who is talking about children. As a teenager I was quite conscious of that. My parents always included me in financial discussions—they talked about money; they talked about debt as an investment vehicle. I was always proud to have parents like that. But I was conscious that a lot of other people, particularly women, didn’t. As women, we are not socialised to talk about money.

"I founded my business Next Chapter Raise to support women with fundraising. When I was talking to investors, I was predominantly speaking to men, and I wondered, 'Why aren't more women investing?'. They are out there in little pockets, but not consistently. What is stopping women from investing—is it access to money, or is it that they’ve got the money but they don’t know the process to deploy it or don’t have the confidence, and what can we do to help?

Sophia started from the angle of how we build more female investors at an early stage of the investment cycle. We recognised it was something that women could be interested in, but did they have their financial house in order to feel confident deploying money that way? Because we can be risk averse. Do they have the right mindset? Do they feel they have control so that if they do deploy money it’s a calculated risk? Working with various business owners and coming across women with different levels of financial education, it struck me that we needed to have more confidence around our finances."

Sophia is empowering women to invest in their financial futures

Sophia, which means ‘wisdom’ in Greek, was established in January and offers a range of courses. There are introductory programmes such as Money Basics, aimed at establishing the foundations of money including budgeting, saving and building an emergency fund, Wealth Building 101 and an introduction to investing, while for women who have their fundamentals covered and some disposable income to play with, there are courses that deepen knowledge in specific areas, from angel investing and venture capital to real estate and crypto. The latest addition is a course on money and parenting.

“With Sophia we want to make it easier for you to step into the world of wealth creation and prioritise your own financial wellbeing,” says Yu. The founders of Sophia also want to encourage the topics of money and investing to become part of the conversations that women have—currently just 17 per cent of women discuss saving, investing and planning for retirement with friends and family. This also helps to build financial knowledge and confidence, which are not only the foundations of wealth, but of health.

“Without financial knowledge, and without having financial wellness, we can’t actually have any of the other wellnesses,” says Rolfe. “We are very focused on education, exercise, eating well, but if we don’t have financial security, none of those things can happen, because it causes the most anxiety—for both men and women. For women, it is particularly worrisome. We live longer and, due to the gender pay gap, earn less and therefore have less money and more years to make it last, so it’s all the more important.”

Words of financial wisdom from the Sophia founders

  • Take control of your finances as soon as you are able to—and don’t think about it in huge terms. Take a baby step. Learn something. Make sure your foundations are in place. And if you have children start talking to them about money. A study by the University of Cambridge says that by the age of seven many of our money habits are formed. It’s never too late, but it does get harder – Tanya Rolfe
  • Compound interest is the secret to long-term wealth creation. It’s about time in the market, so start as early as you can. You don’t have to be a savvy Wall Street trader to create wealth—it’s within everyone’s reach. It’s just about having the base knowledge and committing to the journey and doing it over the long term – Christine Yu
  • Just do it. It’s easy to overthink and overcomplicate things. But the longer you procrastinate in terms of taking action on your investments, the more money you are actually losing. If you don’t have a plan for your money and it’s just sitting there in cash, it’s not working for you – Nicole Denholder

Front & Female is partnering with Sophia to deliver a series of articles to open up the conversation about money for women and to help drive female financial literacy.


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