Bridging the gap between theory and real world impact


GSB Alumna Cat Denoon-Stevens helps business and government in emerging markets to find ways to give people the financial tools to make their lives better.

Inspired from an early age by a family ethic that was strongly focused on community development, Catherine (Cat) Denoon-Stevens believes that a better world is possible. And more specifically, that business and finance - efficiently and effectively managed - can help bring it about.

"I have always been fascinated by financial economics as a function of business in society," she explains, "and at the same time I have a heart for the community, especially those in low-income brackets, and I wasn't sure how to bring the two sectors together. It was while I was working in a graduate programme at the then Rand Merchant Bank Properties that I was surprised to discover the real-world application of financial economics. I knew that I wanted to be involved in it and also that I wanted to do so in a way that would have a positive impact on the world."

This made her realise that she would need to undertake further studies in economics or finance to make this dream a reality. Cat came across the MCom in Development Finance at UCT's Graduate School of Business, a relatively new degree that specifically focuses on the role of finance in boosting development in emerging economies. She signed up without delay.

Cat's thesis focused on the impact of remittances (a sum of money sent in payment for goods or services or as a gift) on financial sector development in the SADC region. It linked the flow of money into the hands of individuals and families in Southern Africa to their use of financial tools. "The degree gave me the foundation to build the career direction I love," she comments. "The fact that it was modular was a huge advantage. There were lecturers from government, business and industry who were actively involved in the field that they were teaching in and were able to reflect reality while going through the foundational content. It was wonderful to see that effective link between theory and reality."

"The degree helped me understand how finance works in a developing economy, from public to commercial to industrial finance and that serves me well in doing research and advocacy on making financial systems work more effectively for the people in them.

"The students came from so many different backgrounds and I think I learned as much from them as I did from the high quality content of the course and the lecturers themselves."

After spending some time, first as an intern and then a researcher at the Centre for Financial Regulation and Inclusion (Cenfri), a non-profit think tank focused on driving real economic impact through financial sector development, Cat worked at the United Nations International Labour Organisation in Geneva. But after a year, she felt her heart pulling her back to Cenfri, where she believed she would be able to make more of an impact on the "real world".

"To put it simply, it's doing research to find ways to fix market systems in developing economies to enable them to work better for all people - it's back to financial inclusion, especially for the millions who have no access to traditional financial services."

As an example, Cat explains how Cenfri has worked in micro-insurance for very low-income farmers where access to a product that covers core risks has enabled them to take greater risks in building their production, make more money and grow themselves out of poverty.

Such successes are evidence of the power of the financial sector, but Cat admits that the gap between theory and real world impact is still a challenge.

"We do considerable research to design what seem like great ideas, but the process of getting them taken up by people takes longer than expected, and often there are new reality-based factors that must be accounted for. I really appreciate being involved in both the theory and the reality:  not only in the research but also in capacity building. We work alongside industry and government players to help them implement the results of the research, assist them in working through regulatory issues to come up with new solutions, and work through business models to come up with new strategy and product designs.

"It is challenging but rewarding. I have a passion for using knowledge strategically to stimulate development in the financial sector and beyond - and I truly believe in development that gives people the tools they need to make their lives better."




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