3 female founders on the Edtech opportunities in Latin America

edtech-latin-america

Edtechs in Latin America are thriving as the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way people of all ages acquired knowledge. Children in pre-school, women trying to reintegrate into the workforce, and professionals that wanted to reinvent their careers had to switch to online learning. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that Edtech investments increased by 146% during 2020. In many cases, the Edtechs born before the pandemic used attendance-based models, and when mandatory lockdowns kept everyone in their homes, the industry was forced to reimagine education. 

Although remote learning did create education opportunities for people who could not attend on-site classes, the pandemic also established a gap between people who have the necessary equipment and Internet access and those who don’t. 

Still, Internet usage in Latin America is on the rise, and remote learning platforms have the potential to reduce the systemic education access gaps for people living in rural, poor, or indigenous areas. 

Three Latin American entrepreneurs are using the opportunities that the post-pandemic landscape presents to create some of the most innovative and groundbreaking education platforms and services: Vanessa Taiah (Mindhub), Marta Forero (UBits), and María del Mar Vélez (Crack the Code)

Creating effective educational products at the forefront of the world’s edtech innovations is not an easy task, as this is a complex industry. But these three entrepreneurs are dedicated to harnessing the power that education has to transform and impact Latin America. 

Building the next generation of technology creators

María del Mar Vélez is a Colombian entrepreneur and the co-founder and CEO of Crack the Code. This startup seeks to empower future generations through live online programming and technology classes for kids and teens from 5 to 17 years old.

After growing up in Costa Rica and studying at New York University, María del Mar worked at an internship in a fund where she became passionate about creating impact through investing. Having several entrepreneur family members, discovering such fascination was no surprise to her. And although she then worked at JP Morgan as an Investment Associate for six years, the entrepreneurship world drew her in once again. 

After marrying and moving to Peru, María del Mar knew this was her chance to create her startup. She especially wanted to create a company with a social impact that still had an economic return. 

After considering getting involved in the health or transport industry, she went for the education sector, where she knew the impact would be outsized:

“Education is a giant pain point. Latinos spend on average 12% of their budget on education, which is a pretty high percentage. Every marginal dollar we earn, we invest in opportunities for our children. There is a lot of fear that our children will fall into poverty. Our mindset is very focused on that.”

She began attending conferences, networking, and studying business models in other parts of the world. María del Mar realized that although education in the English language was the top priority for Latin America’s education companies and initiatives, sooner or later, the wave of STEM education would arrive on the continent. 

When María del Mar launched Crack the Code, she knew there was a risk that the timing was not the best, that maybe they arrived too early to a market that was not ready to enroll children in STEM online classes. She explained that one of the startup’s most significant challenges was to teach parents why it is essential to educate children on technology.

Nowadays, Crack the Code has an average of 1400 active students a month, and 7000 have already passed through the startup’s classes. The company’s goal is for children to understand how the tech-immersed world we live in works: from understanding how the Internet and computers work to learning programming languages to create technology. 

María del Mar is making sure Crack the Code stays at the forefront of what is happening in the educational digital world.

The characteristic that makes Crack The Code’s product different is that they offer courses to kids from 5 to 17 years old:

“The root problem in Latin America is K-12 education. No one is attacking that space. If we don’t correct that root problem of traditional K-12 education, and the lack of focus on STEM, we’re going to have the same problem in the future, which is a human capital that doesn’t reflect the needs of the labor market.”

The online computer science classes take place in small groups of 5 to 6 students who follow a curriculum week by week, according to learning paths that the startup has designed following different topics and age groups. 

These learning paths are designed with a particular purpose in mind:

“We always make sure that the child has fun while learning; it’s fundamental (…) We design these paths because when a child chooses a topic that interests him or her, he or she is much more likely to pursue it (…) The idea is for them to focus on learning how to create technology, not just consume it.”

Her path towards creating Crack the Code was not easy: when she arrived in Peru, she had no network at all. She had to build it from zero. María del Mar was not afraid to introduce herself to people, ask for help, and do follow-ups. This is how she surrounded herself with positive people who supported her as she founded the company. 

María del Mar created the startup with the savings she had, and in time, the company was ready to raise funding rounds. María del Mar explained which are the critical factors to achieving success in this process:

“The key to making a good round is the previous preparation, to have a very good deck, good research of which funds you want, which ones are aligned to your mission. And from there, start building a network of who will introduce you to those people. Have clear deadlines of when you are going to close, and have a clear goal. If not, you will extend it so much that you may not finish.”

The startup managed to attract the first investment from the VC fund Kaszek in Peru and closed in December 2021 a seed round of $2.7M. María del Mar chose to go with Kaszek because of its track record of scaling in Latin America and because the company was still too small for Edtech-focused funds. 

The average tickets for a company like Crack the Code are high compared to other industries, and that is how they managed to grow organically while bootstrapping before receiving investments. 

Today, the company has students in 22 countries, all of them Spanish-speaking Latinos. As María del Mar explained, Crack the Code is a product created by Latinos for Latino customers. 

The Covid-19 pandemic also paved the way for Crack the Code to have students worldwide. The startup used a face-to-face model but had to transform into a completely digital business once the pandemic started. 

Most teachers in Crack the Code’s classes are engineers and techies, so the adaptation was relatively easy, although pedagogues still had to test virtual teaching techniques and change the curriculum. Regarding the students’ parents, María del Mar explained that the realization they came to during the pandemic was the following:

“With the pandemic, parents realized how important it is for children to be independent and productive with technology, not just addicted to digital junk food.”

With this change of perspective, the Latin American market was at Crack the Code’s feet. At the start of the pandemic, Crack the Code had a team of 8 people, and now they are almost 50 employees. 

Another change that the pandemic brought was how investors thought about the edtech industry. Before 2020, they found it difficult to understand the KPIs and the innovation in such a complex industry. Many stakeholders make up this industry, and each one has its own incentive: parents, children, schools, teachers, school principals, and the Ministry of Education. 

Still, the pandemic made evident that the industry needs more innovation than ever, and the emerging Edtech startups reveal a very encouraging landscape to create new solutions and products. 

Crack the Code expects to triple the revenue from last year or more and is 100% focused on growth and investing in human capital. María del Mar also shares that the company will focus on building a team in Mexico, hiring a solid team for marketing and brand positioning, and continue working its way up as a leader of Edtech in Latin America.

Multiplying the impact of tech education on Latin Americans’ standard of living

Vanessa Taiah is an Argentinian entrepreneur and the co-founder of Mindhub, an education hub that creates Bootcamps to close the gap between the academic and the professional world.

Alejandra Ripa, Vanessa Taiah and Patricia Martucci

Vanessa had worked for 20 years in Accenture when she decided to leave her corporate life to create Mindhub and train students to get high-quality jobs in the technology industry. She studied Systems Engineering in Buenos Aires but pivoted to a more commercial role throughout her career:

“I studied Systems Engineering when we were much fewer women than we are now, and we already complain that there are few of us. I had a more user-oriented, more commercial career. I always say that I am a tech victim. I love technology but more from the impact point of view.”

Vanessa’s cofounders, Alejandra Ripa and Patricia Martucci worked with her in Accenture. They saw a consistent problem in the corporate world across different areas: a huge IT talent shortage, not only because it was challenging to find professionals with technological skills but because candidates also lacked soft skills. 

This is why they decided to join forces, leave their corporate career and solve this problem through a new startup called Mindhub. 

“From our different roles, all three of us suffered from the lack of IT talent at Accenture. We said, what if we solve this? We came from the other side of the counter. We understood how we wanted them to be trained, not how to train them (…) And this is why we set out to solve this problem that companies had,” explained Vanessa.

Vanessa and her cofounders started what she defines as her years of most learning in her career. They studied education and innovation, arrived at the Bootcamp concepts, and learned how these worked in the United States, Israel, and Europe. 

They came up with a methodology to simulate work environments, and on the first bootcamps they realized what impact this kind of training had on people. The company now has local operations in Chile, Argentina, and Colombia, and it plans to continue expanding in its B2C and B2B segments. 

They have 2000 Bootcamp graduates and 100 cohorts, and their main KPI is the students’ employability: more than 90% land a job after the first three months. Vanessa shared in detail what their strategy is about:

“We work in both segments. We like to say that we integrate education and employment. All the training we do is for them to enter or grow faster in the industry or gain new skills. We don’t do training that doesn’t have that objective.” 

The company’s presence in both the B2B and B2C markets allows them to get a sense of what companies need, and accordingly, they articulate programs that combine both worlds. 

Mindhub’s students have very different backgrounds: they are archeologists, musicians, psychologists, young people who are trying to get their first job, older professionals that are trying to reinvent their careers, and more. 

The company funds the education of most of their students, as they can pay for the training after they get a job. Vanessa explains that she was surprised at how much impact the technology training could have on the students’ lives:

“I once heard a term that I loved, which is that technology is a social elevator. People have a much better chance of getting a job, and they also have the ability to grow much faster than in other careers.”

The goal is to continue growing the number of Mindhub graduates. Specifically, they have a clear focus on integrating women into the STEM world. Some women that participate in their Bootcamps were previously raising their first children in their homes, and are trying to restart their careers. 

The diversity of Mindhub’s women students’ backgrounds is enormous: some worked in food delivery, others were architects and bakers, others were psychologists, etcetera. Vanessa reflects on how the pandemic affected women much more than men, as they had to take on more responsibilities at home. 

She explains that women must get out of the comfort zone they stay in:

“There is a pattern in Latin America. It is complicated to overcome the 30% of women in technology (…) It is difficult to encourage them, to make them believe in themselves. Women have to take a more active role in helping other women. The younger generations do not have the reference of their mom who works in technology; they have a reference from other careers, such as law or psychology.”

When Mindhub interviews graduates on their Bootcamp experiences, one answer is much more present in women than in men: “I never thought I could do something like that.” Vanessa’s obsession is to multiply these stories of women who overcome obstacles to regain agency in their lives.

Starting Mindhub was a roller coaster ride for Vanessa. Being a solo entrepreneur for her would be unthinkable, as her business partners are fundamental because they complement and recharge her. 

In the absence of a boss, Vanessa believes it is necessary to have a solid network of advisors. She found that the entrepreneurial world is exceptionally generous, and relationships of support multiply. Vanessa also shared that finding a core motivation is vital for a career in entrepreneurship:

“You have to find the engine for entrepreneurship, and the engine is something very internal. If you are not passionate about the service or product you are undertaking, I don’t know if you can do your best in the day-to-day operations.”

Mindhub is in a full growth stage, as they are looking for their first funding round. Since its conception, they’ve been bootstrapping, and they’ve expanded to Chile and Colombia after headquartering the company in Argentina. 

Vanessa shares that they rely on the entrepreneurial ecosystem with local references before entering the market and installing a team to expand in these countries. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they launched operations in Colombia. This was only one of the many challenging events they faced since the pandemic started in 2020.

Vanessa defines the Covid-19 pandemic stage of the company as their maximum creative moment, as they navigated through panic and stress to keep the company afloat. As they pivoted to a completely digital company, many participants that were applying lived in places far away from the capital cities where most of their operations had taken place before. 

This is when Vanessa realized that talent is everywhere, but opportunities are not, and Mindhub’s goal was now to create a bridge between both.

According to Vanessa, Latin America is a particularly fertile place for Edtech startups:

“There are all kinds of opportunities. If there is a great opportunity in Latin America, it is education. It is to be an exporter of knowledge-based services. (…) We have many advantages in our favor to become leaders in providing these services: infrastructure, geographic alignment with the time zone, climate, and more.”

Mindhub dreams of expanding throughout Latin America, and is looking forward to applying more innovation in its services and platform. But most importantly, Vanessa knows that this is the best time there is to learn technology, and her dream is to train many more thousands of students and democratize access to tech education.

Optimizing corporate training for the Spanish-speaking market

Marta Forero is a Colombian entrepreneur, co-founder, and COO of UBits, an online corporate training platform with more than 700 courses in Spanish. 

Since Marta was a little girl, the spirit of creating and doing things was an essential aspect of her personality. She studied to be an Industrial Designer, which was a key milestone for her career as an entrepreneur. It provided her with a fundamental understanding of how to create products and of which guidelines and business models to follow. 

In 2010 she decided to resign from her job to pursue this entrepreneurial spirit that had always characterized her. When she was only 24 years old, Marta tried to set up an online university in Colombia. 

In time, this project grew little by little, as she was able to set up platforms, research business models in Mexico, and meet with the Ministry of Education. Eventually, she clashed with the walls and obstacles imposed by the bureaucracy and decided entrepreneurship was maybe a better option.

A few years later, Marta met Julián Melo, who is now her cofounder at UBits. At this moment, she finally became a full-time entrepreneur:

“I didn’t decide to start UBits, let’s say it just happened. It was a stroke of luck to have met the right people and receive the right knowledge, and also to have complemented so well with Julián.”

Marta explains that they created and built the content for the training platform with industry experts from Latin America and created a short education model designed for professionals that study while working. 

They decided to focus UBits on concentrated training that people could learn after working. As Marta describes,

“We understand very well the needs of corporate training and of students who have a working day, who want to grow in their companies, who want to understand where the future is going.”

After being founded in 2013, the company has built a team of 300 employees and is currently opening operations in Spain. UBits’ business model had a unique value proposal when it was born since there were no corporate trainings in Spanish in Latin America:

“The problem we saw was that all the companies here in Latin America were training their employees in English, and all the knowledge received was in English, and they were focusing on managerial training. We saw an opportunity at the base of the pyramids of the companies, where nobody was playing locally.”

UBits now offers online courses through virtual learning focused on strategies to enhance skills and competencies in various areas of knowledge. The training focuses on the professional instead of the teacher. They managed to reduce training times, costs, and guarantee the retention of knowledge. More than 100,000 professionals in 300 companies in Latin America have received training from the UBits platform.

The company’s customers are generally between 25 and 35 years old and are looking to develop their knowledge to advance their careers. Another type of client that UBits receives are companies that need to develop the skills of their employees and have not found a solution that combines training with development, growth, and help in creating their training plans: 

“We offer skills mappings to understand what each employee needs, and we have a technological solution that allows each person to have their training plan and grow within a company. That is the value that we add, and that we are always listening to our customers,” explains Marta.

The process of creating these products and services was not easy. After bootstrapping for 5 years, in 2018 UBits started looking for investments. 

They decided to prioritize funds that focused on Edtech since it was difficult to find investors that understood what the industry was about before the Covid-19 pandemic hit:

“The experience I have gained is that what they say in articles and books is very different from what actually happens. And in Latin America, it is more difficult to attract investors for certain sectors, such as education or technology. As a female founder, you have to fight to generate credibility, which happens more than anything in the technology area.”

Since 2018, the company has received investments from Stanford, Owl Ventures, Riverwood, and the team was part of a Y Combinator cohort. 

Marta defines her path on UBits as the most challenging thing she has ever done in her life and shares that leading a startup does not get easier as the company grows: 

“This experience has been a complete MBA (…)you become multifaceted and more than anything an expert in managing people and taking the team to the best level it can be at.”

The expansion of UBits in Latin America was done through a “land and expand” strategy. This refers to starting with small deals with customers, gaining their trust, and then expanding into other business areas. UBits arrived in a country and then expanded to others. Marta explained that this gave them a sense of understanding if there was a product-market fit within a company and if it was liked. They managed to expand through sales and customer success teams, and now the company receives students from over 11 countries.

Companies in Latin America slowly realized that they needed to innovate and incorporate educational models such as the one UBits was offering. When Covid-19 hit, this trend accelerated, and while most businesses faced severe setbacks, UBits flourished in a world that began to embrace digital learning products fully.

The pandemic was a catalyst for a transformation in educational models that was already underway. But there are still some barriers to the adoption of digital training. Making managers understand the value of training employees is still one of the biggest challenges in corporate Edtech. 

And on the other side of the counter, another challenge is to make employees understand that when companies offer them training, they invite them to grow and learn. After studying at school and university, no one tells you to continue evolving, which is part of the accountability people need to have regarding their own development, explains Marta.

She also reflects on what are the main opportunities that the edtech industry faces in Latin America:

“We still see people who do not have access to the internet, who do not have access to computer equipment, to knowledge, there are still many gaps in technology that we have to close.”

In the future, Marta shares that UBits will launch a special HR tech suite for companies to solve day-to-day problems and for students to continue training.

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