The road to success for Latin American and Caribbean women entrepreneurs is not an easy one to navigate. This is not due to lack of talent or capability, but in large part, due to lack of funding and support. However, women do not have to face these challenges alone. Having access to mentors is an important factor to start and run successful high-potential companies. According to the wX Insights 2020 study, 67% of STEMpreneurs have the support of a mentor. There are a handful of initiatives in the region that are empowering women by providing them with the resources and support needed to bridge the gender inequality gap.
In this first article, we intend to inspire other women to leap into the future of entrepreneurship by sharing the stories of three women STEMpreneurs, the lessons learned, and the barriers they overcame on their entrepreneurial journeys.
Find out how Gabriela Mendes (Strider/Syngenta) draws a parallel between being a graphic designer and the founder of a startup. Learn about Sofía Gancedo’s (Bricksave) early passion for new technologies and how it evolved as she pivoted into real estate. And lastly, get to know Cecilia Flores’ (Webee) transition story from a corporate career to founding an IoT startup.
Gabriela Mendes, the perks of being an outsider
Originally from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Gabriela Mendes’ entrepreneurial journey started at home, with her mother. Gabriela’s mom was a veterinarian who ran her own clinic. She remembers always seeing her mom working, interacting with her co-workers and clients. Looking back, Gabriela appreciates the role her mom played as her reference for what it took to be a woman entrepreneur. She learned about how to deal with problems that would arise at the shop and how to love her work from observing her mom. Gabriela made sure to instill this last aspect in Strider’s company culture over the years.
Before starting Strider, Gabriela had never imagined she would be working in the agriculture sector. She had studied to be a graphic designer, and for several years worked in design and project management helping tech companies with their products. She quickly fell in love with the idea of having her own company after realizing that she was capable of creating incredible solutions with others. She decided she wanted to make a positive impact in the world using design and technology.
Gabriela’s first startup was a service company for the development of mobile apps, which did not end up being very successful. Despite the outcome, it was an invaluable experience for Gabriela, as it taught her about the challenges of starting a company. After learning from her first attempt, she was recharged and ready to turn her next vision into reality. Then, it was through an incubator program that she met her current co-founders Carlos Neto and Luiz Tangari.
By offering their services to different industries, they discovered opportunities in fintech, mining, and agriculture. Neither Gabriela nor her co-founders had any experience working in the agriculture sector, but after studying the industry extensively by reading, traveling, talking to people on the ground, and discovering its market potential, they were hooked.
Gabriela explains that this phase of starting a company comes naturally to her as a UX/UI designer. Understanding the processes behind a solution and being able to translate that on to an interface requires going out into the field to talk to clients and bounce off ideas.
“It’s a very customer-centric perspective,” she commented. It was through this iterative process that they developed their MVP that would become Strider.
Coming into the industry as outsiders turned out to be a great advantage for Gabriela and her co-founders. They weren’t attached to any preconceptions or conventions. Instead, they were open to hearing different perspectives which allowed them to work and develop their design, business model, and software systemically.
Although it is important to be humble and listen to constructive criticism on your journey as an entrepreneur, Gabriela also reminds women to not let anyone define their limits or who they are.
“It is clear when you profoundly know your business, your challenges, and the market. This makes all the difference. You know where you are going, and you know what you need in order to do it,” she adds.
According to Gabriela, one of the main challenges of getting started as a woman STEMpreneur is that it is generally a male-dominant world. She reflects that throughout history, women have always struggled. These hardships have given women the strength and power that makes them natural startup founders.
A huge part of Strider’s company culture is celebrating diversity. Gabriela and her team created an environment where everything could be questioned while maintaining respect for each other. These values allowed them to attract people from different backgrounds and genders and contributed to their growth as a company by building a resourceful environment.
“[Having] different ways of dealing with things and solving problems are an asset that a fast-growing company cannot live without if they want to lead,” commented Gabriela.
In 2018, Strider was acquired by Syngenta, a leading agriculture company helping to improve global food security by enabling millions of farmers to make better use of available resources. Today, Gabriela is proud of the global platform that Strider has become by joining Syngenta, and that her team now has the opportunity to lead change at a regional and global level.
Sofía Gancedo, breaking the barriers of the real estate industry
Sofía Gancedo is the co-founder and COO of Bricksave, a global real-estate platform that makes low-risk investments into institutional-grade properties around the world accessible and hassle-free. Sofía was a finalist of the 2019 WeXchange Pitch Competition.
As an Argentine, Sofía has personally experienced the uncertainty created by the ups and downs of an unstable economy. However, her inquisitive mind and experiences living abroad have given her a unique perspective on the vast number of opportunities that exist in the world.
Right after university, Sofía spent a couple of years working at a bank and then at an investment fund, and following the completion of her Master’s in Economics, she worked at a market research company for over a decade. There, she nurtured her passion for new technologies introducing innovative neuroscience applications from Silicon Valley into her market research.
Despite the overall success of the company, the investigations became impossible to sustain due to the volatility of Argentina’s economy. That’s when Sofía was convinced by her mentor Eduardo Costantini, a renowned Argentine real estate developer, to venture into the real estate industry.
While real estate can be a great investment tool, Sofía recognized that it is an industry with high entry barriers. Only those who have the money in full, know the local language, and have access to the market can even begin to consider investing in property. Sofía saw this as an opportunity and decided to found Bricksave with her co-founder Thomas De Camborne Lucy in 2016.
She developed a solution that allows anyone to invest in properties across the globe starting from USD$1000. The investors receive returns as if they were the owners of the property, while Bricksave takes care of the rest, overcoming the traditional language, financial, and market barriers through technology.
“We search for properties all over the world. It can be in the US, in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America…wherever there is a great opportunity for investment. We choose a city, and begin the negotiating process with developers to find the best deals,” explained Sofía, clarifying that they work with finished properties only, as they present a lower risk.
Since 2016, Bricksave has funded 50 properties and invested over $7M in total. She explains that these accomplishments are a result of years of hard work put in by her and her team, and the many men and women that have supported her throughout her journey.
Sofía considers that women STEMpreneurs bring a realistic vision to the industry.
“From both an analytical and personal perspective, I think STEM women have a very realistic point of view, since in most cases, they have taken great pains to get to where they are. I think organizations are living systems and the woman’s perspective helps them develop expansively,” said Sofía.
Throughout her journey, Sofía has developed a resilient spirit and learned to not take ‘no’ for an answer. She stresses the tremendous value of participating in initiatives for women like WeXchange and being surrounded by women who helped her see the big picture and potential of the company. She now has a network of women with amazing ideas with whom she will be connected for life.
Cecilia Flores, from corporate to IoT entrepreneur
Cecilia Flores is CMO and co-founder of Webee, a SaaS Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence company that streamlines the development and deployment of solutions for the manufacturing industry, through an end-to-end solution. Recently, she became the first Argentine entrepreneur to win the Melinda Gates Foundation award for Female Founders.
Cecilia fell in love with IoT when she discovered the potential it had for solving big problems in the world. Currently, Cecilia lives in Northern California, but she is originally from Salta, Argentina where she lived until she moved to Cordoba at the age of 17 to study institutional communication and advertising. When she founded Webee in 2013 with her co-founder and husband Lucas Funes, Cecilia already had a career of 14 years working in multinational corporations in Argentina and the US under her belt.
The idea of starting a company and being able to instantly create and try different paths is what was most gratifying about becoming an entrepreneur for Cecilia. She recognizes that the corporate world provides you with many resources and tools but its very nature can become limiting.
Her entrepreneurial journey took off when she immersed herself in learning everything she could about technology and innovation. In her early discussions about IoT with Lucas, they would investigate the market and all the possible applications for technology and automation, particularly, in improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. This struck a chord with Cecilia, whose father had a stroke and, as a result, suffered from hemiplegia. In automation, Cecilia found a way to give autonomy back to patients like her father.
It is often difficult to democratize these technologies and make them accessible to end users because of the complexity they require. In order to reach the communities in emerging markets that need them the most, Cecilia and the Webee team were determined to create IoT technology that was accessible and simple to use.
Throughout her journey as an entrepreneur, Cecilia has gathered several valuable lessons. At a personal level, she learned to be more confident in herself, especially as a woman.
“It took me a while to overcome that ‘impostor syndrome’ and understand that I was also a main actor in the company’s evolution,” commented Cecilia.
Finding people who share the same vision to form part of your team is also extremely important, according to Cecilia. It may be a difficult process, but it is essential to instill a level of commitment that will be sustainable in the long run.
As a woman, Cecilia advises women to think big. They should think of projects that have a global impact. For this she recommends the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. She considers that women bring a unique perspective to organizations, combining community involvement with sustainability in business.
“I believe there is great value in diversity for innovation. It’s been proved that diverse teams produce better results,” said Cecilia.
For raising capital, Cecilia warns that it is a long process that will involve a lot of rejections before finding the right investor that is willing to support you and also understands your industry and the problem you are trying to solve. There is also much to be learned from being rejected and the feedback you receive. She also considers that mentorships are essential to a company’s success, since it’s easy to lose perspective when you stay within the bubble of your own business.
Cecilia and her team strongly believe in the connection between community and technological advances, and are excited to be part of the IoT revolution that is revealing the amount of inefficiencies and chronic problems that can be fixed through technology.
The future of entrepreneurship in Latin America and the Caribbean
Women have overcome many obstacles in the past, shaping them into resilient individuals, driven by purpose and passion to solve issues that make the biggest impact in their communities.
The panorama for women STEMpreneurs in LAC is quickly changing. With the help of initiatives that provide them access to large networks of mentors and investors who believe in their vision and understand their industries, women entrepreneurs can see their businesses flourish in the LAC ecosystem. Entrepreneurship is not an easy road, but that does not mean it has to be traveled alone.
WeXchange is an initiative powered by the IDB Lab, the innovation laboratory of the Inter-American Development Bank that connects women entrepreneurs in the STEM fields from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) with a strong network of mentors and investors.
Every year, WeXchange organizes forums and initiatives like the Women STEMpreneurs Competition to help unlock the tremendous potential women have to transform the entrepreneurial landscape in LAC. In line with their mission, this is the first of a series of articles that intends to give visibility to the stories and voices of women STEMpreneurs in LAC.