Latin America has seen a rise in female STEM entrepreneurs, thanks to an influx of accelerators and mentoring initiatives to get more women involved in science, tech, engineering and math fields.
Susana Garcia Robles of IDB Lab, which supports early-stage ventures in Latin America and the Caribbean, said the mindset is changing around investing in women-owned companies.
One reason, she said, is that more tech accelerators have begun to pop up south of the border and they are “much less picky” than traditional investors about the startups they back.
“Accelerators in Latin America have opened the gates wide open to give more opportunities to women,” said Garcia Robles. “Because they are much more inclusive, by default, they include a lot more companies run by women.”
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In a 2018 survey of 50 startups selected for accelerator programs in Latin America, 28 percent had female founders, according to TechCrunch — and experts say that number is growing.
One of the most-cited accelerators giving a platform to companies run by women is NXTP Labs, based in Argentina. Of the four co-founders, Marta Cruz is the sole woman.
“As a founder with other partners who are men, Marta Cruz stands out as a model in the whole region,” said Garcia Robles.
The accelerator created the designation of “Mujer Emprendedora” — Entrepreneurial Woman — that companies with female founders can include on their websites.
Since it launched about eight years ago, NXTP has accelerated 59 startups with female entrepreneurs and invested in 27, according to company officials.
IDB Lab also launched a mentorship and business networking program for women called WeXchange.
Laura Mendoza, a chemical engineer and entrepreneur based in Mexico, won the 2018 WeXchange pitch competition for her healthcare startup, Unima. She and her co-founders developed a rapid, low-cost blood test that, according to its website, can diagnose diseases in less than 15 minutes. The startup has received more than $2.5 million in venture capital and grants from financial backers across Latin America and the United States.
Mendoza said that the key benefits to starting up in Mexico are “access to a wide pool of talent, lower operation costs and the key characteristics of our target markets.”
She added that the biggest challenge is the lack of access to private capital for health technology. According to a commissioned study by Ernst & Young in 2014, just 1 percent of female entrepreneurs in Latin America and the Caribbean had access to angel, seed and venture capital, versus 7 percent of men.
“As a woman entrepreneur in Latin America, my biggest challenge is working in a context where leadership is expected to be delivered in a traditional male fashion,” Mendoza said in a December 2019 interview after winning the pitch contest. “I have needed to reinvent myself and my work system constantly to fit the demands of my two roles [while] also leveraging a support system that helps me.”
WISE, which stands for Women in STEM Entrepreneurship, is another program that grew out of a partnership between IDB Lab and IAE Business School in Argentina. It has offered mentoring resources to more than 1,500 women who founded science- and tech-based startups since launching in Argentina and Peru in 2018, and Colombia and Ecuador in 2019.
According to Garcia Robles, programs like these “provide women with the same opportunities men have, to reach out to investors and mentors, get tailored training, pitch their ventures and be noticed.”
Other examples with women calling the shots include Mexico’s Conekta, an online payment platform that helps banks secure their processes; Peru’s Laboratoria, which trains female computer engineers; Argentina’s Zolvers, a fair-wage domestic service platform; and Ecuador’s Kushki, a digital payment platform.
Garcia Robles said that while female founders are starting their companies in Latin America, many have studied abroad or traveled to more developed markets such as the U.S. and Israel. She said that changing societal perceptions across the globe are also helping female entrepreneurs find their footing.
[Related: Lorena Lopez: An Entrepreneur Connects Latin American Businesses to the World]
“More people are focused on the value of gender diversity,” she said. “You have investors that say, ‘I won’t invest in you unless you diversify, because you’re missing half the population.’”
Still, she cautioned, “It is important to see this as a business decision and not as something that we do just to be politically correct.”
After spending 20 years building and leading IDB Labs’ seed and venture capital investment program, Garcia Robles said she is taking on a new career challenge this year.
She will serve as an executive at the Latin American Venture Capital Association, where she will continue championing female-run startups. Twenty years in the industry has helped her gain recognition in the Latin American investment community, and men especially “think twice now before making stupid remarks,” Garcia Robles said, laughing.
“You have to have thick skin and keep moving,” she added.