Although female founders receive less than 2 percent of venture capital funding worldwide, Latin America is a growing hub for female STEM entrepreneurs who are building startups to solve pressing social issues. Using their background and studies in science, technology, engineering, and math, they’re creating ventures that provide access to finance, health and education, or improve traditional industries like transportation, agribusiness, food and mining.
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Brazil’s Nubank is the largest neobank in the world. Yet few people realize this challenger bank is led by a female co-founder: Cristina Junqueira. Looking at the region, Finnovista points out that women lead 35 percent of Latin America’s fintech startups. Junqueira is just one example; hundreds of brilliant women are applying to accelerators and competitions around the region to share their ideas as well.
There are female founders behind several of Latin America’s top startups, although they are rarely in the limelight. Cristina Randall helped found Mexico’s Conekta, Blanca Trevino is behind Softtek, and Ecuador’s Kushki was co-founded by Madeleine Clavijo; these female co-founders have helped build these companies from the ground up.
While women remain underrepresented in STEM fields worldwide, Latin American women are innovating today more than ever. Just 12 percent of engineers were women in 2013. Today, women make up 35 percent of STEM students in higher education. Female STEMpreneurs are driving a significant part of Latin America’s innovation revolution and programs are cropping up across the region to recognize their work.
What Is STEM Entrepreneurship?
To put it simply, STEM entrepreneurship is the act of creating startups that use science, technology, engineering, and math in their business models. The STEM fields and entrepreneurship often go hand-in-hand as both areas focus on solving complex problems in clever ways, potentially developing new technological products as a result.
The entrepreneurship piece revolves around turning these tech solutions into viable businesses, testing the market, and scaling the products to reach more people. While men and women are equally capable of taking on these challenges, female engineers and entrepreneurs are still underrepresented in the STEM field. This disparity arises for many reasons including a lack of female role models in these fields, accidental or purposeful pressures on women to choose careers in the humanities, and lack of investment in STEM education overall. And while statistics are growing for women in STEM careers, there is still a significant lag in gender equity in the field.
The Importance of Women in STEM Entrepreneurship
Multiple studies show that female entrepreneurs, on average, generate 2x the revenue of their male counterparts with the same amount of investment. Female board members can also temper CEO risk-taking, improving decision making and outcomes for the whole company. Yet half of US startups still have no women on their leadership teams, and only 10 percent of board seats go to women.
In a STEM context specifically, mixed-gender teams perform better on almost every metric than uniform teams. Women’s sensitivity to social cues raises a team’s communication abilities, as well as their collective intelligence. This collaborative style is more conducive to creative solutions than a more autocratic leadership model.
Perhaps more importantly, women tend to invest up to 90 percent of their incomes in their families and local communities. Equipping women with STEM education bolsters economic stability by empowering more female entrepreneurs to dream of and achieve social change in their communities. And Latin America leads the way in this shift.
Latin America’s Female STEMpreneurs
As female STEM entrepreneurs become more common and more visible, they will inspire future generations of women to follow in their footsteps. Today, many of these women continue to find themselves as the only female at the table during investment discussions. Unconscious bias leads investors to ask these women different questions, focusing more on risk prevention than promotion of growth. 66 percent of questions directed at female entrepreneurs are prevention-oriented while 67 percent of those directed at male entrepreneurs are promotion-oriented.
Despite these challenges, female STEM entrepreneurs like Laura Mendoza, Maricel Saenz, Cecilia Retegui, Maria Paz Gillet, Mariana Costa and many more are bringing global attention to the value of women in entrepreneurship in Latin America.
Laura Mendoza, Founder and Chief Product Officer of Unima, won last year’s WeXchange Pitch Competition with her rapid and cost-effective blood tests that can be managed from a smartphone. Originally from Mexico, Mendoza has been an entrepreneur for over 15 years, with a strong background in biotechnology innovation. Unima was chosen to participate in Y Combinator in 2016, making her one of the first Latin American female STEMpreneurs to participate in the prestigious program.
Meanwhile, based in Silicon Valley, Costa Rica’s Maricel Saenz is busy reinventing the way we fight infection, developing a replacement for antibiotics with her startup NextBiotics. She realized at a young age that she wanted to solve big global problems and has fought hard against the stereotype that women cannot be tech or science founders.
Argentina’s Cecilia Retegui has been an entrepreneur her whole life. Starting as a software engineer, today Retegui fights for financial inclusion for one of the most marginalized populations: female domestic workers. Her startup, Zolvers (now present in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico), raised over $1M in April 2019 to scale outside of the country and improve their payment systems to allow traditionally informal workers to receive a decent wage and employment stability.
In Chile, Maria Paz Gillet was a pioneer in raising capital not just for female entrepreneurs, but for tech entrepreneurs in general. Her first startup, Happy Shop, raised over $6M before anyone was talking about entrepreneurship in Latin America. She later went on to found Jooycar, an IoT fleet management solution that helps provide pay-per-mile insurance, which has raised more than $3M to date and is in the process of scaling from Chile to the US. Today, Gillet is Chief Innovation Officer at Jooycar, demonstrating the strength of female leadership in a highly-technical (and male-dominated) field.
Finally, Peru’s Mariana Costa is tackling the issue of female STEM entrepreneurship from the grassroots by training women to program through Laboratoria. This program has produced more than 1,000 female programmers in Chile, Peru, Brazil, and Mexico since they started five years ago and has been recognized by Barack Obama, the Interamerican Development Bank, Fast Company, and MIT. Costa is lifting up the next generation of female founders while demonstrating what women can do in the field of STEM.
There are hundreds of other women changing the face of tech and science entrepreneurship across Latin America; unfortunately we could not highlight all of them in a single article. The women mentioned highlight the various facets and challenges of STEM entrepreneurship as a female founder in Latin America today. There is no mold or secret to success; these women are creative, clever, and strong tech leaders that are raising capital and building some of the region’s top businesses.
How To uplift Female Entrepreneurs In Latin America
The increased visibility of female entrepreneurs in Latin America, like those mentioned above, is a significant force to inspire future generations of women to innovate in STEM. While women still face an uphill battle in this industry, initiatives across the region are fighting for women to have a voice in tech and entrepreneurship. These programs take an active role in empowering more women to join tech teams and bring new perspectives to the ecosystem.
In Chile, Start-Up Chile developed an incubator program for female founders called The S Factory in 2015 to help early-stage female entrepreneurs get their projects off the ground. This program has pushed Start-Up Chile’s alumni survival rate up as female-led companies survive 30 percent longer than male-led businesses, according to the program’s director.
Regionally, programs like Endeavor’s Mujeres que Impactan and Emprendedora LAC provide support and visibility to top women entrepreneurs by giving them a platform to share their experiences and their work.
Latin America is on the right track to becoming a global leader when it comes to empowering female founders to build and lead STEM innovation. Yet although women make up over one-third of founders in some industries, like fintech, they still face biases and receive less capital than their male counterparts. The IDB’s WeXchange brings together industry stakeholders from across Latin America every year to support female STEMpreneurs in an event that culminates in six pitches from the top women founders in the region. Now in their seventh year, Over 1,000 female entrepreneurs have participated in WeXchange and become active and outspoken role models in Latin America.
It is an exciting time for Latin American entrepreneurship and innovation. I’m confident that in the next decade, women in Latin America and the Caribbean will have provided an example to other countries on gender inclusion in STEM entrepreneurship.
Illustration Credit: Li-Anne Dias