USAID and Mastercard’s Business Accelerator for Women Tech Entrepreneurs in Latin America

“I don’t sign contracts with women,” retorted one businessman when entrepreneur Verónica Crisafulli presented him with a potential business opportunity.

Even as an established and successful businesswoman, the co-founder and CEO of MO Technologies, Verónica has been regularly sidelined because she is a woman.

Many women entrepreneurs across Latin America experience sex discrimination as they navigate the business world. In a recent study, 84% of women entrepreneurs reported facing more difficulties starting and leading a company than their male counterparts. Across the region, only 1% of women entrepreneurs have access to angel investors, seed capital, and venture capital funds, the three primary sources of funding for launching and accelerating a business.

To address this gap, Mastercard and USAID launched Start Path Empodera, a business accelerator to support women entrepreneurs in Colombia and Peru. As the first gender-smart accelerator of the award-winning Mastercard Start Path program, Start Path Empodera aims to advance women’s economic opportunities and foster a more inclusive digital economy through a program designed to support early-stage, female-founded ventures that develop financial technology or fintech solutions, drive financial inclusion, and scale digital commerce.

“Funding lines are needed… not demanding that they be easier for women, but that they be free of extra hurdles for women,” explained María del Rosario García, Mastercard’s government engagement director for the Andean region.

She says that care must also be taken with stereotypes in product design: “[Because] it is not about pink computers or credit cards with spa and hair salon benefits; it is about financial instruments to help women face the challenges of doing business.”

Start Path Empodera’s first and second cohorts of women-led fintech ventures recently completed the business accelerator’s customized curriculum, which provided access to skill-building, mentorship, business advisory, and network-building support. The curriculum is tailored to the needs of Latin American female entrepreneurs and aims to accelerate 40 ventures, providing participants access to USAID and Mastercard’s global networks.

Unlike traditional accelerators, Start Path Empodera helps women raise their individual profiles and bring to market products and services that meet the needs of women. The program curriculum specifically addresses issues that women face in financial inclusion, such as launching credit products designed for women and expanding opportunities for women in leadership positions in fintech.

Diana Boncheva-Gooley, USAID’s senior digital finance advisor, noted that the lack of women’s participation in the design of financial products and services proves an additional barrier to entry.

“It’s still a man’s world,” Diana remarked. “Most financial services are built or designed by men for men. The literature and experience show that financial services designed for men do not necessarily work for women. But financial services designed by women work very well for men.”

Instead of pushing a male-dominated sector to design products relevant for women, Start Path Empodera has focused on gender equity and representation across the sector from product design to C-suite leadership. When women lead and participate in the creation and deployment of critical digital services, the end result yields better and more relevant products for women consumers.

“In an incredibly unique way, this program demystifies what we have always been taught: to compete and compare ourselves,” shared participant Angélica Acosta, CEO of IncluirTec, a fintech company that makes it possible to provide loans to small farmers and micro-entrepreneurs.

“Start Path Empodera’s message leads us to a new mindset, one that I want to continue to share with others: to support, empower, and learn from each other as powerful women and together make this new mentality a strategy for mutual growth and success,” she said.

Many Start Path entrepreneurs appreciate the program’s emphasis on collaboration and mutual support. “I’ve been in other accelerators and seen that the willingness to collaborate is much easier among women,” shared Carolina Ruiz Soto, general manager of Mipaquete.com, a web platform that connects e-commerce businesses with logistics operators. “In the other [accelerator programs], everything was more competitive, everyone selling their ‘start-up’ and only talking about their [success]. Here, we are more transparent, which allows us to be more supportive when it comes to something we don’t understand about our business.”

Luis Flórez, one Start Path Empodera program director with years of experience in accelerator program design, noted the differences between a co-ed accelerator and one with a gender equality focus.

“We’ve identified that women support each other and help solve problems or find spaces to do business when we facilitate such conversations,” Luis commented. “We don’t see that in an acceleration program where there are mostly men,” adding that “in a program with men and women, men often end up monopolizing and dominating the conversations.”

Participants also say they expanded their business acumen with regard to growth strategies, product experience, sales tactics, customer acquisition, and marketing approaches. Overall, the accelerated companies gained 57,000 new active customers during the program, and full-time jobs created by the ventures rose by 38% despite pandemic-induced economic shocks.

“I believe that, as a businesswoman, Start Path Empodera gave me a lot of strength; they gave me many leadership and financial management tools to promote myself not only in Colombia but also to expand to the wider Latin American market,” shared one entrepreneur in her exit interview.

“I think one of the best experiences I have had as a person and as a co-founder has been belonging to this program, because it truly changes your perspective,” offered one entrepreneur. “It shows you that…you can achieve thousands of things, that a woman has a very important role in society and has a lot of value in the field of technology.”

Female fintech entrepreneurs in Peru and Colombia who are interested in participating in Path Empodera should visit http://www.startpathempodera.com.