October 26

Cassandra Salcedo

Creating a Culture of Innovation By Letting Employees Lead the Way

For nearly 30 years, Pro Mujer has provided underserved women in Latin America with financial, health and education services. This has led us to become a regional leader – not only in microfinance, but in women’s empowerment as well.

But over the years, as we listened to the women we serve to better understand their needs, we realized that the time had come to expand our offerings and change our approach. In today’s constantly evolving landscape, with the growth of emerging technologies and the entrance of new market participants, fresh approaches are now mandatory.

Under the leadership of our President and CEO Maria Cavalcanti, we’ve pursued a forward-looking vision for how to take Pro Mujer to the next level, transforming it into an exponential organization that thinks about sweeping – rather than strictly linear – growth. Our mandate is to become a large-scale, sustainable platform that delivers relevant and transformative products and tools to women in Latin America throughout their lives. In order to achieve this, our strategy focuses on operational excellence, footprint expansion, services and products diversification and thought leadership. All of these efforts are enabled through cultural transformation, alliances and corporate partnerships and sustainability. And they’re driven by a new approach to innovation that leverages our greatest asset: our employees.


Boosting Impact Through Employee Innovation

To help catalyze Pro Mujer’s transformation, Cassandra Salcedo, our Associate Director of Strategy & Innovation, attended the 2017 Singularity Conference, which brings together the world’s most innovative leaders to learn how emerging technologies are redefining business, society and humanity. Upon her return, she put forth an interesting idea: to launch an Innovation Competition as a new way to foster ideas and voices among Pro Mujer employees of all levels and countries.

Even though we could not anticipate participation levels, we enthusiastically moved ahead and launched our Innovation Competition across 1,700 global employees. This was one of the first times we had asked our employees to re-think how we do business. Participants submitted their responses to two simple questions: 1) What is the challenge? and 2) What is your suggestion or idea to fix this problem? We evaluated their responses based on their creativity, scalability and feasibility, as well as their alignment with our strategic plan and their usage of technology. We encouraged participation in the competition through a regular series of global communications from senior leaders across all departments and countries. In order to incentivize participation, we offered a free trip as the prize.

Ultimately, 12 percent of the organization’s 1,700 global employees participated. As a first-time experiment, the response rate exceeded our expectations across not only multiple cities within the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Peru, but also across several positions ranging from loan officers in the field to country directors and nurses. The entire process from beginning to end was a critical learning experience – here are a few key takeaways:


Find the right incentives

We realized the importance of proper incentives early on. After initially receiving less than 20 responses in the first few weeks, we were receiving feedback that the preferred reward was cash. One reason: 66 percent of our global staff are women, many of whom are mothers – and it would be difficult for them to travel with young children. So instead of the free trip we’d initially offered, we gave employees two options — a free trip or the cash equivalent. This change in prize resulted in a noticeable increase in participation levels.


Embed innovation into the work day

When speaking to those who did not participate, the most common reason was lack of time. Although the instructions were straightforward and required responses to just two simple questions, most still viewed this as a time-consuming process and preferred to focus on their daily work. We’ve taken these results as motivation to seek out new ways to encourage innovation and to reward innovators – especially those who take that initial leap. In addition, we’ve asked ourselves how we can incorporate innovation into our daily work so that innovating is not seen as a distraction from our regular tasks.


Don’t be afraid to fail fast and learn fast

Another common response when we asked people why they did not participate was: “I didn’t have any ideas,” or “My idea wasn’t good enough.” This competition was a way to actively show that it is okay to propose bold new ideas – even if you’re not sure that they’ll work. We continue to encourage employees to be comfortable suggesting new ways to approach problems. As an organization, we approach innovation with a new lens: We fail fast and learn fast from our mistakes, constantly iterating on this process over time. Simply put, innovation is an evolutionary process. This mentality and approach to innovation will help us in the long run.


Generate data-driven insights

It is the field officers and staff in our centers who work most closely with our clients and know them best, which makes their insights from the competition extremely valuable. The competition reinforced the importance of ensuring that our approach is aligned with data from the field. In addition to carefully evaluating our field staff’s responses, we also outlined a data strategy that collects key metrics from our clients. For example, this year we installed survey machines in our centers to better understand our customers’ needs, which is one of many efforts to improve the quality of our data.


Establish an innovation culture

Although the initial idea of the competition was to gain new insights from our employees on how to improve as an organization, we realized that true innovation is not something that can be forced – but it can be nurtured. In the spirit of this approach, our competition enabled us to begin changing Pro Mujer’s culture and approach to innovation.

Although this was Pro Mujer’s first innovation competition, it was only a stepping stone for what lies ahead. For any organization undergoing cultural transformation, it is critical to foster a culture of innovation, and to encourage engagement from all stakeholders. In fact, we have already seen the benefits of this mentality from our employees. One of the winning ideas from the competition was to start an internal innovation club to encourage new ideas from within our organization. We listened to our employees and are now in the process of selecting “Innovation Ambassadors,” who will be responsible for leading innovation efforts going forward. Though it’s a small step, the impact of this kind of approach can be long-lasting.

Every company must make a decision on how they want to approach innovation: it has no boundaries and can permeate companies of all sizes and industries, taking many different forms. Regardless of the company, the first step is to foster innovation as an organizational imperative. In our case, the second step was to allow our employees to lead the way.


Cassandra Salcedo is the Associate Director of Strategy and Innovation at Pro Mujer.


Image courtesy of Pro Mujer.




Finance, Technology
financial inclusion, gender equality, microfinance