Maxwell Kangkolo

Perspective: How women across Latin America are building a culture of entrepreneurship

As I travel the world in my capacity as co-founder of The GO Project and get the chance to experience more innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems, I’ve come to a realization: The rules of the game aren’t fair.

The economic structures all over the world do not provide a level playing field for all participants. These realities were never more clear than when I got the opportunity to work with female entrepreneurs in Latin America. My work in Latin American focused on exploring, understanding and supporting innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems through The GO Project – a cross collaborative effort of eight young professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs to use our skills to help scale projects, while getting a globally immersive experience. We worked with four partners within the Santiago, Chile, ecosystem for three months on a variety of projects. As a part of this experience we got the chance to work in conjunction with the inspiring women at Mujeres del Pacífico, which offered me the opportunity to understand the climate of women’s entrepreneurship in Latin America.

These women demonstrated an amazing capacity for resilience and determination in the face of daunting odds. The figures speak for themselves. In Latin America and the Caribbean, women represent 41.6 percent of the economically active population. Yet, the average rate of entrepreneurial activity of women in the region is 15 percent, with 71 percent starting their businesses based on opportunity and 29 percent out of necessity. According to Startup Chile, only one out of every 10 team members in a startup is a woman. Just being born female immediately puts aspiring entrepreneurs at a disadvantage to their male counterparts.

But brave women are determined to chart a new future. Women like Fernanda Vicente, president of Mujeres del Pacífico and founder of Inittia, which are GO Project partners. She shared with me some of the many barriers that women face just to get started. These include the lack of initial startup capital, few business networks, the demands of a work and personal life, a greater fear of failure, loyalty to the local market and low levels of self-confidence. Organizations like Vicente’s seek to equip women with the tools to mitigate these factors.

“We are working to empower women, to give knowledge, to open all global innovation ecosystems for every Latin American woman,” she says.

In a male-dominated business world, women are fighting prejudice to push for progress.

Economic data also support the case for female entrepreneurs to play a larger role in the economy. According to a study by World Bank, “empowering women contributes to a 30 percent reduction in extreme poverty throughout the region.” Female entrepreneurs demonstrate 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts and 61 percent of entrepreneurial enterprises with five or more women executives are successful versus 50 percent overall. The data clearly showcase the positive ripple effect that women entrepreneurs have on their local and regional communities.

These facts and figures might not be a surprise to NextBillion readers working toward improving gender equality of opportunity. But what surprised me most in my experience with these women is their general excitement to engage and participate in efforts to better themselves. These women are brimming with enthusiasm and passion; it is simply contagious. It’s clear at events such as Lab de Innovación I+M, which is designed to engage businesswomen – both executives and entrepreneurs in Chile – to further the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. They eagerly take notes and are engaged not only amongst themselves but with the organizers.

However, these organizations largely cater to women who are squarely middle class and higher. The efforts to engage the poorer population are much more challenging. Efforts from organizations such as Dale Sentido look to mobilize this segment of the population. Dale Sentido concentrates on economic empowerment of women across all socioeconomic levels to provide them the knowledge and know-how to be successful in business. DS provides workshops to women entrepreneurs to educate them on key business concepts and strategy, as well as provide network support.

These women inspire me and help me believe that the future will be different. What these women are doing is far larger than themselves. Carving out a chasm through a male hierarchical culture and refusing to be ignored gives the next generation a path to follow.

Angeles Undurraga, executive director of Dale Sentido, summed it up best: “Today we are living in an era in which opportunities come with connectivity and access to information. Today we only need to give that access; they have the passion to do the rest.”

Maxwell Kangkolo is the co-founder of The GO Project.