By Neeli Shah
Driven by the lack of affordable prescription eyeglasses in her home country, in 2015 Mariana Castillo co-founded Ben & Frank, a leading direct-to-consumer and omnichannel eyewear brand in Mexico, offering high-quality stylish prescription glasses and sunglasses at value-oriented prices. But starting the business was not without challenges for Castillo and her co-founders. Even though Ben & Frank was born digital, and its first online store was launched in 2015, their original business model was not sustainable because Mexico’s regulations didn’t allow individuals to fill eyeglass prescriptions online. As a result, in 2017, the company opened stores offering eye exams and glasses for purchase. Since then, Ben & Frank has grown to operate 64 stores in Mexico with a team of 600, is working on a new eyewear brand that will target lower socio-economic levels, and plans to expand into Chile.
Ben & Frank’s growth required support. The company was conceptualized as an e-commerce platform, so it was easy for them to attract customers once the regulations allowed them to fill their doctor’s prescriptions online. Business boomed during the pandemic – traditional retailers couldn’t compete with Ben & Frank. The company grew 30 percent in 2020 and online sales quadrupled. A key ingredient of their success would be a strong investor. Mariana and her co-founders found that partner in L Catterton, a global private equity fund manager dedicated to providing women-led businesses with growth stage funding in the consumer sector. “L Catterton’s support has been vital to our growth. In addition to fundraising, they have operational experience with direct-to-consumer brands. Also, with L Catterton we now have three female board members on our seven-person board,” explains Castillo.
Mariana Castillo, a Mexican entrepreneur, shares her journey as a co-founder of an eyeware brand. Photo: Courtesy of L Catterton.
Thousands of miles away in Brazil, Talita Lacerda, CEO of Petlove – the largest online pet retail brand in Brazil and L Catterton’s partner – echoes Castillo’s views about L Catterton. An innovative digital platform, Petlove is the leading online pet retail shop in Brazil supplying pet products, services and insurance. On Petlove’s relationship with L Catterton, Lacerda shares that they are “true partners,” and
L Catterton has been very deliberate in its efforts to back businesses that are women-led, women-founded, or target women customers. The company’s entire portfolio has either a woman founder, C-Suite executive, or board member. In addition to funding, L Catterton helps female executives by providing training, mentorship, and leadership support. To assist entrepreneurs like Castillo and Lacerda, IFC, with the support of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), has invested in L Catterton, one of the few private equity firms in Latin America with a female managing partner.
Farah Khan, Managing Partner at L Catterton. Photo: Courtesy of L Catterton.
The IFC and We-Fi investments are bolstered by technical support provided to L Catterton to increase the inclusion of more women-led businesses into their expanding investment pipeline in addition to identifying opportunities with other partners. Farah Khan, Managing Partner at L Catterton, said, “IFC as an investor in our fund is a tremendous voice for us. IFC has been proactive in helping us find financing solutions for our middle market businesses in Latin America. Further, IFC provides training and seminars that help us create a community and network of information sharing.”
L Catterton recognizes that executive women entrepreneurs face increased scrutiny and heightened pressure to perform in male-dominated boardrooms, and that role models of successful female leadership are scarce in some markets. To support women in executive positions, L Catterton has developed PRISM, a board development program for diverse executive leaders across the consumer sector. This program delivers curated content, networking and relationship-building opportunities to prepare executives for their board candidacies. Amanda Roberts, Operating Partner at L Catterton, shares: “There is an inherent need to change the course of the conversation in the boardroom and across executive teams. Our PRISM program is an effort to bring women’s voices and balanced and diverse perspectives into the boardroom.”
Petlove’s Lacerda has benefited from L Catterton’s focus on executive women entrepreneurs. “L Catterton has been our key supporter and enabler. We are the most diverse pet business in Brazil with over fifty percent of our leadership positions filled by women. Our association with L Catterton has resulted in making better decisions for the business, and for myself particularly, being a better leader.”
Talita Lacerda, CEO of the largest online pet retail brand in Brazil. Photo: Courtesy of L Catterton.
At Ben & Frank, Castillo has also benefited from L Catterton’s strategic support: “the biggest challenge for me and other entrepreneurs is that you have to force yourself to grow when the company grows. It's definitely a lonely journey, where you have to figure out how to be an indirect manager of 600 people, when prior to founding Ben & Frank I had never managed anyone except myself.”
Looking back at Ben & Frank’s growth over the past few years, Castillo is proud of her journey. She is particularly happy that “there are two women founders in the company,” and in her capacity as co-CEO, the company “has attracted diverse talent. I think that's an advantage.”
Published in March 2023