That is how Adriana Fernandes, a 46-year-old former television director from Brazil, describes her decision to launch a line of allergen-free foods in 2015.

Gluten-free bread and dairy-free “cheese” might be popular foods now, but back then, demand for fare like that was almost nonexistent.

“It wasn’t just me opening a simple business,” said Fernandes, a São Paulo mother whose son, Leo, has severe food allergies. “I was creating a market that didn't exist in Brazil.”

Fernandes grew her business with help from Itaú Mulher Empreendedora (Itaú Women Entrepreneurs), an accelerator program founded by Itaú Unibanco, the largest commercial bank in Brazil, which has had investment and advisory support from IFC.

The program provided Fernandes with mentoring, connected her to other entrepreneurs, and helped her develop a strategic plan for Mandala, her fledgling company. “It helped me to step away from the day-to-day operations of the business and think strategically about the future without fear,” said Fernandes.

Fernandes, whose company supplies everything from gluten-free bread to dairy-free brownies to hospitals, schools, and airlines, is one of more than 24,000 female entrepreneurs who have taken part in the Itaú Mulher Empreendedora program since its launch in 2014.

In 2013, IFC invested $470 million in Itaú to fund the expansion of its women-owned small and medium enterprises (WSMEs) program, and in subsequent years, IFC has also provided technical expertise to help build and strengthen the Itaú Mulher Empreendedora program. This remains the largest investment IFC has made through its Banking on Women program, which helps spur financing and channel advice to female entrepreneurs around the world.

Increasing access to finance for small- and medium-sized businesses owned by women is an important part of IFC’s strategy to expand inclusion and economic opportunities in the country. Almost half of Brazil’s businesses are run by women, 99 percent of which are micro or small enterprises. These businesses often struggle to secure financing: Brazil’s female-run small businesses face a financing gap of nearly $16 billion.

Initially, Fernandes struggled to get credit. In the early days of Mandala, facing what she calls an abundance of “machismo” in the startup world, she was turned away by many lenders.

“I joke that Mandala could be much bigger if I were 20 years old, were a man, and lived with my mother.”

Itaú Unibanco was willing to take a chance on Fernandes. The company provided her with a pair of loans, helping her to steadily grow Mandala into a company that now has 13 employees. Despite COVID-19, the company has seen revenues rise in 2020.

Fernandes plans to continue to expand the business, especially in e-commerce.

“I need to be careful with my words because [running a business] is not always glamorous,” she said. “But if you have a company that has a mission, that can transform lives, it can be an incredible journey.”

Banking on Women

Since its launch in 2010, IFC’s Banking on Women business has committed and mobilized 93 investments totaling more than $2.7 billion dedicated to women-owned enterprises and has advised on 50-plus projects in 32 countries. IFC’s advisory support for Itaú is supported by the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility, a partnership between IFC’s Banking on Women business and Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women. The facility is designed to improve access to finance for 100,000 women entrepreneurs worldwide.