Participants of the Itaú’s Women Entrepreneurs Acceleration Program.

Participants of the Itaú’s Women Entrepreneurs Acceleration Program. Photo by: Elaine Coutrin

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By Shirley Emerick and Bruna Sandrini

On the surface, Raíssa, Iana and Priscilla are worlds apart. Their businesses are separated by more than 4,000 kilometers. One is focused on education services, another on agricultural technology and another on climate-friendly consumer products for women.

But they share a common purpose: helping Brazil develop sustainably, while showing that female entrepreneurs can succeed in a country where women-owned businesses face more hurdles than enterprises owned by men.

These challenges usually don’t come to surface in the early stages of a new business, but appear later down the road. Data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a networked consortium that provides research on entrepreneurship around the world, shows that even though women account for a similar portion of new businesses in Brazil as men, women are much less likely to own an established business. While there is clearly a strong female entrepreneurial spirit in Brazil, fewer women remain entrepreneurs over time. Many of them still face difficulties in accessing finance and balancing family and business commitments.

"I invested everything I had in my business, and two years later everything went wrong. In 2019, my mission was to turn the tables because it wasn't about me, but about the farmers who had placed their trust in what had already been built," says Priscilla Veras, CEO of Muda Meu Mundo (“Change My World” in Portuguese), a business intelligence platform that connects small farmers with large retailers while tracking socio-environmental information.

"We wanted to scale the project without having to prove the viability of our business all the time," explains Raíssa Kist, who runs the company Herself, which develops ecologically friendly period panties and bikinis with local manufacturing.

"Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey, and being a woman entrepreneur has its additional challenges, such as the lack of representation and obstacles in understanding financing, as we are not encouraged to learn more about it," says Iana Chan of PrograMaria, which is focused on introducing women to technology sector by providing training, networking, and connections to the job market.

These challenges led them to sign up for the Programa de Aceleração Itaú Mulher Empreendedora (Banco Itaú Women Entrepreneurs Acceleration Program), which is focused on impact entrepreneurs. The new format includes a partnership between IFC and Banco Itaú with a unique methodology from the Yunus Social Business and Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV). Among nearly 300 applications, six were selected for a boot camp, mentoring, and demo day experience. It involved 60 hours of training, 30 hours of individual mentoring, the preparation of a pitch for potential investors, and follow-up evaluation of results.

Iana, Priscilla and Raíssa, among other participants of the Itaú’s Women Entrepreneurs Acceleration Program, during the training.
Iana, Priscilla and Raíssa, among other participants of the Itaú’s Women Entrepreneurs Acceleration Program, during the training. Photo by: Elaine Coutrin

The support network created and cultivated in this period was one of the strengths of the program. "We have other women as reference points who know our pain and our experience, and this builds confidence," says Raíssa. The interaction happens almost daily, with participants making connections and exchanging messages through WhatsApp. "We are an inseparable support group, and I still count on follow-up from the mentors," says Priscilla. Each new idea is shared, and victories are celebrated among the group. "We have created a secure environment to share vulnerabilities and expose our challenges, helping us realize that we are not alone," adds Iana.

The program was run during the pandemic and was a practical exercise in business management. Herself applied marketing, brand positioning, and branding lessons and invested in an online model. Sales increased by 150 percent compared to 2019, and the products gained international exposure with an expansion into Uruguay. The business model is based on producing technological period panties and bikinis, demystifying menstruation and offering women an alternative option while reducing waste. The products are made of 100% Brazilian, patented technical fabrics and are manufactured locally, in a factory in the metropolitan region of Porto Alegre that produces exclusively for Herself.

Muda Meu Mundo also saw growth in revenue stemming from the improved focus of the business plan. When street markets were closed and social isolation was enforced during the pandemic, the company connected small farmers with supermarket chains via an online platform. There are 110 farmers registered, and they doubled their sales in 2020, and within the first three months of 2021, they have already achieved a 50 percent increase in revenue. Priscilla says the acceleration program helped her align the business, including how it is presented, which attracted an investment fund, with conversations being held with other interested parties.

The benefit was visible for PrograMaria in the number of women served, as well as in revenue. The business model combined its initial focus on companies (B2B) with target consumers (B2C), and saw a significant increase in students enrolled in courses. Starting with just over 700 women impacted in 2019, more than 4,000 were served in 2020. Investing in online courses expanded the base throughout Brazil and attracted women living in other countries. Revenues grew by about 270 percent. With a more mature business process, PrograMaria drew the interest of more companies to sponsor women who do not have the resources, boosting its social impact.

The Acceleration Program of Itaú Mulher Empreendedora was born from discussions between the IFC, Banco Itaú, and Yunus, in a proposal to select established social impact businesses. "The choice of the best partners was essential to achieving our goal to maximize women's transformative power," explains Helene Meurisse, IFC Operations Officer responsible for technical advisory projects for financial institutions. The mentoring format, which addresses the specific challenges for each business, and the follow-up one year after the program are two components that have benefitted participants and partners. Meurisse says that the detailed, in-depth knowledge of female entrepreneurship will be applied in other projects.

Itaú was the first private Brazilian bank to launch a program to support women's entrepreneurship. The proposal arose in 2013 from IFC's technical advisory role. "From the vision of opportunity presented by IFC, we started doing research and analysis of our female customer base in the corporate segment. Today, for example, we have a public goal to increase the volume of credit for women entrepreneurs, with periodic monitoring and reporting," explains Luciana Campos, Itaú's Sustainability and Entrepreneurship Manager. For the bank, IFC's credibility and its ability to mobilize the women's entrepreneurship agenda have been vital to gaining ground in the market. "We have increased our speed of reaction to business opportunities, and the partnership with IFC endorses our strategy of acting internally and externally," she adds.

In the Acceleration Program's final event, the women entrepreneurs incorporated the five months of learning in five-minute presentations to potential investors. "It was a remarkable moment that highlighted the evolution of the women entrepreneurs and business models after the program, incorporating impact metrics in strategies and the message," says Luciana. Twenty-seven connections were made, and some companies and investors contacted the women entrepreneurs. The 2020 figures show that the social impact was significant on this group and exhibit several success stories. The different trajectories and efforts reveal the potential of women entrepreneurs in Brazil and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Published in June 2021