Editor’s note: Maria Rocio Paniagua currently works as a project manager at Innku, one of the top mobile and web workshops in Mexico. She is very passionate about all things technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. Follow her on Twitter.
The lack of women in technology in Latin America and the Caribbean is an issue whose cause has deep roots. Latin American women generally are not expected or encouraged to enter the hard sciences and engineering — medicine being one of the biggest exceptions. And unfortunately, private and public programs have yet to be developed or don’t provide the necessary resources to effect change. One exception is Chile, where public and private programs look to foster startups and entrepreneurship.
Contrast this with what’s been happening in the U.S. and Europe: The high positions that women hold, especially in the tech sector, as well as the entrepreneurial support they enjoy, has helped to create a trickle-down effect, resulting in more women in tech. In Latin America and the Caribbean, however, the numbers haven’t moved much. Women who have begun to appear in the startup scene tend to come from urban higher classes, and their numbers remain low. In addition, the number of women in technical positions (namely, CTOs) is also very low, even though entrepreneurship is currently dominated by educated individuals living in cities. Roughly one out of 15 women found in the startup scene is a coder. And, according to Startup Chile, only 1 out of every 10 team members in a startup is a woman.
Still, despite the barriers, there are examples of women disrupting not only businesses, but entire societies all over the continent. They are working hard to solve complex problems in societies where they have a lot working against them. Entrepreneurship has proven to be an area where the few that excel really go the distance, particularly where technology is concerned.
Last month, the UN organized a forum, which was hosted by UN Women in the city of Panamá, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Population Fund. The forum, entitled “Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Forum: Young Women Leadership and Governance, Sharing Experiences Worldwide,” attracted participants from civil and political organizations involved in the fight for equality and gender rights. And although entrepreneurship and technology were part of the agenda, only two participants and a couple of mentors came from the private industry, and just one represented the technology sector.
During the forum, the gaps between technology and social organizations became very clear. Most participants had very limited knowledge of the current technological resources available to them. Some representatives of indigenous groups were offline altogether. Women 2.0 did not attend the event, and few representatives from countries where the organization had recently launched its Founder Friday events (Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile) had heard about them or what they do.
And some interesting parallels were drawn between female entrepreneurs and activists in Latin America and the Caribbean: both groups strive in the midst of numerous and difficult obstacles and are used to assuming great amounts of responsibility. However, activism is typically an area that many women pursue; entrepreneurship — particularly technological — is not.
Despite the obstacles, examples of women throughout Latin America leading startups and entrepreneurial projects continue to surface. May Alba is a co-founder of Rubberit, a web platform that allows people to buy condoms online through monthly subscriptions. For every condom bought through Rubberit, DKT International donates another one to someone who can’t afford it. Rubberit just received its first shipment of DKT donations, which means they can return to their hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico, to distribute 5,000 condoms in one of the poorest communities in the area.
May says her original idea was not to start a web platform, but rather to develop an NGO to distribute condoms for free after seeing a good friend die from AIDS. Rubberit began with a social vision that matched entrepreneurship perfectly, particularly with the problem they’re facing: disrupting a mostly Catholic country where sex is taboo in many areas. May remained focused on solving her physical distribution problem but was running into all kinds of trouble.
She soon realized that helping people through a startup was easier and made more sense. It became more clear when someone directed her to Dollar Shave Club where she got the idea to develop Rubberit as an online subscription service. She went in search of a technical co-founder and her brother, who had recently begun to code, offered to help. With some luck, they met their current investors when a friend emailed them a link to the application page a couple of days before the closing date. They hustled to get a prototype together and went in for the interview. A few weeks later, they got some good news. “I didn’t over think it,” says May. “I just went with what felt right.”
Their biggest challenge has been distribution, since there is a widespread myth about the Mexican postal service not working. They have proved it does, since most of their distribution has been done through the regular national postal service. Getting the packaging right was no easy task, either. They make every package by hand, so it took seven prototypes to get to one that was sturdy enough, discrete, functional, and doable in under four minutes.
May says that their long-term goal for Rubberit is to become the main way condoms are bought (“the way you get water or gas — you get condoms and pay for them every month”). She says failure is an option only if they find another, more effective way to get condoms to everyone who needs them. Either way, they are keeping busy fighting big fights: namely teen pregnancy and AIDS.
Born near Buenos Aires, Argentina, and raised by a doctor and a schoolteacher, Vanesa Kolodziej moved to Boston to work during the Argentine economic crisis. While in Boston, she worked briefly at Junior Achievement, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs develop and scale through best practices. Soon after, she started her MBA at Babson College, though never finished her degree. She also managed Fortune 500 accounts as the Hispanic Director at BzzAgent, a venture-backed ad agency. After , she launched Bumeran. During the dot-com era, she led the creation of a crowd-buying company called Comunia. “It was a very intense period where I learned some of the harder lessons in my life as an entrepreneur,” she says.
Nowadays, after co-founding online tech community Palermo Valley for Argentina, she’s the managing partner and co-founder of Nazca Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund based in Santiago, Chile. It is the first Latin American “founders collective” fund where the five general and all limited partners are entrepreneurs. They started the firm when they identified a gap in the venture capital ecosystem in Latin America: there were hardly any early-stage investments. They are currently in their final stage of fundraising and will start investing in April 2013.
Vanesa considers being a woman in the tech industry in South America an advantage. “It helped me attract amazing talent, access key clients and vendors and develop long lasting partnerships.”
Even though Latin America still has a way to go to increase the opportunities for women in tech, the region has taken steps in the right direction. A lot has been said about the next great company coming from somewhere outside of the U.S. I’d also put my money on it not being founded by a man.