Fintech South America

High-Flying Latin American Female Executives Talk Diversity, Sexism and Getting Ahead in Fintech

The fintech industry is booming in Latin America – and it’s women who are spearheading the charge. Increased smartphone ownership, internet penetration and e-commerce adoption have provided a massive opportunity for innovative startups to supply the region’s unbanked, underbanked and SMEs.

No longer lagging behind Europe and the US, the fintech industry in Latin America (which spans the countries of South America, Central America and Mexico), aided by light-touch regulation, is estimated to top $150bn (£118bn) by 2021. And, unlike in the male-dominated UK, it’s high-flying female executives who are leading the fintech charge.

Female executives in the region are occupying senior positions in some of Latin America’s biggest fintechs while figures show there are five times more female-founded fintechs in Latin America than the global average.

The Fintech Times spoke to three senior female fintech executives in Latin America about the challenges of getting to the top; the fintech landscape in Latin America; and whether they have encountered sexism, amongst other questions.

Claudia Quintanilla, Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of money exchange service Rextie; Ximena Aleman, co-founder and Chief Business Development Officer at open banking platform Prometeo, and Courtney McColgan, CEO and founder of payroll automation company Runa took part in the discussion.

Why is Latin America a hotbed of female-founded fintechs?

Aleman believes there could be a structural reason. She points out that opportunities for women to strike a healthy work-life balance are smaller in Latin America, compared to be other parts of the world, compelling women to launch startups. Aleman said: “Women have to create their own path towards that situation. That usually means building their own companies. 

“I think that this happening in fintech is just women analysing, grasping unattended needs and arriving to sound conclusions about how to seize the opportunities.”

Quintanilla, though, believes it might be too early to attribute reasons why female fintech founders are thriving in the region, pointing out that it is still an embryonic industry.

McColgan, who is from the US but works in Latin America, believes female founders (and male founders) are reaping the rewards of “huge greenfield markets” in Latin America where they compete against incumbents whose software “doesn’t work well.”

Is it easier for women to attain senior positions in fintech compared to other industries in Latin America?

McColgan says fintechs have work to do on the gender diversity front in the region. She said: “In terms of women in the workplace, it [Latin America] is even further behind than the United States. It makes Silicon Valley look advanced from what I have experienced here.”

Aleman agrees that more need to be done, highlighting that further inroads need to be made on the inclusion front. Quintanilla added that “it is not easy” for women to get a senior position but points to Peru, which boasts that 44 per cent of its fintechs have women on the founding team or in management roles, which is encouraging more women to replicate them. 

Have you experienced gender bias during your time working in fintech in Latin America?

McColgan says she has and believes others will have too. She said: “I have definitely come across the same issues as I am sure you will hear from other women. I have had a Mexican VC tell me I needed a Mexican male co-founder, which I thought was pretty entertaining.

McColgan, who has three children and who due to work commitments doesn’t see as much as she’d like of her children during the week, recounts the time when someone said to her “’don’t you feel guilty not seeing your kids and doing your part in the home space?’”

Quintanilla said she hasn’t experienced gender bias. But she adds: “However, I am also aware that the prejudices towards women and sexism still exist in our society. That means women have to do a higher effort to achieve the same position as a man.”

Figures show in Latin America that one in four women have children before 18. Is this restricting more women entering the fintech industry in Latin America? Aleman said “no” while Quintanilla said there is an “inequality” issue in the region producing a “great difference” in the educational and socioeconomic levels. 

That said, Quintanilla said fintechs in the region want a female on their steering committees to help better target the female market. McColgan says she thinks there is an “expectation that the women is the centre of the family in Latin America.”

Are you keen to hire more women?

Aleman says at Prometeo, 40 per cent of the team is female, amid plans to have 50 50 male/female balanced workforce.  Aleman adds: “You don’t build inclusion by chance, so you have to create a path towards it. “In tech, it means looking for women, giving them opportunities and promoting them into roles that bring them accomplishment and fulfilment.”

Quintanilla says Rextie is keen to hire more women and also “prepare and challenge them to grow in the company.” She adds: “We have to bet on more women in leadership positions, this will not only contribute to diversity but also generate an impact on reducing income equality.”

McColgan says the diversity of workforces in Latin America, in general, is “getting better.” She says that it’s something “people know it is something that they should be paying attention to” but that it “is still something of an issue.”

She talks about the company she previously worked at, Cabify, which opened in 130 cities and had all-male General Managers across all of those cities.  At Runa, 55 per cent of the workforce is female while over 70 per cent of management force is female.

What is biggest constraint to other women getting to senior positions in fintechs in Latin America?

Quintanilla said: “I would say that the main challenge that a woman has is the perseverance and resilience to pass the journey that will take her to a senior position.” For Aleman, time is the key factor. She said: “I think it’s a matter of time. For that to happen there’ still a lot to be done in work environment culture. “That’s creating safer work environments for women and tearing down preconceived notions, misconceptions and stereotypes.”

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