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The Power of Networks: The Importance of Mentorship & Sponsorship

Countless years of experience, precious knowledge, and connections in specific industries make mentors profoundly invaluable when starting a business. The wX Insights 2020 study reported that mentors and advisors are the second most common source of support for STEMpreneurs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The path to entrepreneurship is characterized by uncertainty, and mentors can help provide the clarity and validation that most entrepreneurs need to take the first step in turning their vision into a successful startup. Mentors can also act as bridges between entrepreneurs and funding opportunities. According to the wX Insights study, 79% of the STEMpreneurs with mentors have accessed formal sources of capital.

In this second article, four incredible women share their stories and wisdom gathered from their experiences as entrepreneurs and mentors over the years.

Find out why Ingrid Briggiler’s (Llamando al Doctor) father encouraged her to be mischievous at school. Then, discover what led Susana García-Robles (Capria) to found WeXchange, and why Silvia Torres Carbonell (WISE) draws an interesting analogy between entrepreneurship and entering a cave. And lastly, Andrea Puente (Panal Fresh) explains how she learned to lead by learning to follow.

Ingrid Briggiler, learning to take risks

Ingrid Briggiler is CEO of Llamando al Doctor, a service that offers qualified and immediate medical care via video call, available 24/7, 365 days a year. Ingrid was a finalist of the 2019 WeXchange Pitch Competition.

Originally from Santo Tomé in Argentina, Ingrid pursued a career in medicine and moved to Buenos Aires to complete her residency in gynecology.

Whether it was fundraising for a school field trip as a teenager, or raising capital for Llamando al Doctor as an adult, Ingrid inherited the entrepreneurial gene from her parents, who had their own business. They encouraged her to be self-sufficient and to be ambitious.

It was through Endeavor that she discovered the startup and venture capital world and that there existed billion-dollar companies called unicorns. At that moment, she decided that’s what she wanted to do.

Her family supported her wholeheartedly when she decided to start a business because they had been entrepreneurs themselves.

“If your family backs you, it’s easier to take risks. I think it’s important to encourage kids to be risk-takers, to try different things, to make mistakes. That’s how you learn and achieve interesting results,” said Ingrid.

She decided to start Llamando al Doctor because she had experienced the inefficiency of outdated healthcare systems and the growing need to introduce technology into the health sector. Ingrid explains that the demand for new technologies has been heightened and validated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her first mentor has always been her dad, who fostered curiosity and restlessness in her.

“When he would take us to school, he would tell my sisters and I to be mischievous and to have fun,” she recalled.

Throughout her career, she met other mentors. In the medical field, Dr. Luciano Cassab, Vice President of the Argentine Society of Mastology, taught her every secret and technique he knew about gynecological surgeries as she practiced to become a surgeon.

Her current mentor in the startup world is Adrian Lasso, co-founder and CIO at Baufest, who has helped Ingrid in her personal and professional growth. She explains that mentors should identify an entrepreneur’s strengths and weaknesses and help maintain or correct them.

Her first mentor has always been her dad, who fostered curiosity and restlessness in her.

Ingrid considers that finding someone who aligns with her values in terms of what they want in life, what interests and motivates them is the first step in choosing a mentor. Once that is settled, they can discuss commercial strategies, regional expansion, internationalization, and any other aspect of the business.

She seeks a mentor that has extensive experience in his or her field so that he or she can teach her through personal experience.

“I want someone to teach me how to start a company only if they’ve already done it. Learn about where they stumbled, where they made mistakes, so that I can avoid that same mistake. […] That’s kind of what the clinical professor figure is about,” Ingrid explained.

With this in mind, Ingrid considers mentor networks to be fundamental. Entrepreneurs need stimulation from a third party to validate their idea by accompanying them in the risk of starting a company and to advise them against frequent mistakes.

In that matter, Ingrid organizes monthly meetings for female entrepreneurs from across the region to connect and discover new commercial opportunities. She also encourages entrepreneurs to mentor each other.

“It’s important for us to be mentors to the younger entrepreneurs and for women of the same generation that have similar interests to stay together. A very enriching community can come of that, in which one can learn from the experiences of other countries in Latin America that can be applied to one’s own country. It’s very valuable,” Ingrid stated.

Susana García-Robles, supporting real women with real ventures

Susana García-Robles is co-founder of WeXchange, Executive Advisor at LAVCA, and Venture Partner at Capria. She has been supporting high growth entrepreneurship among women in Latin America and the Caribbean since 1999.

After graduating from the university in Argentina where she studied Philosophy and Education, Susana moved to the US where she worked for foundations for several years. Then, she relocated to New York City where she started representing different countries in global United Nations conferences taking place in Cairo, Istanbul, China, and The Hague, to name a few.

There, she realized the plight of developing countries and the lack of input they had in final negotiations. Recognizing this problem, Susana was inspired to work for a place that would have the financial resources to address the challenges of emerging markets, especially Latin America.

While studying International Economic Development at SIPA at Columbia University, she was introduced to the Multilateral Investment Fund/MIF (today, IDB Lab) and ended up doing a summer internship there. After that experience, she was determined to continue working for the MIF, and returned in 1999. In collaboration with the innovation arm of the Brazilian government, she jumpstarted Brazil’s VC ecosystem through the MIF.

“This experience taught me that the entrepreneur had to be at the center of all efforts and that all efforts on the private and public side had to converge on democratizing access to finance because an entrepreneur without access to finance is an entrepreneur on its way to extinction!” commented Susana.

The success of the program led her to replicate it in Colombia, Peru, Jamaica, and other countries, nurturing entrepreneurship throughout the region. As Susana invested in the region, it became apparent that most of the founders and fund managers were men.

“By 2012, the only woman co-founder and partner of a LATAM VC firm that I knew was Marta Cruz, from NXTP,” explained Susana.

Susana’s active participation in industry events and articles, as well as her social media presence, made her approachable to women entrepreneurs that were seeking guidance in the challenges they were facing in the entrepreneurial world. She soon realized that there was a real need for women to have a mentor to improve the chances of obtaining funding for their startups.

According to Susana, a big part of mentorship involves growing a thick skin to address the biases of the male-dominated world of investment.

She soon realized that there was a real need for women to have a mentor to improve the chances of obtaining funding for their startups.

Around 2011, the IDB Lab started focusing on looking at investments from a gender lens perspective. For several months, they held calls and meetings with women and men: fund managers, angel investors, and key players in the ecosystem from the private and public sectors.

“It was 2011 and, still, all role models in Latam were mainly men … Reaching out to the wisdom of the crowd, we had developed our own theory of what was missing,” explained Susana. She continued, “Women lacked role models, needed more mentoring and training, and needed to be put on stage to pitch their companies. And in this way, WeXchange was born.”

WeXchange, in addition to offering women entrepreneurs a platform to meet with investors, became an aggregator and an accelerator of many country initiatives that began doing mentorship and training programs for women.

“As we developed the WeXchange model we stretched the mentoring concept to sponsoring: those of us who had a following, needed to do more than mentoring –which happens privately–: we could mention the entrepreneurs and their ventures when we were speaking in panels or were asked about success stories; when writing an article or being interviewed. We were mentioning real women with real ventures, changing the image that the successful Latam entrepreneur was the guy who made money in the Internet boom and was a serial entrepreneur today,” explained Susana.

When seeking a mentor, Susana advises that women look for a mentor that can also be a sponsor; not to limit themselves to female mentors; have set goals and use the mentorship to find a way to get there; ask candid, pointed questions that really haunt you: ‘How did you face XYZ?’ ‘How to react when X tells me Y?’

Silvia Torres Carbonell, creating value through mentorship

Silvia Torres Carbonell is the General Director of the IAE Center of Entrepreneurship, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the General Director of WISE Women in STEM Entrepreneurship. She has supported many entrepreneurs through various mentorship programs.

Silvia has always been inspired by entrepreneurship and the idea of creating value. With many years of experience under her belt as an entrepreneur and a genuine interest in supporting others in their growth, Silvia has become an established mentor in her native Argentina.

Over thirty years ago, Silvia was at the forefront of innovation introducing water coolers to Argentina through her first company Villa Alpina. She experienced firsthand the struggles of starting and running a business, with over 250 people under her leadership, and the challenges of a country with hyperinflation. Although she didn’t come from an entrepreneurial family, her father had instilled in her a fighting spirit.

With many years of experience under her belt as an entrepreneur and a genuine interest in supporting others in their growth, Silvia has become an established mentor in her native Argentina.

Driven by her passion for creating value, Silvia has since partaken in many boards and initiatives to stimulate entrepreneurial activity in the country. She started teaching classes about entrepreneurship and joined the IAE (Austral University’s Business School) to lead a project with the IDB to promote the development of SMEs in Argentina. And that’s when she truly fell in love with the startup world.

After traveling to the US for a research project, she came back to Argentina and created the first Center for Entrepreneurs in 1999, and a few years later created the country’s first angel investors club. She became an advocate of entrepreneurial activity as the seed for the development and creation of wealth and prosperity in a country.

As the years went by, she became a huge proponent for women entrepreneurs, taking on leadership roles like President of the Argentine chapter of the International Women Forum. In promoting women, Silvia discovered the impact of mentorship.

“I believe that human beings are the only beings in which attitudes and behaviors can be changed, and this happens– among other ways– through education, empathy, and shared experience. Through collaboration. Ultimately, that’s what mentorship is,” commented Silvia.

She compares being an entrepreneur to entering a foggy cave, where the path is full of uncertainty. A mentor becomes the flashlight that shows the entrepreneur where to step. It does not replace the hands, the legs, the mind, the capabilities, the passion or the will of the entrepreneur, she explains. It illuminates the path, revealing the possible dangers or obstacles, as well as the possible paths and consequences of choosing one over the other.

Mentorship is particularly important for women because, according to Silvia, they usually have less access to financial, technological, and sometimes, intellectual, resources. However, those are just the external obstacles. Silvia explains that women also have internal obstacles: fear of failure, embarrassment, insecurity about their capabilities, extreme self-imposed pressure, and lack of networks that male entrepreneurs usually have. Overcoming the external obstacles with a mentor, either female or male, can help a woman overcome the internal obstacles as well.

When choosing a mentor, Silvia emphasizes the importance of making a conscious choice. It has to be a person the entrepreneur trusts and that shares his or her values, but provides different perspectives. The mentor ought to challenge and question the entrepreneur.

“[The mentor] should force you to rethink your projects, make you ask yourself the questions you sometimes avoid,” said Silvia. She added, “Not everything your mentor says is necessarily the truth. But everything your mentor says forms part of your toolbag. Nothing that is advised is insignificant.”

Above all, Silvia considers that the best way to make the most out of a mentorship program is by being fully committed: be punctual, respect the mentor’s time, take note of everything, and know which questions to ask. Mentors are usually putting in hours, experience, and work that is most of the time offered out of generosity.

Silvia considers that the best way to make the most out of a mentorship program is by being fully committed: be punctual, respect the mentor’s time, take note of everything, and know which questions to ask.

In the case of STEMpreneurs, Silvia has observed through the WISE program that many are extremely qualified in their fields, but they lack experience in the business world. Mentors are key in building that bridge between the academic and business world.

And a final piece of advice from Silvia to make the most out of mentorships and support networks,

“It’s a blessing that is available today in the entrepreneurial world. A few years ago this didn’t exist. When I started my business, there was no one to consult about practically anything. Universities weren’t talking about these issues, there weren’t any networks, NGOs, or organizations that worked for entrepreneurs. So this is a unique opportunity. Don’t waste it.”

Andrea Puente, seeking expertise and empathy

Andrea Puente is the CEO and co-founder of Panal Fresh, an online marketplace that creates connections between farmers and food suppliers allowing them to display and sell their products, reducing their delivery cost and increasing their profit margins. Andrea was also a finalist of the 2019 WeXchange Pitch Competition.

“In my city, people live to eat. There are lots of restaurants and we eat at all hours. We eat after we eat, ” laughed Andrea.

Inspired by her home city, Cochabamba, which is Bolivia’s Gastronomic Capital, Andrea developed a solution that aligned with the city’s appetite. As a software engineer turned serial entrepreneur, Andrea is leading her most recent venture, Panal Fresh.

Devoted to volunteer work since the age of 15, Andrea is deeply affected by the problems her country faces and is passionate about using technology to develop innovative solutions that will help Bolivia prosper. Despite having this emotional connection with these causes, in her mind, volunteering and her job were two separate worlds. Before WeXchange, she used to think that there was no space in entrepreneurship for women to be sensitive.

Andrea also hadn’t realized that men had more access to certain circles in the startup world. Her approach to finding success in the playing field was to be tougher, colder, more professional, and focus on improving her abilities. WeXchange was the first time Andrea had been surrounded by so many women entrepreneurs. This encounter opened her eyes up to the emotional side of running a business.

At the time of the competition, Andrea was going through a difficult moment in her life. She had lost close family members and her home country, Bolivia, was engulfed in political and social turmoil. Running the business left her little time to grieve, and without realizing it, she had bottled up her emotions.

However, the other women entrepreneurs at WeXchange were able to give her the emotional support she didn’t know she needed, and she delivered her pitch –with the Bolivian flag in hand.

“It was really emotional. I had so many emotions going through me, and even so, I had to deliver the pitch. As I said, you don’t stop. And to have someone that understands that, and can also say that they’re there for you… That was incredible,” reflected Andrea.

Part of that realization also helped Andrea understand that society expects a lot from women: to work, to be a good daughter, friend, or mother. She reminds them that they should not be judged for having resignations.

“It’s not always possible to be everything at once,” confirmed Andrea.

Andrea also makes great emphasis on having a team in order to be successful. Many entrepreneurs start out on their own and do not seek to build a team.

“Without a team, you won’t be able to achieve the great things you are imagining,” she advised.

When choosing a mentor, Andrea looks for expertise and empathy. She tries to absorb as much knowledge as she can from the role models she meets along the way but also stresses the importance of following someone who is willing to teach. There are many experts, but some are not willing to share that knowledge.

“To learn how to lead, first, you need to learn how to follow,” stated Andrea. She added, “There are mentors that are willing to teach you everything they know or serve as a guide and tell you ‘Read this book. Talk to that person. Send it over, I have 15 minutes now to review it,’ and that’s really valuable.”

Andrea’s final piece of advice:

“Remember your first steps. There will always be someone behind and someone in front of you, so provide a hand to whoever you can,” said Andrea.

These four inspiring women gathered a few questions a STEMpreneur should be ready to answer when meeting a mentor or potential sponsor:

  • What is your purpose?
  • Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur? Why this startup?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years? And what about the company?
  • Why did you choose your team?
  • What is the main problem you are trying to solve? Why do you want to solve it? And why should you and your team be the ones to solve this problem?
  • How will you do it? What business model will you use? What type of financing will you seek?
  • Are you addressing a real problem? If you find the solution, is it scalable and can it address a potential $1B market?

But most importantly, Silvia reminded entrepreneurs:

“If you don’t have an answer, don’t fabricate one. But do show an enormous openness to the question being asked and then dedicate yourself to searching for the answer. And don’t stop until you find one.”

WeXchange is an initiative powered by the IDB Lab, the innovation laboratory of the Inter-American Development Bank that connects women entrepreneurs in the STEM fields from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) with a strong network of mentors and investors.

Every year, WeXchange organizes forums and initiatives like the Women STEMpreneurs Competition to help unlock the tremendous potential women have to transform the entrepreneurial landscape in LAC. In line with their mission, this is the second of a series of articles that intends to give visibility to the stories and voices of women STEMpreneurs in LAC.