The CEO of Pro Mujer on how women are key to Latin America’s success

Maria Cavalcanti, CEO of Pro Mujer
Maria Cavalcanti, CEO of Pro Mujer
Image: Courtesy Pro Mujer
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In the last decade, the largest driver of GDP growth in Latin America has been an expansion of the labor force. That’s been tied in part to the increased participation of women. On average, across the region, female labor force participation grew from 47% to 52%, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report (pdf).

But just because more women are joining the workforce doesn’t mean they are getting good jobs; on the contrary, reads the report, “women in Latin America are more likely to participate in the informal, or less productive, economy rather than taking formal, high-productivity, and high-wage jobs.” The solution, the authors say (pdf), is “raising skills and raising numbers—the latter by removing barriers to women who want to work entering the labor market.”

For 30 years, one nonprofit group has focused on bringing Latin American women into the formal labor force and giving them the skills to succeed there. Pro Mujer provides financial, health, and educational services to poor women in Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. It does this because evidence suggests that when women make money, they tend to reinvest it into their families and communities at much higher rates than men. When this “ripple effect” reaches a critical mass, it can benefit economies. According to the Clinton Global Initiative (pdf), “closing the gender gap in education adds half a percent to a country’s per capita gross national product.”

Those are principles that Maria Cavalcanti, the CEO of Pro Mujer, believes in. She brings them up often when she talks about the work she and her organization do in the region. Cavalcanti, who is originally from Brazil, worked in the corporate world for more than a decade before transitioning into philanthropy and impact investing—investments in companies with initiatives geared towards social good. In 2016, she took the reins of Pro Mujer. In the years since, she has grown the group’s partnerships to deliver hard and soft skills trainings to women entrepreneurs and launched an investment fund to invest in companies that strive towards gender parity in their leadership and supply chains.

Quartz met with Cavalcanti at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, Canada, to talk about the importance of financial inclusion for women’s empowerment and gender equality in the workplace.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: What is the situation like for women in Latin America today and how have you seen it evolve over time?

Cavalcanti: I moved away from Brazil when I was 19. And throughout my career, I have… always seen the status of poor women in Latin America. The doors are always so much bigger, so much harder to push [open], and the doorknob is really high so you can’t necessarily just push it.

Over the last two decades, more women have entered the labor market in Latin America than before. And that has had a very important impact on the GDP of the region and on the eradication of extreme poverty. What concerns me is that women are entering the market, but into what jobs? These jobs sometimes don’t have the right pay scale, they’re not quality jobs, and that don’t have a career path. And that’s what we want to change.

If Latin America were to really fully engage women and if the gap would end between men and women in the quality of their jobs, Latin America would increase its GDP by 60%. And that is a very key number because that would allow for full eradication of poverty, and not just extreme poverty. What we have seen is that these women have left extreme poverty but they’re now stuck in a space where [organizations] say, ‘we already did what we need to do because you already have a job.’ So they are what I call in a vulnerable poverty level. Something happens, and they go back into it.

What’s the biggest challenge for Latin American women in the workplace?

The biggest challenge in Latin America in the workplace today is still gender-based violence. Women are still getting raped at work and… companies are not being held accountable for that. They will sometimes say it’s the woman’s fault, or sometimes even if it’s the man’s fault, the company still is washing its hands and saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ We need to really put in place physical security of women.

What is Pro Mujer?

Pro Mujer, over the last 30 years, has deployed over $3.6 billion in loans, all for low-income women. We have done over 9 million medical consultations. And we have worked with over 2 million women… in six countries in Latin America. And we are looking into how we can expand our footprint and our services and products portfolio —but not doing it ourselves, being a platform for others to come in.

We’re going to be 30 years old next year. We work in financial services, healthcare, and education. And I want to push the envelope, I want to be thinking about what the organization should be in the next 30 years.

Can you tell me about a success story that shows why your model works?

We have examples of women that had no agency in their families, that had to be in situations of violence because they had nowhere to go. We work with 2 million women that were poor, that had nowhere to go. So the expectation is that they will borrow $500 [from Pro Mujer] and sell something on the street. Alejandra from Nicaragua, for example, borrowed her first $150 and opened a hardware store. And that hardware store got to be big, to the point that she’s now on the $30,000 level. That’s what we want to see.

There’s a woman in Mexico who was our client. She was literally destitute and didn’t really have her own documents. She was obese, she was destitute, she was on the street, and we started working with her. The first loan she borrowed was to sell [tacos] at a bus stop. Today, she just opened her second restaurant. But more than that, what I love about this is that she is a marathon runner. She looks fantastic, and for her, what was very important was to find someone that could manage the breakfast shift because that’s when she runs and she would not give up. This is a person that not only got to a point where she has her own means… but herself, has become a role model for other women.

Has gender inequality ever affected you personally in your career? 

I realized very early on that not having some of… the diplomas or if I had not checked some of the checkmarks, that anything could be utilized against me as a woman in the workplace. No matter that I spoke multiple languages, no matter that I had multicultural experience, no matter that I had more than three masters degrees, no matter that I had experience in multiple industries, sometimes [people in positions of power] would say, ‘well but it’s not an MBA.’ So, I went back and got an MBA. From the very beginning of my career, I was just like, ‘If I want to make a difference, I’m going to have to really elbow in a space at the table.’

I started having some very serious meetings with the [C-Suite] in large corporations like Fortune 500 companies. Sometimes I was delivering the results of an analysis… and it was obvious that being the only Latina, heavy accent, younger woman in the room, sometimes they would not pay attention and they would be making a comment on my hair, my accent. You learn very early on to redirect that. ‘You pay me a lot of money and this is going to be very key for your company; it’s better that you learn about that than discuss my accent.’ But how do you do it in a way that allows for the next level? Because if you fight too much, you’re not going to be at the next one.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I wish someone had told me earlier: All the things that make you different are the things that make you better. So, if you look from that perspective, it’s all about energy. And you can make it positive and negative. Being a short Latina with a multicultural background working with a lot of senior white men in the US was not easy. I sat at the table with a lot of very senior executives. But instead of being seen as a shortcoming, I should from the very early stage have said, “this makes me better.” I would not have paid for accent reduction courses. At one point, I realized: This is what makes me special. But it took time for me to get to that point. When I was able to embrace that, I realized how much more I have than what they had.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.