The early years of a startup are usually challenging, but Cristina Junqueira had it harder than most. It was 2013 and she was the only female co-founder at Brazilian fintech Nubank, and she was pregnant. She was at the firm’s cramped first office in São Paulo when her water broke.
The entrepreneur rushed to the hospital, answering calls with regulators and answering customer emails all the while. The day after giving birth to her first child, she was back in the office.
At the time, Nubank was a small fintech co-founded by David Vélez, Edward Wible, and Junqueira. They wanted to create a company that improved the customer banking experience by reducing bureaucracy in access to services and high fees, a standard in the heavily-concentrated Brazilian market. The firm’s initial offering, a no-fee credit card, expanded into a range of financial products and a digital account, aimed primarily at the 45 million unbanked Brazilians, a customer base that sector incumbents had largely neglected.
Junqueira has no regrets about the sacrifices she made for the business, but doesn’t like to boast about them either: “It was really tough, but it was needed. If I hadn’t done things that way, Nubank wouldn’t have grown the way it has,” she adds.
Six years later, Junqueira is now pregnant with her second child, and things at work are very different. Nubank’s credit card was the first to allow Brazilians to apply for and check their balance entirely via mobile, so the company has benefited from fast smartphone adoption (the country has more phones than its 209 million people, according to business school Fundação Getúlio Vargas). Today, Nubank is the world’s largest digital bank outside Asia, and is valued at over $10 billion.
While Junqueira expects to have more a relaxed childbirth this time around, she points out that Nubank’s policies designed to support its female employees are very much informed by her early struggles. “Many of the structural choices we’ve made in terms of gender equality and inclusion are reflective of the fact that I have been here from the beginning,” says Junqueira, who previously held various senior jobs in banking, a male-dominated industry compounded by the macho culture seen in Latin countries.
“Looking back at my corporate career, I remember how tough it was [to work in] those predominantly male environments and do things like wear suits just to fit in,” she recalls. “When I co-founded Nubank, I was determined to create a working environment without all the stupid barriers that are very detrimental to women’s career development. Nobody has to go through what I went through.”
Diversity as a talent magnet
Nubank’s policies that address gender equality include bringing more women into its technology teams. This year, the bank, which relies heavily on technical expertise, hosted its second “Yes, She Codes!” a recruitment process specifically targeted at female software developers. The most recent event, held in August, attracted more than 2,800 candidates from all over Brazil.
The company is also doing a lot to minimize the role of bias in its operations. It uses blind recruitment to minimize biases in the hiring process. It has a mentoring scheme specifically for female leaders, which involves discussion groups aimed at tackling unconscious bias. And Nubank has a program that allows new mothers to stay connected with their professional purpose while they take their six months of family leave (new fathers are granted 20 days of leave).
All this translates to a more inclusive culture. Women now make up 43% of the digital bank’s workforce of over 2,000 people, including 30% of all senior roles. By comparison, women account for only 8% of senior roles in the banking sector overall in Brazil, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
According to software engineer Maite Balhester, who has worked at Nubank since July 2018, the fintech’s focus on building diverse teams and its reputation as a place where women can thrive professionally helped it stand out as a place she wanted to work: “What really makes the difference here is knowing that what I have to say will be heard and valued,” she says. “I know I have the support of other female engineers and leaders, which makes me more confident in terms of performing my role within the team.”
Junqueira knows the value of what she’s helped build. “Nubank has a reputation for being a workplace where people can be themselves. That created an almost viral movement where we can access a pool of talent that only a few companies are able to tap into,” she says.
The accolades have rolled in. Over the last two years, the digital bank has been most desired startup to work for in Brazil, according to yearly rankings produced by LinkedIn. And in 2019, Fast Company named Nubank the most innovative business in Latin America.
Though women make up a much higher proportion of the staff at Nubank than its competitors, that’s not good enough for Junqueira. She wants half of the company’s staff to be women.
“We are very close to achieving that goal. Given that we are at the intersection of technology and banking, both sectors that have a historic gender imbalance, we are way above industry average and very close to reaching the point of equilibrium,” Junqueira says.
To get there, Nubank is hiring a head of diversity and inclusion. The company is still defining the scope of the job, but the overall mission will be to develop a range of specific hiring and human resources policies for Brazil and other markets, such as Mexico and Argentina, where it is growing.
Nubank’s fast growth as a business and attractiveness as a destination workplace is inspiring other Brazilian companies to consider how they recruit and retain workers. According to Junqueira, the industry as a whole is becoming increasingly conscious of the role of diversity as they hire, too.
“Traditional companies are uncomfortable because they are losing talent directly to us as they are less able to attract younger professionals to whom things like diversity and inclusion are very important,” Junqueira says. “The role of businesses has changed: they cannot think only about providing returns to shareholders, they have to think of the entire ecosystem, which includes staff.”
Junqueira thinks businesses abroad should take note of Nubank’s success, too. In the United States, half of startups have no women in leadership roles, according to a report from Silicon Valley Bank. Junqueira argues that companies that make as much money as Nubank have an even lower proportion of female leaders.
“When you look at the gender equality situation among startups in the US and consider how far we’ve come as a business, it is clear that the world can learn from what we are doing,” Junqueira says.
Beyond driving initiatives specifically aimed at boosting diversity in the workforce, Junqueira believes that transforming workplaces to truly include underrepresented groups should be a priority for senior leadership: “Businesses need to create environments where people don’t need to worry about the way they dress and look like, whether their opinions will be taken into account, or having to lead some sort of ‘double life’, hiding aspects of their personality due to their gender or sexual orientation,” she adds.
“We built Nubank from zero despite Brazil’s banking oligopoly and a hostile business environment—if we could make it happen while ensuring inclusion, people have no excuse to not do it in their own organizations.”