By Andrea Greenstein
Nearly six months ago, I joined seven of my classmates at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs to conduct research on behalf of Women Forward International and Pro Mujer Mexico. As graduate students from five different countries, we brought a combination of professional and academic experiences focused on financial inclusion, public policy, and gender equity.
All entrepreneurs rely on capital to grow their businesses, yet Pro Mujer discovered that women receive less funding than their male counterparts. Given this problem, we were asked to identify ways investors in Mexico could reach more female entrepreneurs, address conscious or unconscious bias, and evaluate whether existing financial instruments were sufficient.
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, women-led firms receive less funding, contributing to a credit gap of $93 billion among small and medium enterprises. Within the region, only 25 percent of firms are led by women and these firms remain significantly smaller than those led by men, limiting overall economic potential. We began our research with the goal of interviewing investors and female entrepreneurs leading small and medium enterprises in Mexico to better understand the barriers they face when raising capital.
We were enthusiastic about traveling to Mexico City to conduct our fieldwork. However, one week before our scheduled departure for Mexico City, our team received unsettling information. Due to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia University had cancelled all travel. New York City, like many cities around the world, remains on lockdown. Many of my classmates have urgently packed up their lives in New York City to move home. Many small businesses have shuttered and the unemployment rate has reached record highs. Like many other cities around the world, New York’s economic future is uncertain.
Our team has adapted quickly to the new norms of working remotely. Our interviewees in Mexico agreed to meet with us over video chat on Zoom. As a team, we check-in multiple times per week to discuss our research from different time zones in New York City, Bogota, Seattle and Los Angeles. Working from our apartments, we have collectively interviewed nearly 50 investors, accelerators, entrepreneurs, and policy experts.
From our interviews, I was impressed that despite the financial constraints female entrepreneurs often encountered, they were persistent in finding alternative ways to sustain their businesses. If investors labeled their businesses as “too-risky” based on gendered assumptions, these entrepreneurs found another (more challenging) path forward.
Now amid the ongoing pandemic, both investors and entrepreneurs face severely limited resources. There is a significant risk that the existing disconnect between investors and female entrepreneurs will grow even wider. However, I have learned that female entrepreneurs are used to dealing with scarcity, uncertainty, and risk. They have been resilient. Yet, like all entrepreneurs, they require financial resources to grow.
On May 21st we will present our research findings and recommendations at the Aspen Institute in Mexico . The financial resources available to many entrepreneurs may be disrupted. However, after meeting remotely with so many resilient entrepreneurs, I believe that Pro Mujer’s vision remains true: we must recognize “the potential that women entrepreneurs have for both, growing the economy and positively impacting their communities,” especially in times of scarcity and uncertainty.
Alejandra Cordero, Daniella Gomez Bonilla, Erika Martinez Fernandez, Hugo Spaulding, Amun Kamran, Shivika Chauhan, David Bassini Ortiz, and Andrea Greenstein are graduate students at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, currently working on the upcoming report, “Bridging the Gap Between Women-led SMEs and Impact Investors to Move the Needle in Gender Smart Investing in Latin America.”
Photo: Alejandra Cordero, Daniella Gomez Bonilla, Erika Martinez Fernandez, Hugo Spaulding, Amun Kamran, Shivika Chauhan, David Bassini Ortiz, and Andrea Greenstein meeting on Zoom to discuss research plan and interviews. Photo by Shivika Chauhan.