Role models

Advancing sustainable growth, one woman at a time

Starting out as a microlender, over the decades Pro Mujer has grown to become much more than your typical financial institution. In addition to providing small-dollar loans to women, the company offers healthcare services, education and support groups to its customers, all in a bid to empower underserved women in Latin America to realize their full potential. What’s the payoff? Well, turns out that women not only are statistically very diligent in repaying the money they borrow — resulting in overall low default rates and thus a successful investment — but also they tend to reinvest about 90% of their income back into their families. This, in turn, leads to sustainable economic growth within underserved communities.

W Insight chatted with Maria Cavalcanti, CEO of Pro Mujer, about the company’s mission and long-term vision. 

Pro Mujer is dedicated to helping women in Latin America. Why do you specifically help women?

Maria Cavalcanti

Data show that most of the money that you invest in women is reinvested in their families and communities. Women are very powerful agents of change in their countries and they are, in most cases, the key to unleashing prosperity in the region. So we feel that it’s important for us to work with them to provide relevant opportunities. We provide healthcare, financial services and education. And we’ve just started investing in their businesses so that we push that idea further and multiply our impact even more. 

You work with low-income women primarily. What major challenges do they face and how do you tackle them? 

We work with women who usually don’t have ways of getting into financial institutions; they’re not “bankable.” In some countries, they also have to have the signature of a father, brother, husband to get a loan. We help those women get the necessary documents to apply for a loan with us – even if they don’t have a credit history or a house. Thanks to this they can develop their own credit history. 

We also provide primary care for the women we work with, as well as for their children. This is extremely important. Imagine, if you run a micro-business, let’s say you sell food on the street. If you want to go to a doctor, you have to sacrifice several hours of your work – hours that you won’t earn income. This is why often time women will not take care of themselves. They simply can’t afford to lose that income. So we want to make it as convenient for them as possible to have access to primary care. Basically – we put a doctor very close to our bank branch. When women come to the bank, they can see the doctor.

What’s in it for you? 

Let me clarify that we are a large group and we have both for-profit and not-for-profit entities. In some countries we only run for-profit operations, in others, we can do both.

But I also wanted to address one myth.

There are people saying that investing in women is risky. And it’s actually the opposite. Women are often more cautious when they borrow money. They are much more careful and conservative in terms of how they utilize the money and they have very high levels of repayment. So the default rates are very low among women.

You’ve been a CEO of Pro Mujer since 2016. What has been the biggest challenge for you so far? 

Pro Mujer will be celebrating 30 years in 2020. We have so far invested $3.6bn in women. We have had over nine million medical interventions and worked with over two million people in six countries. What is challenging for me right now is to determine what we want to achieve in the next 30 years. How do we develop the organization both internally, in terms of infrastructure, as well as when it comes to its position in the industry? I would like to see exponential growth in the coming years. 

How do you ensure exponential growth for a company that’s already so large? 

Right. But you should consider that the Latin American population is at about 620 million.  25% of those people are living in poverty, with half of them women, we’re talking about 80 million women that are in vulnerable conditions in Latin America. So there’s a lot to be done. 

Interview by: Joanna Socha

Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka

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