WeXchange, the Sequel

WeXchange was born, with the idea of bringing members from different entrepreneurial communities together with two objectives: highlighting women entrepreneurs; and giving them access to mentors, investors, role models, and other successful entrepreneurs.

Almost three years ago, the MIF asked us to apply a “gender lens” to all of our operations. So our Early Stage Equity team brainstormed about how we could do this, and decided to take an entrepreneurial approach.

First, we began contacting our colleagues and friends who had a role in building entrepreneurial ecosystems in the region. After many calls, a clear focus for our intervention emerged: women entrepreneurs’ need to strengthen and expand their networks, and to find women role models.

WeXchange was then born, with the idea of bringing members from different entrepreneurial communities together with two objectives: highlighting women entrepreneurs; and giving them access to mentors, investors, role models, and other successful entrepreneurs.

And so we embarked on the first edition of WeXchange in December 2013. It was good that at the time, we couldn’t fathom the amount of work and prep we needed to get us there, because we might never have dared to do it! But once we started, we were fully committed to making a success out of this venture. And so it was: Two days in Miami, 140 participants, 14 countries represented. As I said at the forum’s reception, we were making history.

From our rather naïve perspective, we thought that afterward, we would go back to Washington to wrap things up and get in the holiday mood… Instead, the phone didn’t stop ringing and the emails kept coming with requests to meet and brainstorm about ideas that WeXchange had inspired. We were humbled by the stories of how our message had resonated among women entrepreneurs and had strengthened their resolution to keep forging ahead, even when faced with the many typical startup challenges.

2014 was a year of growth and change. For starters, the MIF adopted WeXchange as a “flagship” event, and this meant having much-appreciated in-house support. The “trio maravilla” (I and my colleagues Monica Pina and Rebeca Granda) was seeing the growth of the little startup WeXchange… And, given the results, we can again affirm that teamwork really works!

We invited Linda Rottenberg, Endeavor’s CEO and co-founder (and a longtime MIF friend and partner) to be our keynote speaker. Her stories of being called “la chica loca” as she launched Endeavor made the audience realize that “crazy is a compliment”—which is the title of Linda’s recently-published book!

We also invited many other speakers we had come to know over the past year, focusing on women who had made a difference, both on the ecosystem side, and as entrepreneurs. The role models we featured included NXTPLabs co-founder Marta Cruz, Global InvestHer founder Anne Ravanona, Endeavor entrepreneur from Brazil and founder of Beleza Natural Leila Velez, and The Competitiveness Company CEO Beverley Morgan.

Because WeXchange is all about leveling the playing field for women entrepreneurs, and we dislike the idea of being looked at as a ghetto, we had another NXTPLabs founder, Ariel Arrieta, speak about the lies entrepreneurs tell themselves and investors, some to keep themselves going in the face of huge challenges, and some that can be lethal to their ventures.

While the entrepreneurs were off meeting with mentors, the rest of us gathered to discuss what we can do to keep improving the environment for women in business. A main takeaway was that we need to tell our stories to the world, to attract investors, inspire other entrepreneurs in the making, and to show that there are role models from Latin America and the Caribbean.

There was a pitch competition organized by NXTPLabs, and out of six talented entrepreneurs who presented their companies, the winner was Carolina Medina from SokoText, a social business that leverages mobile phone technology to benefit small-scale food vendors whose primary clients are poor and low-income consumers.

We had a frank chat on the never-ending challenge of finding funding with two pros: Bedy Yang from the global accelerator 500 Startups, and Jimena Pardo from Carrot, Mexico’s first car-sharing service.

And we had what I call “The Hunger Games”: a speed-dating session in which the entrepreneurs had to “fight” to get to as many investors as possible. It is fun to watch how in the beginning everybody is polite and, after a while, adrenaline kicks in and they begin to make their way to the investors in a more decisive manner!

The next day, we supported NXTPLabs’ initiative to establish December 12 as the Day of the Woman Entrepreneur from Latin America and the Caribbean. All present were invited to sign theManifesto and wear the icon that represents women entrepreneurs.

A couple of my highlights:

  • Having entrepreneurs from Paraguay and Jamaica attend, proving that the entrepreneurial “bug” is everywhere, and
  • Receiving the hugest compliment of all: an email from the MIF Manager, Nancy Lee, who told us “…I came away with the feeling that it... could actually change some people's lives.”
  • And now we’re starting to think about WeXchange 2015! Will you be there? Be sure to join our WeXchange Facebook community to stay in touch until then.
by Susana García Robles