By Angelica Mari
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, social entrepreneur Ana Fontes has been working tirelessly to equip the hundreds of thousands of women who resort to the Women Entrepreneurs Social Network (RME, acronym in Portuguese) to understand how to navigate a fast-moving digital landscape.
With multiple initiatives led under what is the first and largest support network for female entrepreneurs and the support from companies including Google and banks such as Santander, RME currently reaches 750,000 women nationwide. The scope of the organization is now going beyond guidance on how to start and run a business and expanding into a model that includes digital literacy, content, acceleration, mentoring and capital for female entrepreneurs.
Since the emergence of the new coronavirus, RME has raised more than 40 million reais (US$ 7.3 million) to bolster key projects such as a training model that will train more than 50,000 women for the digital economy in the next 24 months. It also includes a Google-backed initiative that will choose 180 businesses led by women every three months, which will receive seed capital and mentoring.
Fontes hopes her fundraising efforts will exceed 100 million reais (US$ 18.4 million) in 2021 to broaden the organization’s reach to 2 million women countrywide: “We are the world’s only entity doing that kind of women-specific work, and we want to attract more companies with a vision that it is possible to make a huge impact through social responsibility and innovation”, she points out.
The entrepreneur is part of the W20, a UN platform that focuses on addressing issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment across the world’s 20 largest economies. She notes that companies have a critical role in promoting diversity and supporting innovation, through programs that support women to participate in a hyper-digital economy.
On the other hand, the social entrepreneur believes that the government also needs to act, in areas such as access to credit policies and inclusion of girls and women in careers related to technology. Despite her transit between decision makers in the corporate universe and her influence in the public policy debate, Fontes says that the dialogue with the Brazilian government has not been easy:
“We cannot mention the word gender in Brazil, or the need for affirmative policies to include more women in the economy and promote their development, because the current government does not believe in such things”, she notes.
“We have an open channel with the G20 in Brazil and we have been stressing the need to discuss these issues, but we have no effective policies, nor a desire for implementing them. But it is impossible to think of an innovation strategy for the country and not to include women in its design”, Fontes adds, referring to a plan to be created by an interministerial committee as part of Brazil’s National Innovation Policy, published through a presidential decree last month.
Other key points pointed out by Fontes and that need to be addressed include the lack of an integrated national environment for entrepreneurial education and a platform to generate business between large corporations and entrepreneurs.
“We were able, as RME, to serve a portion of women who want to run their businesses, but we can’t provide them with everything they need. Women’s access to credit needs to be improved, as well as the connections to the market and the innovation capital. The government has the conditions to improve that ”, she points out.
Despite these limitations, Fontes is betting on the growing focus of companies on best environmental, social and governance practices: “We can no longer, as institutions, expect that only the government will do their part and establish policies to foster innovation, inclusion and diversity.
Large companies have a role and responsibility to support the advancement of these issues, not only for society’s sake, but to accelerate change for themselves.” Fontes says she doesn’t believe in a “new normal”, but in the need to build a reinvented entrepreneurial environment in Brazil based on diversity:
“A year from now, I’d like to be able to see that the situation of female entrepreneurs in Brazil is being supported by more companies. That’s what entrepreneurship is about: it’s not a silly optimism of those who sit around, waiting for things to happen. It is a dynamic optimism.”
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