When iupana began to pay tribute to Disruptors three years ago, there were just a handful of nominations — an indication of how women lacked participation and representation in the digital finance industry.
However, we’ve seen the list grow year by year. And not only the number of participants but also their increasing seniority, the breadth of countries represented and, most importantly, the creativity and innovation behind the solutions that women bring to the market.
For this reason, at iupana — a company led by female talent — we’re pleased to be once again paying tribute to, and presenting the stories of, the Disruptors, the most innovative women in fintech in 2022. Because as Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Pakistani activist for women’s right to education, recently said, sharing success stories (and the vicissitudes that preceded them) can be very powerful and a way to continue narrowing the gender gap.
“I always think about who I am and what defines me. And I think it is the actions, our intentions, that define us as people”, Yousafzai said during the LAC 2022 Innovation Forum last month in Miami.
“That’s why I took every opportunity that was in front of me to make sure I told my story. I raised my voice and told the truth about what was happening in my city. It is really very important to share your story. It is something I do from a very young age and I will continue to do it for others who do not have equal access to opportunities,” she added.
We unveiled The Disruptors 2022 at a special event – Women in Digital Finance – on December 6, and heard a number of them share their views about female leadership and its impact on the financial sector.
Here are the profiles of The Disruptors 2022.
Andrea Oconitrillo, Director of the Center for Financial Innovation, Costa Rica
Creating a public innovation policy for Costa Rica
Andrea Oconitrillo is the first Costa Rican woman to complete a European fintech specialization. Drawing on her knowledge, and more than ten years of experience at the Central Bank of Costa Rica, she leads the entity’s Innovation Center
Implement a fintech policy from scratch. That has been the challenge facing Andrea Oconitrillo, who spearheaded a project to set up Costa Rica’s first financial innovation hub, with the aim of bringing the country closer to the global fintech movement.
The challenge, she argues, lies in changing the thinking about the benefits of technology and its potential for bringing a new perspective to finance in the country. The center is designed to provide guidance for the public sector on the development of regulatory capabilities in the area of innovation.
“In fintech, I have found that purpose in life: create an ecosystem in this country to help financial inclusion and improve people’s quality of life through an understanding of their finances.”
The hub is, for now, an office that provides services to innovators, advising them on how to get their projects up and running; but it is also a learning opportunity to study the playing field and begin to develop the regulatory changes of tomorrow.
The next stage, Oconitrillo says, is to make the hub a testing space. To achieve that goal, first there needs to be a digital transformation of the entities it represents and of the financial system in general.
“The idea is to work on a fintech strategy for supervisory and regulatory institutions.”
Sandra Arellano, CTO, PeiGo
Transforming digital banking in Ecuador
Sandra Arellano, a Peruvian, leads technological development for an Ecuadorian fintech that aims to transform the relationship between people and their money
Sandra Arellano was born and raised in Peru, where she built a career revolving around finance. At the start of this year, however, she decided to up sticks and relocate to Ecuador to embark on PeiGo.
The project was conceived as a challenge to traditional banks, which is why its goal is to “change the lives of Ecuadorians when it comes to managing their finances,” says Arellano, who is PeiGo’s CTO.
She adds that the startup aims to become a digital bank that offers financial services that are “easy, fast and secure.” Currently, it has a digital wallet and aims to bolster and expand its services in the future. Arellano says her personal and professional objectives dovetail with those of PeiGo.
“My purpose and that of PeiGo is to change many lives […] There are things that we can improve using technology.”
This year, Arellano introduced Ecuadorians to PeiGo, and internally, as head of the company, she has also fostered a fun, positive working culture and environment, while at the same time instilling business values.
There is still much to be done in the financial industry to improve gender equality, Arellano says. “We’ve seen improvements with respect to the diversity of women’s tech roles, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
She adds that parents should encourage their daughters to study careers in finance. “I tell women to not be afraid […] Sometimes we’re a little afraid of technology, because we think it’s very complex, but the truth is that everything can be learned.”
Mercedes Bidart, CEO and Co-Founder, QuipuBank
Promoting Colombian entrepreneurships
Mercedes Bidart leads a platform that helps informal Colombian entrepreneurs gains access to capital quickly and easily
One of Mercedes Bidart’s greatest passions is the potential for technology to foster civic and economic cooperation in underserved communities.
This is what drove her to start working on the idea of QuipuBank — a credit platform for micro-entrepreneurs — while she was still a university student in Argentina. Originally from Buenos Aires, Bidart has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in urban planning. During a visit to the United States, she accepted an invitation to go to Barranquilla, Colombia, to study the digital finance market and consolidate the QuipuBank project together with Juan Constaín and Viviana Siless.
“We spent a long time trying to understanding what the product was. We carried out many pilots, upgraded it to make it 100% digital and, now, we are all over the country,” Bidart says.
QuipuBank was Bidart’s first experience in the financial sector. However, in academia she was always focused on finding solutions for problems in the popular economy. That’s why her initial efforts were geared towards understanding all its facets such as urban, economic informality and then to come up with a solution that, in this case, resulted in a financial product. The product also has a gender angle because women make up the majority of its target audience.
Bidart, as CEO of QuipuBank, played a key role in initiating operations and positioning the business in 2022. “We created the line of credit, the platform and the team — everything. I would say that the biggest achievement this year was finding the product that we are scaling and reaching the end of the year with stable processes, a strong team, and a functional product,” she says.
Bidart has a message for other women starting out in the financial industry: “You can come up with fresher and more revolutionary ideas because you do not enter it programmed, restricted — you’re capable of thinking outside the box.”
She says there is room for people who want to enter the financial system and change its dynamics, regardless of their academic or industry background.
“Innovation is much richer when it involves a person from a different area, from a different academic background. It doesn’t matter what you’re studying or what you’ve done, there’s a place. It’s just a matter of getting involved.”
Frida Vargas, Mexico Country Manager, Binance
Trendsetting in the Mexican crypto industry
Frida Vargas leads the Mexican division of the world’s largest crypto exchange — a position she describes as both challenging and satisfying, and one where she spurs innovation while reducing inequality.
The crypto sector has been a source of diverging news headlines this year, from the so-called crypto winter to banks moving intensively into this segment. However, its expansion in Latin America continues to advance at a rapid pace, as demonstrated by the arrival of the leading global platform, Binance, in Mexico.
The fact that the company picked a woman, Frida Vargas, to become its country manager in Mexico is noteworthy because, as she points out, the crypto industry has lacked equality from the outset. Despite that, Vargas used her knowledge, planning and leadership to obtain a management position in what is a highly competitive market.
“I think this is the role that has been the most challenging for me […]. I consider it an achievement, a source of satisfaction. I see it as a responsibility towards the ecosystem, towards the industry in general, because what we are going to build here can be the spearhead,” says the manager.
Binance set up social media accounts exclusively for the Mexican market in order to interact with users, share news about launches and updates about its products. It also has a clear strategy for promoting financial education through its Binance Academy platform, through which it is seeking alliances with universities in order to reach students.
“I think it is an avenue, a route for collaboration to understand the ecosystem a little better and to improve its links with education in Mexico,” she says.
Vargas previously served as Mexico head for the edtech Crehana and led business development at Bitso, a Mexican crypto unicorn.
“The crypto industry is still male dominated. It’s not a very equal space, so we are trying to make these spaces of interaction more balanced,” she adds.
Helena Lopes Caldeira, CFO, Inter&Co
Turning startups into international businesses
Helena Lopes Caldeira has played a central role in expanding the Brazilian digital bank to other markets and turning it into a superapp
This year saw Inter migrate its shares from the Brazilian stock market to Nasdaq in the United States. It also saw the digital bank advance its internationalization, with the acquisition of the fintech USEND, and further its superapp strategy. And its financial director, Helena Lopes Caldeira, played a fundamental role in each of these processes.
The biggest challenge was the migration from the B3 exchange to Nasdaq, which took two years and a change in strategy, after a failed first attempt. “It was a bit different, because companies often do their IPOs directly on Nasdaq rather than migrate.”
Lopes says the move required a great degree of adaptation on a personal level. Her ability to overcome difficult situations and face adversity is one of her hallmarks. “The key thing was resilience and a lot of innovation to redesign the strategy and get around the obstacles,” she says.
Lopes initially worked in finance before turning her hand to corporate mergers and acquisitions (M&A). “I wanted to have a vision of the market and entrepreneurship. I wanted to start new ventures within a company, and Inter does a lot of that,” she says.
In Lopes’s opinion, the decision to start a new business is driven by a yearning to improve things, and that was what she was looking for when she decided on a career change. In this case, her goal was to align Inter’s stock market strategy and explore products for a superapp platform.
Her advice? “Don’t lose the desire to make things happen, and efficiently.”
Susana Moscarda, Co-Founder and CCO, Fintech Solutions EAS
Modernizing digital education in Paraguay
From her post at the Paraguayan Fintech Chamber, Susana Moscarda uses training and open data ecosystems to drive innovation in the country
The advance of digital financial services in Latin America has been uneven. While some countries have seen the market flourish, others such as Paraguay have had to look on from afar. But not for much longer.
Paraguay’s startup scene has taken time to bloom but the innovation movement has arrived, albeit there are still barriers to overcome. The main stumbling blocks are education within the sector and a market that has yet to take off.
In this sense, Sandra Moscarda says the goal this year was to close opportunity gaps in terms of education and incubation, disseminating knowledge from the Fintech Chamber of Paraguay, where she oversees education and open API; in the case of the latter, the focus is on helping small businesses address their technological lag, as well as to bolster credit options with alternative data.
Recently, her focus has been on the modernization of the country’s regulation, through interacting with regulators and participating in public-private sector meetings designed to advance legislative changes.
“The new culture has to be digital. Processes can’t take years — technology does not wait that long,” says Moscarda. Education in the sector has to embrace agile methodologies, with the latest, innovative courses on tech issues, similar to what happened a few years ago in Chile, where Moscarda studied the sector over a seven year period, and built the foundations of her current commitment to fintech education in Paraguay.
“In Latin America, what we have is human resources, and in order for it to become talent we need to provide and democratize information, grant access. It can’t be restricted by financial costs — there must be a free option offering basic knowledge and an option for access to specialized knowledge.”
Digitalization in Paraguay is expanding slowly but the country has the advantage of being able to learn from the success stories of other countries in Latin America.
Moscarda’s long-term goal is to propose an educational approach to technology in Paraguay and its impact on various fronts, including finance. Once the tech incubator is established, the next step will be acceleration.
The challenge ahead is seizing the moment for the fintech sector. “We need to speed up the acquisition of knowledge in a very short period of time. […] The pace is slow, but it is the right path.”
Do you want to learn from the experiences of The Disruptors? Listen to their advice and perspectives on fintech, entrepreneurship and much more, in a recording of our special event, Women in Digital Finance.