María Cristina Zepeda Porras

Ashoka Fellow
This description of María Cristina Zepeda Porras's work was prepared when María Cristina Zepeda Porras was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000 .

Introduction

Cristina Zepeda's organization, Siembra, redefines the role and expectations of micro-credit by helping Mexican women overcome the disadvantages they face in the business world.

The New Idea

Although many organizations in Mexico make small grants to women, Siembra is dedicated to helping women develop gender oriented leadership ability and entrepreneurial skill to establish competitive business enterprises. Siembra selects viable, long-term projects, trains, makes a loan, then provides ongoing advice and services, such as international marketing help and a mandatory savings program.An example: Siembra selects women in a village, each of whom already weaves high quality carpets to sell in the local market. With a loan from Siembra, these individual entrepreneurs join forces to create a larger, more productive and efficient enterprise, a "factory" of sorts. Siembra provides management training, and links the factory to large buyers, such as stores in Mexico City. The factory makes it easier for women to establish a brand name and reputation, and to secure ongoing contracts. Because the factory is a cooperative, every worker is an owner. Siembra promotes a savings program named GEMS (Groups of Entrepreneurs Saving Money),where each member must put money in the bank, saving as much or as little as she wants; by putting aside something every month, women increase their power in the family and status in society.

The Problem

Small business is one important answer to poverty in general and to the feminization of poverty in Mexico in particular. There are forty-six million poor in Mexico; twenty-five million are women; four-fifths of whom do not have running water, electricity, drainage and adequate housing. Recently, the income gap between rich and poor has grown. Mexican policy and politics have favored the owners of capital, whose wealth has increased, while renters and poor workers have become ever more dependent. Women are particularly vulnerable to these inequities. Mexico is still a patriarchal society in which women have fewer job opportunities than men do, and they earn lower salaries. From childhood, women are taught that their world is the home, that education means little to their future, and that they will end up as housewives and mothers. Even girls who stay in school have few chances to become leaders.

In theory, microcredit is available equally to men and women, but in practice women benefit less, even though there are organizations devoted entirely to lending money to women. Women may secure initial loans but manage to do less with them, because the "level playing field" of small business in Mexico starts women out in a trench and places hills and cliffs before them. When credit programs evaluate successful grantees and plan follow-up support, they do not usually take into account the pervasive social inequality between men and women. So, while microcredit and small business can and do help many poor Mexican women be less poor, they don't necessarily help them become more equal, because women in business still face enormous obstacles in terms of education, experience, and social acceptance.

The Strategy

Cristina recognizes that, if micro-credit is going to help women become more successful and more equal, women need more support through the whole entrepreneurial process. Her pilot program began with one hundred indigenous, urban and rural women in Mexico City and three other districts of Mexico State which created the first gender oriented booklet of microfinance. It involves drawing individual small businesswomen into cooperative "factories." Siembra helped develop the business in two ways: building managerial ability and finding new markets. Siembra builds management skill through training, and the training is practical and relevant because new businesses face many new challenges: setting priorities, organizing a larger workforce, building new facilities, and dealing with more complicated finance than individual producers had yet encountered.

However, as in any business, long-term viability and success depend on profit. Factories produce a variety of items–collectible hand-woven rugs, hand-painted ovenware, organic marmalades, and natural medicine. Siembra helps commercialize the products nationally and internationally. Their products are already well-known in Mexico City's upscale stores.

Siembra is now ready to expand. Next year it will begin exploring other states in México. Siembra projects that it will have assisted three thousand women by 2006. The target for 2007 is six thousand, and for 2010, ten thousand.

The critical issue facing Siembra is maintaining its capital base, from which loans are made. In the future one internal source of support may be the savings program. Another option is convincing other financial and lending institutions to incorporate Cristina's model into their structures. Beyond lending, Siembra finds outside support both in cash and in kind: the Gallup organization is donating a study of national markets for factory products while foundation grants pay for basic operations and for the salaries of Siembra's four full-time employees.

The Person

Cristina won a scholarship to attend primary school at the prestigious American School in Mexico City, where she became fluent in English and interacted with children from wealthy families. But she went to an ordinary high school where students came from the low and middle classes, and she observed firsthand the different lives led by Mexico's rich and poor. After earning a university degree in Economics she worked with various corporations and educational organizations.

In 1985, Cristina volunteered in the rescue of victims of the devastating Mexico City earthquake. She was involved for nine years with Women for Democracy, an organization dedicated to developing a new awareness of democracy and promoting the participation of women in local politics. In 1988 Cristina joined the Women's Feminist Movement in Mexico and she took part in The Fourth International Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995, where her ideas for Siembra were born.