Carolina Nieto Cater

Ashoka Fellow
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Mexico
Fellow since 2004
This description of Carolina Nieto Cater's work was prepared when Carolina Nieto Cater was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004 .

Introduction

Through her web-based organization Saber Para la Vida, Carolina is empowering women entrepreneurs across Mexico by providing them with the tools to develop successful businesses that are compatible with their outside lives and the competing demands on their time.

The New Idea

Building on her successful women-oriented commercial Web site, todamujer.com, Carolina is using basic Internet technology to connect women entrepreneurs across Mexico’s social and economic spectrum with the information and resources they need to run successful businesses. Using a web-based platform, she offers simple content and tools that take into account not only the varying education levels of small businesswomen, but also the competing priorities faced by those who are expected to both run their homes and bring in income. In addition to a utilitarian Web site, Saber Para la Vida—or Knowledge for Life—provides online business development workshops, free, email-based consulting, and networking to connect women with other entrepreneurs, businesses and supportive organizations. Although few have Internet in their homes, it is available across Mexico in libraries, community centers, and internet cafes, and Saber is helping negotiate better access for participating women.

The Problem

In the face of increasing male emigration and deteriorating livelihoods for the poor, women who are traditionally charged with managing the home have increasingly looked toward alternative income sources. Small businesses have proved a flexible option for many women, rural and urban alike, and the number of women-owned microenterprises in the country increases yearly. However, as in other parts of the world, women entrepreneurs in Mexico earn significantly lower profits and achieve less commercial success than their male counterparts. Although women own approximately 25 percent of microenterprises in urban areas, they account for only 16 percent of the small business income. In rural areas, they own nearly 40 percent of businesses, but earn only a quarter of the profits.

The reasons for this disparity are many. For one, many women lack the basic skills necessary for a successful entrepreneurial undertaking, particularly in rural areas. A full quarter of women entrepreneurs in rural Mexico have no formal education at all; others have very little. Yet government programs offering training in business skills rely on a high base level of education, offering, for example, high-level accounting courses, rather than lessons in basic cash flow that would be more appropriate for rural women’s needs. Most rural women also spend their lives outside the mainstream market and business universe. Without the experience of participating in the wider market, women in this group find it very difficult to develop strategies that look beyond their business or their neighborhood. They work instead with a local vision, depending entirely on their own skills and abilities, rather than the demands of the market, to define their approach. Those that do have marketable end products suffer impediments such as inconsistency in their goals, inefficient production techniques, and a limited client base. This isolation has also bred an informality that impedes growth. For example, the tax system and processes for registering a business can be very complex, and many women entrepreneurs forego it entirely, thus limiting their ability to issue receipts or enter into certain contracts.

Gender-role issues also play a part in limiting women’s business success. Cultural norms place motherhood and immediate family as top priorities in Mexican women’s lives, and often require them to care for extended family members as well. These priorities often cause them to reject the competitive and all-consuming culture of the male-dominated business world, preferring to stay small and local, where they can more readily balance their dual roles. Where they do venture out, they often face overt sexism. And there is little support available for women embarking on business ventures. Aside from government programs that miss the mark for the less-educated, there is a dearth of visible role models and forums for women to share their experience with each other, and many women even face active discouragement from their partners.

The Strategy

Through Saber Para la Vida, Carolina is using technology to bridge the chasm that separates poor and middle-class women from business know-how. Building on strategies she developed while running her commercial, women-oriented Web site, todomujer.com, Carolina and her team have designed Web content and supporting services that are accessible to and appropriate for women entrepreneurs with a range of educational backgrounds and skills.

At the center of the initiative is the Saber Para la Vida Web site. The site focuses on simple and useful tools, requiring little previous knowledge or technical skills, that guide women step by step through the planning, operation, administration, and financial management of their businesses. It focuses on practical application, conveying key lessons through concrete tasks, and emphasizing the basics. For example, instead of complicated accounting strategies used by larger businesses, it offers the simplest methods of tracking money flows. Women can use the site to do everything from conceptualize their business idea and investigate the market, to track inputs and outputs and publicize their products. Other exercises focus on improving communication abilities, exploring the culture of commitment, and generating trust between the woman and her market. The Web site includes a free, online consulting service where women can send questions or ask advice in resolving specific issues they face.

Saber also offers women seeking additional guidance a comprehensive distance learning course. This series of lessons covers the same basic material as the Web site but with an added level of specificity. Carolina has fully developed two workshops thus far, one for aspiring entrepreneurs that begins with a very basic analysis of a woman’s skills, and another geared toward women currently operating microenterprises that have not yet become profitable. Like the Web site, Saber’s workshops do not require a high level of technical knowledge from their participants. Working either independently or in groups, students receive reading materials and assignments via email each week, and upon completion, simply send their work back. Women are recruited to take the courses through Saber and other Web sites, civil society organizations, existing women’s networks, and state and federal government institutions that have direct contact with communities.

In the near future, Carolina hopes to expand into both direct marketing and finance. She is currently experimenting with ways to advertise and sell women’s products directly through her site, and hopes to become a source for, rather than just a guide to, small business funding.

Both on the Web site and in the training courses, Carolina is careful to contextualize the entrepreneurial process within women’s outside lives and create a comfortable space to address questions like the balance between family and work, or the pressures of an unsupportive spouse. For example, women can get help structuring their businesses around other priorities and diagnosing the pressures that might interfere with their work. The entrepreneurial culture of the site emphasizes the importance of equilibrium and creates a supportive rather than competitive environment. Saber Para la Vida provides women with links to other entrepreneurs, civil society organizations, public institutions, and private businesses that offer both resources and role models, and end the sense of isolation women may face. The sense of community is further strengthened when women from the same areas participate in the workshops together.

Volunteers play an important role in supporting Carolina’s work. She taps successful women entrepreneurs to contribute Web content, serve as tutors or mentors, answer questions submitted through the consulting service, and partners with women in her workshops to secure Internet access at the local level through civil society organizations, churches, government offices, schools or Internet cafes. The Web site is currently financed with advertising income from the todamujer.com site, and through more traditional funders like government agencies and corporate donors. However, once the Web site is established and has a strong track record, Carolina will begin charging for higher level services—including product sales and microlending—and for in-person workshops.

The Person

Carolina’s interest in internet-based technologies, Mexican social and economic issues, and personal empowerment developed simultaneously in the unlikely locale of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While accompanying her husband for his five-year postdoctoral position in robotics at a university there, Carolina began exploring early computer networking well before email and the Internet had a place in everyday life. She also became involved in the Mexican immigrant community, teaching English, organizing events, and exposing herself to the social realities of Mexican culture that she had never before connected with. During this time, she met and became an informal student of Fernando Flores, a philosopher and prominent Chilean political figure. His thinking on the relationship between emotion, body, and mind helped inspire Carolina for a life devoted to activism.

Upon her return to Mexico, Carolina continued studying under Flores and began to give her own workshops relating to ontological themes, particularly the link between self-knowledge and action. She joined with a group of 30 other women in Mexico City to create a loose, nationwide network to mobilize citizens around democracy, transparency, and solidarity. Their organization, Mujeres y Punto, or Women, Period, is currently working to empower women to demand information under Mexico’s new transparency laws. As her vision expanded, Carolina founded Mujeres y Juntos to target men, children and seniors as well.

In 1999, Mexican entertainment conglomerate Telemex and America Online expressed interest in funding a novel Web site Carolina and a partner had designed to target Mexican women. In the height of the Internet boom, the planned site was valued at $20 million and funding seemed imminent. However, both Telemex and America Online reneged on their offers for financing when they learned that the site would be also be run and entirely managed by women. Investor after investor refused to capitalize a women-run project, and Carolina, unwilling to give up her idea, finally went forward on her own with the smaller-scale todamujer.com. The site now has 300,000 visitors a month, including a return visitor community of 50,000. The site includes both light content designed to draw women in, and more serious content designed to empower them. After turning much of the day-to-day work over to others, Carolina found herself devoting nearly all her time to a page for entrepreneurial women and other socially conscious content. It was this work that led her to spin off the not-for-profit Saber Para la Vida, a site devoted exclusively to the issues surrounding entrepreneurship for middle-class and low-income women.