Monday 13th May 2013
GBA: How would you describe the current state of financial services for women in Costa Rica?
MQ: It is difficult to answer that question because one basic problem in Costa Rica is that we have not historically collected gender-disaggregated data. Just two weeks ago, a general study was released on entrepreneurship. Like past reports, it was not broken down by gender, but national estimates put the share of woman-owned SMEs at about 25 percent of the total SME sector. On the other hand, 34 percent of the loan portfolio of the public banking sector was directed to women. So maybe that spread reflects a greater need and willingness on the part of women SME owners to access external financing – or more likely, it suggests that the 25 percent estimate was too low. At any rate, our Bank has spoken with the relevant government ministries. They understand the importance of data collection, and assure us that entrepreneurship statistics will be broken down by gender by the end of 2013. In the meantime, what’s also important to note is that BNCR’s women’s markets program, new as it is, is the only program targeted to women in Central America, let alone in Costa Rica. And it is one of very few in Latin America altogether. So it is fair to say that there is room for growth, in terms of expanding services to Costa Rica’s women.
GBA: Tell us about BNCR’s women’s markets program. What have been the activities and the results to date?
MQ: So far our most developed program is “Banca Mujer,” a brand within the BNCR family that targets women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises specifically. Banca Mujer was spun off in July 2010 from “Banca de Desarrollo,” a brand that had been launched in 2002 to serve the SME market generally. We found that within the Banca de Desarrollo brand, the percentage of women being served was very small. As soon as we spun off Banca Mujer and started focusing exclusively on women, the business from women customers began to grow quickly. In 2-1/2 years, the loan portfolio has grown by 48 percent. That is more than other divisions of the Bank, and performance like that helps win support and alignment within the institution.
GBA: Speaking of institutional alignment, are all divisions generally on board and does Banca Mujer have the resources it needs?
MQ: The bank’s top leadership have definitely championed Banca Mujer. I think that it probably the most important ingredient. At the middle-management level, I would say that there are probably staff who maybe do not understand the value proposition – not that they are resistant, but it’s human nature to become “silo-ed” and focus on just your own work that is in front of you. So part of the work for the Banca Mujer team is to help everyone understand the business potential of the women’s market and the benefit to the whole Bank. We also do not yet have a dedicated sales force with specialized training in marketing to women. That is another top priority for the Banca Mujer brand.
GBA: Beyond business loans, what services does Banca Mujer extend to its women clients?
MQ: Here we see the importance of customer segmentation. Among the Banca Mujer client base, we have lower-income women who are hard working and entrepreneurial, and they have created their own enterprises in many cases because that is their best, maybe even their only, way to earn a living. Then we also have in Costa Rica a segment of highly educated professional women. Women are earning advanced degrees at comparable rates to men, and we have a lot of women in the health sector: doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and so on. But in school they learn how to practice medicine, not how to run a medical or dentist office as a business. Both segments need business development services and financial education. For the lower-income segment, we connect them with resources to put together a solid business plan. For the professional women, we provide the same, and also general money management counseling. One thing we find is that the professional women are more risk-averse than the lower-income entrepreneurs. They have more to lose, for one thing. And also, the lower-income entrepreneurs from the non-professional segments really need their enterprises to succeed, and understand that a certain degree of calculated risk is unavoidable to achieve that goal.
GBA: Do you deliver these services with the Bank’s own workforce?
MQ: No, the Bank sticks to our expertise, delivering financial services. We believe in forging strategic alliances to deliver the business development and financial education pieces. We have a partnership with a local university; they deliver the business plan preparation training through a six-week course. And we are also piloting on-line education, via the same university, for the professional women segment.
GBA: What will success look like, for Banca Mujer, five years from now?
MQ: I want us to move beyond the entrepreneurial/professional segments to serve all women – young women students or others just starting out, stay-at-home women, high-net-worth women, and every other segment, across the full spectrum of their financial needs, for credit, savings, investment, insurance, financial education. I would also like to understand our impact. BNCR have just launched our women’s markets program, so if we could start gathering data now, then in five years, we would have meaningful information about what difference our work is making: in the lives of the women themselves, at the family/household level, at the community level. This is another area where a strategic alliance would be the way to go. We could not carry out the research ourselves, but in partnership with a research university or other team of professionals, this would be a powerful body of knowledge to capture.
GBA: What specifically are you hoping to get from BNCR’s membership in the Alliance?
MQ: I am really looking forward to the exchange of ideas and of different experiences and points of view, in Istanbul and beyond. I feel that in Latin America our women are really making fantastic progress: creating businesses, earning degrees, pursuing careers, advancing their countries’ economies. But even as Latin American women are maybe ahead of women in other regions in terms of economic advancement, our financial services providers are behind, in terms of how they serve women. So there is still a disconnect there, and BNCR sees the Alliance as a key tactic for bridging that.
GBA: How did you personally come to this work? What made you want to commit to financial services for women?
MQ: Much earlier in my career, in the 1980s, I worked on financial services projects run through private voluntary organizations in Costa Rica under a USAID-funded program. I focused specifically in the micro and SME development sector, and I just loved it. It opened my eyes to the entrepreneurial energy and potential of those segments. But then I pursued other opportunities in other sectors, related to international commerce and added value chains for many years, and my early career in SME development was just a fond memory until BNCR decided to launch Banca Mujer. When our managing director, who had been one of my professors at university, approached me about leading the Banca Mujer initiative, I jumped at the chance. And it has been great. I see a big opportunity here to serve the other women of Costa Rica and their families, and it is work I am excited and honored to be doing.
BNCR AT A GLANCE: