WEI Champion Spotlight: Yanire Brana

Yanire Brana, Executive Director of the MET Community & WEI Champion, talks about her work to help women leaders around the world develop crucial skills through tailored mentoring and technology training.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges facing women entrepreneurs today?

There are different types of challenges and barriers, some internal and some external. By “internal” I mean that, maybe because of the way women are educated or brought up, they sometimes put certain limits on themselves and on the growth of their businesses. I see this all the time, especially in Latin American countries, where women are educated and do have the entrepreneurial spirit, but somehow don’t believe they can grow to the same heights as men or believe that they always need support.

For example, when I first launched mentoring programs, I observed that women always applied as mentees and men always applied as mentors. For some reason, women tend not to see themselves as mentors. I don’t believe it’s because they don’t want to help, but because they think that they themselves need support. It’s an internal barrier — a lack of self-confidence. Another thing I see is that women entrepreneurs have different motivations for starting their enterprises. Most men want to find new business opportunities, but not necessarily because they need an extra source of income; while women are often left with the responsibility of providing for their children. Because of this, women also tend to take on multiple jobs.

Women entrepreneurs are also different in terms of their motives for starting a business or the industries they choose to enter. They are not as attracted to science, technology, and renewable energy fields as men are, which is why women’s businesses are, in general, more traditional. That is changing slowly and part of the work of my non-profit focuses on that, but of course, there is still so much to do.

For example, in the United States and in Latin American countries, women lack adequate support from the government or companies, for example with regard to parental leave or insurance. There’s not enough support if you’re a single mother. You have to study or work while you raise your child. It’s very difficult from a financial perspective, and it also adversely affects women’s professional careers.

In terms of networking and the way women interact, there are also differences. You need to consider women’s time constraints if you want to create network spaces for women. They’re dealing with so many things, so even though we may organize networking events, their level of attendance is not always consistent because a woman’s child may be sick or she may have other urgent responsibilities and so be unable to make the same time commitment as a man.

In one research study we completed, we asked businessmen and women what they believed were the key factors to succeeding in their business. Most men answered financial resources, whereas, unsurprisingly, women considered nonfinancial support, such as mentoring and training, to be more important.

Why do you think women’s economic empowerment is imperative?

Well, from an economic perspective, if we, as businesses, want to grow, we have to maximize the potential of 100% of the population, not just the 50% male. Women are just as capable of working as men, but in some countries, they are often prevented from doing so. Nor are they able to contribute to generating employment. Women’s economic empowerment is about helping all of us, not just women. It is even more important in families where there is just one woman and no man, where kids are educated by a grandmother or a single mother. Unfortunately, this is still very common in a lot of countries. And we need to help our kids to have opportunities to study. By helping women, we are providing support to the whole family unit, and to the whole economy.

How does your work relate to this? Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do?

I am originally from Spain and now live in the United States, but before that, I lived in Brussels, where I studied international relations. I always felt attracted to the development field, but I often worked in private companies, like Accenture or Booz Allen. My experience showed me that, even in countries like Spain, France or Belgium, it’s very difficult for women in the middle term of their career to pursue having children and a family while also nurturing their professional growth. My observations motivated me to create something to help professional women. I started doing that 15 years ago. I went to Harvard Business School and committed myself to that goal. In the United States, I realized that there are many opportunities to create synergies between us all, and I saw great potential in that. I began working for Inter-American Development Bank, and then the World Bank. In parallel, I remained committed to my non-profit, MET Community, and I realized that my passion was helping women entrepreneurs. Since then, I’ve been running the non-profit in 7 countries and our mission is to support and promote sustainable and innovative women’s enterprises. I teach technology to women entrepreneurs. We provide four different types of services: training; creating marketplaces and business opportunities for women entrepreneurs; establishing spaces to connect and promote networking activities; and international mentoring programs. We currently have an online mentoring program helping 50 women in Colombia, with mentors from around the world.

What changes would you like to see in terms of greater support for women entrepreneurs and women in the world of work in general?

The first step we need to take is to do away with limiting stereotypes. Unfortunately, there is often a bias in favor of individuals coming from Europe and a bias against those coming from Latin American countries. But in fact women from Latin America possess a certain DNA that we don’t have in Europe: they constantly deal with uncertainty, and they have passion and commitment and are willing to take risks every day without complaint. I don’t see this so much in my country or in Europe. Western people often have this idea of making a lot of money and then maybe going to Africa or India to offer their help to developing countries, but sometimes the people in those countries actually end up helping us Westerners more than we realize.

I believe that of course we can use our strengths to help developing countries, but we also need to be more humble and open-minded. This will allow us to learn and help more. Every time I go to Colombia, Mexico or Panama, people ask me to be a speaker because they like that I have a Spanish accent and I have lived in the United States. But I say, “Look, you have amazing women entrepreneurs right here in your country and they should be the speakers.” When you say things like that and have a more humble attitude, then you empower women.

What actions do you pledge to promote women’s economic empowerment?

I feel we always need to stop and think about how we can do the things better. It is a learning process, it’s not static. Certain countries are moving very fast, but others need to identify more role models. I’m now working on that. I’m trying to identify and help other women leaders by creating an international network of women. The second key step is partnerships and thinking about what else I can learn and what I can do better to build bridges between countries and cultures.

Can you share a story of a woman who deeply inspires you?

I have several role models. One is a woman from Abu Dhabi whom I met when I was at Harvard. She worked for the Abu Dhabi Police. She grew up in a big, traditional family. She had studied very hard and received some government support to do her PhD in the UK. Now she is a very influential woman working in the renewable energy sector. When I met her, I was surprised to see how humble and committed she was, and I was inspired by the fact that, though her life was difficult, she never complained. She always tried to focus on improving herself and on finding new opportunities. She studied architectural engineering and she is now the UAE representative to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Meanwhile, she continues to be the humble, committed woman whom I met 12 years ago at Harvard Business School. For me, the personal attributes of a person are more important than his or her social or professional position. I believe that commitment and general self-confidence are what really set a person apart from others.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I met Margo Thomas, the Founder & CEO of WEI, a few years ago when I was working at the World Bank and I was impressed by her personality and the wonderful work that she’s been doing to promote women’s empowerment around the globe. She’s another example of a woman who is very strong and very committed to women’s empowerment. I think that women like Margo can make a huge impact because they have a vision and an ambition to mobilize strong, like-minded partners and be global. That is key because it allows us to focus more on the things we have in common than on the things that divide us. I deeply admire what she has already accomplished in a short period of time.