Start-Up

A woman-led start-up offers economic opportunities to low-income people

Training new service providers. Photo by Zolvers

Zolvers, a technology-driven start-up founded in Argentina, has developed an online and mobile marketplace that matches clients with cleaners, plumbers, and other maintenance specialists. After two years of piloting its digital matchmaking platform, Zolvers is on its way to becoming a B Corporation—a firm that uses the power of business to solve social problems—with a presence across Latin America.

Native from Venezuela, 61 year-old Nancy Sanchez was employed by Zolvers one year ago. Photo by Zolvers

“At sixty, they gave me an opportunity.”— Nancy Sanchez

“Te ponen en blanco,” says Sanchez, a 61-year-old Venezuelan native, using a phrase that means she is now part of the formal employment system. She’s referring to Zolvers’ policies that encourage its clients to offer workers contracts, social security payments, and other benefits. Women offering house cleaning services make up the bulk of Zolvers’ workforce, and call themselves “las chicas Zolvers.” Zolvers’ fixed rate of payment for its employees is almost 40 percent higher than the average hourly rate in Argentina.

Zolvers has to date 50,000 registered service providers and 180,000 clients, and is changing the working conditions of thousands of women in Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. “Zolvers is a place where people who need a housecleaner can find a qualified person with references, and a place where housecleaners can feel supported by an organization that empowers them,” said Cecilia Retegui, Zolvers’ cofounder.

“Many of these women cannot work full time; they have their mornings off but need to take care of their children in the afternoon. With these schedules it’s hard for them to find a job, so Zolvers helps them fill these hours, work near their homes [through geo-referencing technology] and make money at good hourly rates,” she adds.

THE FUND

The company was born two years ago when two women, Cecilia Retegui and Mariana Sorribes, teamed up after crossing paths at NXTP Labs —a regional early-stage fund that accelerates entrepreneurs with seed funding and mentoring, in which the MIF invested.

“We don’t invest in projects. We invest in people.”— Marta Cruz

“We don’t invest in projects. We invest in people,” says Marta Cruz, one of NXTP Labs’ four founders who, inspired by Silicon Valley’s Y-Combinator, in 2011 disrupted the realm of investment in Latin America and created the region’s first early-stage fund/accelerator, focused entirely on tech-driven companies.

“Traditional investors used to investing in physical products told us we were crazy,” but finding digitally-savvy entrepreneurs “using technology to solve real problems” was easy, Cruz said.

NXTP discovered that what entrepreneurs need most in their early stages is not capital alone, but investors that offer smart capital, open doors, share contacts, and transfer knowledge. NXTP Labs asks its investors for a relatively small investment amount, but also requires them to offer their time as mentors.

In countries with a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem—one that strengthens and supports the entrepreneur through failures and success—venture capital has become an engine of job creation and economic growth. However, in most Latin American countries the entrepreneur is strikingly lonely, building companies “in between jobs,” and criticized when a venture is unsuccessful.

Aspiring to position the region as an investment destination and to strengthen its innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, the MIF bet on NXTP’s capacity to unlock the talent of the region’s entrepreneurs—and support them in crafting their ventures.

Conversely, by partnering with the MIF and its more than 20 years of experience in the region’s early-stage industry, NXTP Labs earned a seal of approval that attracted more investors—while it also received guidance from MIF specialists that improved their governance and integrated best practices into their model.

Download this infographic that is part of a case study done by Harvard Business School, the MIF and Bella Research Group

The fund raised $38.5 million and invested in 174 companies, nine of which have been successfully sold for a profit (the most recent and most profitable has been Tutum). The fund also has a pool of 200 mentors that they match to the portfolio companies’ teams. And five years after its inception, NXTP Labs has created 1,200 jobs in startups that it has funded, and 120,000 indirect employment opportunities.

Of the companies NXTP Labs has accelerated, 24% of them are founded by women, and because of their commitment to support women entrepreneurs, the Fund was invited to partner with the MIF in the organization of WeXchange—a first- of- its-kind annual forum, offering Latin American and Caribbean women entrepreneurs networking and mentoring opportunities, access to investors, and a Pitch Competition that rewards the region’s most dynamic and innovative woman entrepreneur.

Although the fund’s focus was not initially on social impact per se, as has happened to other fund managers, NXTP Labs found that many of its portfolio companies, like Zolvers, were hiring or otherwise benefiting low-income or otherwise vulnerable people. Another investment, Satellogic (which may well become the fund’s first “unicorn,” or firm with a market valuation of more than $1 billion), is building a “constellation of satellites” around the earth whose data may help address key social and environmental concerns.

Moving forward, the MIF will focus on similar technology-driven funds and startups that have social impact as a main driver for success.