From the entrepreneurial journey to the SIINC experience, Co-Founder Katia Cerwin provides a look behind the scenes of Programa Valentina
Programa Valentina owes its name to Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in orbit – and goes back to the enterprise’s initial idea of teaching girls how to code as the fastest way to provide them with better opportunities. Yet things have changed since inception, lessons were learned, and successes achieved. Katia Cerwin, Co-Founder of Programa Valentina, tells us about how to transform an industry, master an emotional rollercoaster, and use SIINC as a strong ally to keep the most vulnerable clients in focus when adapting to a pandemic.
What is Programa Valentina’s vision and mission?
We want to transform the Human Resources (HR) industry, and have recruiters hire young people based on potential, rather than on experience or background.
What inspired you to tackle this problem?
All began when my husband and I decided to ask for donations rather than wedding gifts. We wanted to invest in a cause that we felt strongly about. Then we remembered a remark from a friend: to help people’s progress in Guatemala, one should teach girls how to code. After a pilot in a rural area two hours away from Guatemala City, we received the first instrumental advice that would significantly change our journey. We were told that if we really wanted to empower women, we needed to include men – to ensure that women felt as equals and not as unique targets of a special program. Programa Valentina 2.0 was born. We no longer focused on programming, but rather on teaching basic tech skills to young adults of all sexes. Then, when researching about employment, or rather about under-employment, we identified a big gap between what companies need and what the educational system provides. This is why we decided to target young adults graduating from school to avoid that they join the 70% of population working in the informal economy.
About Programa Valentina & SIINC VSD
Programa Valentina is a Guatemalan impact enterprise that provides certified tech-based training programs to support unemployed youth in finding job opportunities. The enterprise was selected in the framework of the SIINC VSD program. SIINC VSD supports impact enterprises within the Vocational Skills Development (VSD) space with Social Impact Incentives (SIINC) – time-limited financial incentives rewarding the achievement of positive outcomes. This program is part of the SIINC LAC program that Roots of Impact and its partners the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the IDB Lab, New Ventures and Ashoka are implementing in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2016.
Can you tell us about the biggest challenge on your journey so far?
I am a graphic designer by background. I did not study to become an entrepreneur and did not know how to lead a team. You could say that I was thrown on a rocket and had to learn how to steer it. It has been an extremely interesting journey, filled with joy and frustration at the same time, but having a team of rock star women has been extraordinary throughout. Every week comes with new challenges and learnings. I once received a precious advice I want to share: “If things don’t go according to plan, don’t hit the wall, but rather take a right or a left turn.” When you are trying to transform an industry and change behavior, an emotional rollercoaster seems unavoidable. You realize it is all worthwhile, though, when a young person is thanking you for the amazing turn their life has taken thanks to Programa Valentina. It’s those small wins along the way that keep you pushing on.
What made you apply to the SIINC VSD program?
A friend of mine, who runs an impact fund, came across the program and thought that Programa Valentina would be a great candidate. We had heard about impact bonds in Colombia, so we had an idea of what payments for results are. SIINC seemed to be a great fit, given the stage we were in. We only understood later in the process that SIINC was simply made for us. We had the impact, we wanted to grow, and we could use some help to ensure that we do not deviate from the original impact trajectory. And that’s exactly what SIINC enabled us to do. Thanks to SIINC, we didn’t have to choose between impact and survival – this held particularly true in a challenging year such as 2020.
What was the process like?
It was a rigorous process, I admit. Roots of Impact asked a lot of questions that helped us use and interpret all the data we had available. We loved every question, since it made us explore our impact and put things into different perspectives. It was the first step to understanding the real importance of leading by data. We were already doing this, but not to its full potential, as we realized. So we identified the metrics that SIINC would incentivize: (1) the proportion of people placed who belong to the most vulnerable category, and (2) the percentage of vulnerable people still being employed after one year. This two-way process allowed to design the metrics in a way that made them highly relevant and feasible, even in pandemic times.
What challenges did the COVID-19 pandemic bring along for Programa Valentina?
Due to COVID-19, more than 80,000 jobs were lost in Guatemala. The pandemic really forced us to sit down and make tough decisions. While we were fortunate to have some financial runway, we had a couple of months with zero revenues. SIINC was our constant reminder not to forget about our impact when we had to adapt our model as a consequence of the pandemic. And it really helped us a lot: We were able to add some additional emergency metrics that allowed us to get quicker disbursements and that supported us with other services that we developed post-pandemic.
 Roots of Impact is the implementing partner, leading the screening, selection, structuring and impact verification process of the program.
How does SIINC compare to other programs you know or have been part of?
While some aspects such as the due diligence are quite similar across the board, SIINC is truly different in two aspects: in terms of easy and quick disbursements and with respect to the freedom to use the financing in what we as an enterprise, deem as most suitable. This is particularly important in our stage of rapid growth, where we have to take fast decisions on a monthly basis. By contrast, technical assistance support, for example, is often more rigid in requirements and funding means. Such rigid structure helped us in the past to become more organized. But at the end of the day, SIINC provides you with the freedom to find new solutions for whatever needs you have, while still allowing you to focus on impact.
“SIINC provides you with the freedom to find new solutions for whatever needs you have, while still allowing you to focus on impact. Thanks to SIINC, we didn’t have to choose between impact and survival – this held particularly true in a challenging year such as 2020. And for potential investors, SIINC is a seal of approval.”
Katia Cerwin, Co-Founder Programa Valentina
How does SIINC resonate with private investors?
When we mention SIINC to potential investors, it is always a great plus. Not only because SIINC is a seal of approval, but also because it helps us reach breakeven, and this in turn is of strong interest to investors. We still have to raise the series A by the end of 2021 as part of the SIINC contract, and I am sure that SIINC’s support will help us in doing so. Fundraising is a difficult task, particularly when you are a Guatemalan, female-led enterprise with impact at the heart. It seems to me that impact is often seen as a “nice-to-have”, but not necessarily the focus of many investors’ attention, unfortunately. Things are changing, though, and we will get there.
By then, we aim to have expanded from Guatemala to Colombia and ideally to another country. Now that we know that our solution works, we need to show it at a scale. Our goal is to find the right impact investors who see our potential and join our series A. With SIINC as a strong ally, I am highly confident that we will get there.
How would you describe the value add of SIINC in one sentence?
SIINC is about having the opportunity to create impact without compromising on revenues and sustainability.
Interview led by Leonessa Crisci, Roots of Impact
Photos: a glimpse into Programa Valentina’s impactful work, team and excited trainees / copyright: Programa Valentina