NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Rosario Pérez, who describes herself as an “unapologetic feminist,” is president and CEO of Pro Mujer, a nonprofit devoted to providing Latin American women with financial and health services to help them break the cycle of poverty and become leaders in their communities. Since launching in 1990, Pro Mujer has disbursed more than $1 billion in small loans, all of which charge market- or below-market interest rates. The loans are for income-generating purposes only, such as purchasing equipment. Some clients may take out supplementary loans to cover such costs as education and health care.
Pérez took over the leadership of Pro Mujer in 2008 following a 21-year career in private banking, where she held a number of senior leadership positions for J.P. Morgan Chase, culminating in becoming the executive in charge of its Private Bank Latin American division. In this role, she was responsible for overall client management and operating and financial performance from 1997 to 2005. Originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, Pérez received a Bachelor of Arts degree in international relations from Universidad de las Américas (Mexico) and a master’s degree in European history from Yale University. Women’s eNews recently caught up with Pérez at Pro Mujer’s headquarters here.
Our secret sauce is that fundamentally we believe in our clients and we give them the support necessary so that they feel safe in our centers. Our main center provides moral, emotional and even educational assistance. More and more I am convinced that this psychological support is crucial…We place our trust in women even before they place their trust in themselves. Additionally, a unique element of our work is that from the get-go Pro Mujer offers an integrated intervention. Since 1990, we have provided services to 1.6 million women in the five countries in which we operate in – Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. Taking into account that these women invest heavily in their families, I estimate Pro Mujer has benefitted between 5 to 6 million individuals. This may not seem an extraordinary number when you consider the total universe, but you must undertake this mission one woman at a time.
Financial empowerment is key for women in all social strata, but especially for the Pro Mujer clients, who fall into the category of what I call the triple whammy: they are women, they are poor and they belong to an indigenous group. These women face enormous challenges and spend their day trying to survive. But these women are also fighters. They don’t want to give up. What they need is to be given the opportunity. Their dream is to become financially independent of their partners. There is no national difference regarding this goal. We have conducted studies in Peru and Mexico and in terms of the objective there is no difference. What we see is degrees of marginalization between urban and rural populations, but the ultimate goal remains the same.
I had a great role model in my mother. She did not work outside the home, but she was a very strong woman. My father also encouraged me. Of their nine daughters, most of us went to college. I always knew I did not want to be one of those traditional affluent Mexican women who do not have a career. I always worked for big American multinationals and initially connected with Pro Mujer as a board member. I had frankly never considered applying when the job of CEO came open, but when founder Lynne Patterson offered it to me I was intrigued by the challenge of bringing business savvy to a nonprofit. I spent the first year learning about microfinance and learning about health issues. It was during that year that I truly understood the difficult dynamic of these women and the enormity of their struggle. I had known that in theory, but now I was witnessing it firsthand. With little we have achieved much. I have become a believer.
We have a specific strategy we are implementing over the next three to five years. We are understanding more and more how we have to offer our services, where we can find the women who are change makers. We are developing a suite of programs. We have women who have been with us some 15 to 20 years. They need more sophisticated services, so we are creating a suite of products for each stage of life. We are also getting ready to enter a new country within the next three years. We have been considering Colombia, not only because there is a strong need, but because the entrepreneurial, economic and political environments are favorable.
Corporations are key to achieving women’s financial empowerment. There is a lot of room for corporations to contribute to this goal in Latin America. I am convinced the biggest progress will come from that sector as soon as it realizes that promoting women internally is reflected in an improvement in the bottom line. If we want to move the needle for all women, Pro Mujer clients and others, we need to focus on corporations. The multinationals are already doing a fairly good job, but we must also look at the big, locally owned companies. Pro Mujer wants to put out the message, to corporations and everyone else, that the world can’t be peaceful, productive, inclusive and just unless women are equally at the table. Not more than men. Just equal.
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