Camilo Mendez on How Microfinance Can Have a Major Impact

At the nonprofit organization Pro Mujer, CFO Camilo Mendez helps provide opportunities for women in Latin America

Camilo Mendez grew up with an interest in social justice, thanks in part to the fact that his family came to the US as political refugees from Argentina in the 1970s, and, after settling, his mother worked in immigration law. “It is critical to be aware of inequality,” Mendez says. “It was part of my every day to think that my job is not just a job.”

Today, Mendez’s job as chief financial officer at Pro Mujer allows him to help women in Argentina—as well as women in Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1990 by Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco, two pioneering teachers working in Bolivia who realized that the mothers of the children they were teaching could also benefit from their help. The pair began teaching health and leadership skills to the women, then with the help of grants, added financial education and microloans to their arsenal. Over the years, the organization has expanded to other Latin American countries and established its headquarters in the US, but it remains committed to offering women in underserved communities access to finance, health, and educational services.

Throughout that time, Mendez says, “Pro Mujer has held steady to its focus on impact.” In fact, that’s why he chose to join the organization in 2014. He’d spent the decade before that working with microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) while exploring how to pair social justice and finance. When the opportunity to work with Pro Mujer presented itself, he was happy to make the move. Drawn to the organization’s clear mandate, Mendez cares more about making an impact than growing for growth’s sake.

In fact, his career is built on a combination of passion and pragmatism. “I figured there would be more jobs in finance,” Mendez says. “But then I thought about how finance can be coupled with my values.” Early in his career he worked on a project to build low-income housing in Mexico. “Every year this sector built five thousand affordable homes,” he says. “This felt tangible.”

“Those of us that have had opportunities should take those opportunities and do things for others. All people are capable of great things.”

As Pro Mujer’s chief financial officer, Mendez shepherds all financial aspects of the organization—no small task. While the organization specializes in microlending, along with healthcare and educational services, it has disbursed more than $3 billion in small loans since its founding in 1990. Mendez oversees at least nine operating companies on a monthly basis and is also responsible for budgets, financial plans, auditing, accounting, meeting external funder demands, and general financial performance. Responding to political unrest and financial instability are integral to the work Pro Mujer does, so multifaceted risk evaluation adds another layer to Mendez’s projections around revenue—mostly from loan interest—and funding from banks, local capital markets, and MIVs.

Under new CEO Maria Cavalcanti, Pro Mujer is shifting its model to offer deeper support around education, healthcare, and financial literacy training. “We are no longer just a financial institution,” Mendez says. The organization is building alliances in order to expand its services, sometimes offering trainings to clients through other organizations.

Pro Mujer is also expanding its programming in Guatemala and has recently acquired a new entity in Argentina. Pro Mujer measures its impact through evaluating client focus, human resources, ownership, and governance, as well as procurement and alliance. “We don’t just want to expand where it feels easy,” Mendez says. “We are looking outside the usual locations to consider what financing looks like.” For example, as they develop new partnerships, they now provide some healthcare, and have also implemented health insurance offerings and healthcare loans.

“We don’t just want to expand where it feels easy. We are looking outside the usual locations to consider what financing looks like.”

Guiding change while maintaining the organization’s financial strength in spite of political and macroeconomic turmoil is a considerable challenge for Mendez to overcome. However, he has a good reason for sticking with the cause: Pro Mujer’s decades-long dedication to providing relevant and transformational services for the women of Latin America, along with its willingness to move outside its comfort zone to address the needs of those women.

“We want to expand to work with women throughout their lives,” he says. According to Mendez, it’s easy to say that an organization is mission-driven, but actually finding ways to continuously support clients and transforming to meet their needs is more difficult. He gives one example of success: “We have maintained a lower than average loan size. The goal is sustainability and scalability, not profitability per se.”

While Mendez has a personal history that connects him to his work, he also has a profound humility that guides how he does that work. Humility, he says, is how you build strong relationships. “Don’t hide problems,” he says. “That leads to distrust.” His approach to problem-solving is both analytical and empathetic. “I work to understand interests and conflicts of interests. When you can unlock the problem from different perspectives, then you can get something done,” he says.

“Those of us that have had opportunities should take those opportunities and do things for others,” Mendez adds. “All people are capable of great things.”

Deetken Impact is proud to partner with driven leaders like Camilo and visionary organizations like Pro Mujer to create innovative impact investment products. Making a difference with strong returns, that’s what we’re all about.

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