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Wenceslao Casares: Merit and Entrepreneurship Rewarded

Wenceslao Casares

This article is part of the Heroes of Social Inclusion series from the Spring 2012 issue of Americas Quarterly. View the full list of heroes here.

I grew up in Patagonia on a sheep ranch. Our nearest neighbor was 20 miles away, the nearest town 100 miles. In this place with long, tough, snowy winters and cool, windy summers, we were very isolated.

Patagonia to Palo Alto: Technology entrepreneur Wenceslao Casares in Silicon Valley. (Jonathan Spraque/Redux Pictures)

I learned a lot from my mother’s entrepreneurial skills. She took the wool from our farm and worked with Mapuche women to spin it into sweaters that she would sell to tourists. In the midst of hyperinflation, making money was the difference between having clothes for winter or not.

When I was 17, I won the Rotary International Exchange Program scholarship, giving me the chance to finish high school in a small town in Pennsylvania.

When I returned, I briefly attended San Andrés University in Buenos Aires, but dropped out to start a new business: Patagon.com, an online financial services company.

Even by the 1990s, there were a lot of obstacles to starting a business in Latin America—especially if you were not part of the establishment. Every time I pitched my business idea for funding, potential investors would ask: “Who is your father? Which school did you go to?” My father was a sheep rancher, and my school was not an elite private school.

They were not interested.

After two years and dozens of failed meetings to raise capital, I was selected as an Endeavor Entrepreneur in 1998. That relationship changed the trajectory of my company, as well as my life.

Although my initial belief that the Internet would revolutionize access to financial services is still unfulfilled, Patagon did very well serving those privileged customers who did have access.

In 2002 I started Banco Lemon in Brazil with the goal of reaching the millions of Brazilians who had not even been allowed to enter a downtown bank. We opened more than 7,000 innovative and efficient branches in marginalized neighborhoods throughout Brazil, and in doing so provided 15 million customers with their first bank account.

Poor Brazilians could put their savings in the bank, pay bills efficiently, access credit, and formalize their financial lives.

We need to leverage these new tools of technology (Internet and mobile phones) to make the next 10 years even more impressive—the decade of Latin America’s emergence.

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