In the latest installment of KauffmanWomen, we chat with Bianca Martinelli (KF Class 21), who is a partner at Alexia Ventures, an early-stage value-add investor for top entrepreneurs from Brazil and Latin America who are disrupting business models driven by software platforms and data/artificial intelligence.
Prior to joining Alexia Ventures, Bianca spent 12 years at Endeavor contributing to the development of entrepreneurial ecosystems in over 40 countries. She led the organization’s global operations as well as expansion into countries such as Italy, Spain, Peru, and Ecuador. Bianca was also Vice President of International Expansion at RD Station (the largest SaaS Company in LatAm), serving as a key leader in digital marketing and sales for small and medium businesses in emerging markets. In this role, she led the start of the RD Station’s international expansion in Mexico, Colombia and the Iberian Peninsula. Bianca holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from FGV-EAESP in São Paulo-Brazil, with a specialization in entrepreneurship from Columbia Business School.
You’ve spent your career working in global startup ecosystems. What are the most impactful lessons you’ve learned in working with so many diverse founders?
I spent 15 years of my career working across 40+ different startup ecosystems around the world. This experience gave me a clear perspective that the best founders from emerging markets are as good as the top founders from Silicon Valley. These entrepreneurs have provided me with many important lessons, but one lesson, in particular, stands out: their ability to face market complexities head-on and turn them into opportunities.
Emerging markets are complex places to operate. They often have difficult environments for tax, capital, and talent. Regulatory complexities can either hinder or boost growth and innovation. Take Brazil and Nigeria, for example. Two countries in which Endeavor operates and whose “Doing Business” rankings are 124 and 131, respectively, out of 190 countries. Despite all their complexities, Brazilian and Nigerian tech ecosystems are booming. According to Crunchbase, as of September 2021, Brazil has had 14 Unicorns and companies in Brazil have raised a record of $5.7 billion in private capital investment reported by LAVCA. Nigeria created its first three unicorns in one year and is well on its way to lead a digital financial revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa, as pointed out by Derin Adebayo in this insightful article.
It inspires me that entrepreneurs when faced with market complexities, show an incredible ability to turn them into opportunities that allow them to stand out from competitors.
A clear example is what Eric Santos, the Co-Founder and CEO of RD Station (leading Marketing and Sales Automation software in LatAm) has done by embracing emerging markets’ complexity and building an international expansion strategy that prioritized markets commonly overlooked by its competitors. There was a clear window of opportunity, so RD started its expansion process in 2018 by entering Mexico and Colombia, both of which displayed a similar digital maturity to that of Brazil when the company started. Knowing how to navigate similar roadblocks as those faced in Brazil to find talent, set up local payment structures, or establish the legal entity locally, RD was able to better navigate these ecosystems precisely because it knew how to handle it from its inception. RD grew to become the leading Digital Marketing tech company for SMB’s in Latin America and recently got sold to Totvs for $330 million in a transaction still considered the largest private software M&A in the region.
Another example comes from Nigeria. Flutterwave was created in 2016 to help businesses build customizable payments applications through its APIs. By March 2021, the company had already processed 140 million transactions worth $9 billion and recently closed a $170 million Series C round at a $1 billion valuation. In this article from Techcrunch, the Founder and CEO of Flutterwave recognizes the positive role the Central Bank of Nigeria has had in the growth of his business by allowing for a more consistent regulatory framework for fintechs in Nigeria. Of course, in this case regulation has helped Flutterwave, as well as other Nigerian Fintechs to innovate. However, on top of it, GB knows well how to navigate the complexity of its home market and has positioned itself as an important bridge for its clients to navigate the complexity of Africa. Flutterwave has offices both in the US as well as Nigeria and its mission is to take more businesses from Africa to the world and bring more of the world to Africa.
According to data from LAVCA, 2020 was a record year for exits in the region and more than $4.1 billion was invested across 488 deals — making it the second-best year on record. With more investment activity, and results, across LatAm, what do you think needs to happen next to continue this momentum?
I am incredibly excited about what this decade will mean for Latin America’s tech ecosystem. The combination of a new wave of better-equipped entrepreneurs, (many of them second/third timers or having completed a cycle at a local top-tier tech company), capital availability, strong digital penetration, and a pandemic-accelerated e-commerce growth will dramatically shift the panorama for startups in the region.
According to LAVCA, private capital investment in Latin America reached $10.3 billion across 402 deals in 1H 2021. This was more than twice the amount deployed during the same six-month period in 2020. Capital availability is pushing valuations up to the sky and entrepreneurs have never had so many options to choose from when raising a new round of financing. This is good on one hand and I like that entrepreneurs now have more options in the region, including many top-tier global VCs.
However, this is also generating a highly competitive state of the VC market and we are constantly seeing “shot-gun” marriages between investors and founders, which can lead to unfortunate cap tables down the line for entrepreneurs and lower returns for investors.
What we are seeing today might resemble a bubble and I do believe there will be a market correction at some point. I believe entrepreneurs need to keep their focus on the fundamentals of good unit economics as well as choosing well who to partner with.
What skill has been the most helpful to your career?
The most helpful skill I developed in my career and in my life, in general, is intellectual honesty. My ability to show up vulnerably and to admit the things I know and what I still need to learn has been crucial to the process of growing and learning as an individual.
It also has the incredible side-effect of contributing to the creation of genuine trust with others. When we interact with founders, we’re never trying to be the smartest in the room. At Alexia Ventures, we strive to share our own experiences candidly and to be upfront about what we still don’t know and need to learn along the journey with the founders.
For our team, living by this value has allowed us to create a positive culture in which people are candid with each other and self-reflect in order to consistently step up our game. The best relationships I forged with entrepreneurs, LPs, mentors, and colleagues have been built through the lenses of intellectual honesty, by showing up vulnerably and being willing to learn and to listen genuinely to someone else’s worldview.
What woman leader inspires you the most?
I feel fortunate to come from a family of strong and inspiring women who have been important role models as I was growing up. Upon reflecting on my career and which leaders most inspired me, Linda Rottenberg, the co-founder and CEO of Endeavor, is certainly top of mind for important reasons: Firstly, Endeavor’s mission has helped forge the way I see the world. Her vision that the best entrepreneurs and innovations could come from underserved entrepreneurial ecosystems is now being fulfilled, as Endeavor is present in 40 markets around the world, supporting over 2000+ entrepreneurs (25+ businesses already valued at $1 billion+) and for the past 10 years with Endeavor Catalyst, the organization’s fund that has $250 million in AUM and the ability to sustain Endeavor for the coming decade. It’s an incredible mission and I feel fortunate to have contributed to it in some small way. Secondly, Linda’s energy and passion are unparalleled and this has an important effect on people. In Kauffman Fellows, we’re constantly talking about the importance of conviction and self-belief. These are important traits that I learned directly from her.
Finally, one of Endeavor’s values is to “Go Big,” which Linda articulates in a very personable way in her book Crazy is a Compliment. Linda describes the importance of family by stating we should “go big and go home,” instead of choosing one or the other. I realize this is not an easy feat for anyone, and to have a role model such as Linda gives me strength not only to go big but also to go home and to look for a much-needed balanced life. I actually just did this recently by moving back to my country after 10 years living in NYC. To me, this means being able to impact LatAm’s entrepreneurial ecosystem in a crucial moment whilst also being closer to my family, which matters a ton to me.
How have you leveraged the KF network or, what have you enjoyed most about the program?
I have long considered getting an MBA, but since my undergrad degree is in Business, I decided to explore other routes that could better fulfill my career needs. When I found out about Kauffman Fellows through Endeavor, I immediately thought I had found my tribe.
Where else would I find such a globally curated network of individuals in the Venture Capital and Innovation space? The KF network has been crucial to me both from a personal and a professional standpoint.
Personally, I can say KF has helped me reflect upon my abilities and to practice self-belief and conviction. It was also during the two-year fellowship that I went through some of the formative moments of my life and my classmates were pretty much the people I would turn to to talk about my challenges and how to solve them. Professionally, the Kauffman Fellows Program has paved the way to my current role as a Partner at Alexia Ventures.
I appreciate that the Kauffman Fellows Program embraces diversity from many angles and is open to individuals who bring different and important perspectives to the group. In my own experience, having GPs, LPs, and ecosystem shapers in my class brought incredible value to the discussions.
KauffmanWomen features insights from women investors, entrepreneurs, and executives within the Kauffman Fellows network. The series is edited by Ernestine Fu (Class 17) and Jessica Straus (Class 22), co-chairs of the Kauffman Women’s Group. Have ideas for future articles? Submit your ideas here and learn more about Kauffman Fellows at www.kauffmanfellows.org.