Luisa Ribeiro, Co-Founder & CEO, Papaya Ventures: Being a Geek Has Never Been This Cool

As part of this month’s Editorial Theme of BRIC Countries, we’re bringing you this interview with Brazilian entrepreneur Luisa Ribeiro, Co-Founder & CEO, Papaya Ventures.

Papaya Ventures is the first multi-thematic startup acceleration program based on design-thinking and user-experience mentorship. Each six month cycle will have a specific theme based on technology, business and consumer trends, with the program being tailored to that theme, including relevant workshops and mentors. The first program, rolling out next month, will have the theme ‘Mobile First’ and Papaya are looking for five startups to join. Application deadline is August 31st.

Before founding Papaya Ventures, Luisa was advisor to the COO at the OCDE (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) in Paris, where she also acted as coordinator of innovation policies for Latin America. Bachelor of Engineering from PUC-Rio, Luisa also has an INSEAD MBA, having worked many years as a consultant at Accenture Brasil and in the hedge fund Cantillon Capital Management, in London.

We spoke to Luisa about how it feels to be a tech entrepreneur in Brazil at the moment; the exciting startup events which are happening in Rio de Janiero; and why a little conflict in the office can be a good thing.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Papaya Ventures and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

Papaya was created to tackle the gap that exists for both entrepreneurs who are looking for early stage funding and coaching; and investors who are looking for startups to invest in but are having trouble finding businesses that have a true problem-solution fit, and teams that are prepared to manage the startups. 

As soon as I arrived in Brazil after a few years abroad, I had on my entrepreneur hat and was looking for funds for a new business.

During this period I talked to many investors about what they were looking for, the challenges they were facing, and also discussed the issues I was dealing with at the other end of the spectrum. One of these investors was Marcelo Bastos, a Rio-based VC. He was open to start investing in smaller, web type of ventures, and was investigating what would be the ideal model for him. After a few talks, we reached a conclusion: we would build an accelerator.

As soon as I had the green light I dived into the opportunity. I started by looking for people that know more than I do to join the project. The first one was my business partner Daniel Pereira; it would have simply been impossible to create Papaya on my own.

Two weeks later I jumped into a plane to NYC to meet the top guys involved in accelerators and angel investing. The tips and suggestions I got from them were priceless.

After that, once we figured out what our program would look like, what kind of model we would follow, we started inviting some pretty hard-core specialists to join our mentor team. And things started falling into place quite quickly; in less than 3 months Papaya Ventures was born. 

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

There is some sort of accelerator boom these days. Every week a new accelerator program is launched. Which is good in some way, as it reflects the positive phase we’re experiencing and the need for this kind of early stage support.

But it also signals that we have a long way to go to create a mature startup ecosystem in this country. And of course, it also demands a serious and committed approach from Papaya to emerge from the crowd.

Being a multi-thematic startup accelerator means that for every new cycle, we choose a specific theme based on technology, business and consumer trends. This enables us to customize the program in a unique way including specific workshops and mentors.

Papaya’s programs are also based on the deep use of design thinking and user experience principles. In every program the first half is fully dedicated to the development of experiences and not products. 

TNW: What are the advantages of gender diversity in a startup? Are there any disadvantages?

Diversity is definitely a plus for a startup team. And not only in gender but also in skill sets, mindsets background, financial situation, and so on. Having different points of view, and trying to solve a problem from different perspectives, will make a great product in the end. You’ll simply catch things that probably would have been missed in a more homogeneous group. 

I don’t think there are any major disadvantages. One could say that having too many different opinions creates tension, arguments, and discussions.

But great innovations usually occur during conflicts and outside the comfort zone. And it’s fun, stimulates our brain, you just need to make sure it doesn’t get out of control. 

TNW: What does your day look like?

Completely different from “yesterday”!

Right now I’m doing home office, since the house we rented for our office is starting a major reform. I have many breakfast meeting and coffee meetups during the day, some skype calls with our international partners and collaborators, run some errands now and then. I try to fit exercise at some point of the day, usually a nice walk on the beach in sunny mornings. 

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake? 

I used to sleep so well when I had a boss! Now I keep waking up with slightest sounds and my brain turns on immediately and my “to do list” pops up and simply prevents me from getting back to sleep.

Things from “I have to reply to that email that Amy sent me a few days ago”, from “can’t forget to pay the taxes tomorrow”, to “by the way I need to ask my accountant about that thing”. 

It probably lies on the fact that the company is still in a very early stage that requires extra care. I imagine it’s a similar experience with a newborn at home. When you’re kids grow you’ll still worry but when they are babies they need your full commitment and dedication. 

But at the same time it feels great to wake up to do things you are really passionate about. It definitely pays off the lack of sleep.

TNW: How have you found angel investors’/venture capitalists’ attitudes towards you as a female entrepreneur? 

From my personal experience investors and business partners in general care more about your background than by the fact you’re wearing skirts or pants.

Being an engineer and coming from a technical field and with finance experience, and decent resume certainly opened some doors.

In general, women are also far more careful in spending money and keeping the company lean. 

TNW: Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing? 

Brazil is very peculiar in that sense, as it has 4th largest number of number of women entrepreneurs in the world, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM 2011).

Women like Luiza Trajano, founder of Magazine Luiza, an iconic brand and retail business launched in 1957, are references for the rest of the population. And we shouldn’t forget that we now have a woman in command of the entire country.

What might be changing is the perception that women only care about cosmetic, fashion and food businesses. We have an increasing number of examples of women that created and lead male dominant type of businesses including software companies, brokerage firms, gas distribution.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why?

I guess it changed a lot. When we are young we tend to think we are so smart, that we have all the answers and everybody should follow us and do what we say. I guess I’m still pretty young but now I’m much more of a listener, adopted a less competitive and more collaborative style, and try to empower people as much as I can.

TNW: How does it feel to be a tech entrepreneur in a BRIC country at the moment? 

It’s a great moment to be a tech entrepreneur in Brazil right now. Probably the best. As a previous boss used to say “the window of opportunity is open” so let’s take advantage of it.  

The money is flowing in - global ventures capital firms are setting up offices in the country. Redpoint has announced they closed a $130 million fund that will focus exclusively on Brazil. Sequoia Capital is next in line. Apart from the money, the expertise that top-tier VCs bring to the ecosystem is extraordinary.

Public sector is trying to foster new and more efficient measures to foster innovation and entrepreneurship.

The truth is, it never felt so cool to be a geek before. Tech entrepreneurs are on magazine covers every week.

There is a growing local startup community, a number of meetup events where entrepreneurs and investors meet over a glass of beer or capirinha. Global events are all stopping in Brazil now. Sao Paulo is about to host The Next Web Conference and AppCircus. In September, WOB (Wide Open Business) will make a huge event in Rio de Janeiro and in October, it’s time to enjoy Entrepreneur Week in the city of the Christ the Redeemer, just to name a few. 

Well it’s time to surf the wave…or jump through the window. 

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