Globally, more people have a mobile phone than a toilet, yet toilets have added 20 years to the human lifespan in the past two centuries. To address this deficit with a sustainable business model, Jessica Altenburger and Isabel Medem founded the company x-runner to revolutionize access to proper sanitation in Peru, where 10 million people lack access to adequate sanitation and functional sewage systems.
They do this by selling portable, dry toilets that do not need water and can be installed quickly, easily, and affordably within a home. The toilet, combined with x-runner’s weekly pick up service, instantly improves the quality of life for customers, offering a safe, reliable, stylish, convenient, and affordable solution that contributes to a cleaner and healthier environment. Jessica and Isabel are members of the Agora Accelerator class of 2013 and are 2013 McNulty Fellows.
Agora chatted with Altenburger and Medem about their experiences as women entrepreneurs.
With all this focus on women in business and leadership, it seems as if women have made great strides, but there is still much work to be done. What have been some of the challenges you face as women entrepreneurs in Peru?
Medem: When I talk to possible investors, I have found that they talk to me differently and ask me different things than I see them ask my male colleagues. And the same is the other way around. When I talk to women investors, there is a completely different conversation and understanding of each other than with male investors.
When I spoke to a woman investor, she asked questions like, “When is your business model going to be sustainable?” and “When is your business going to be on strong legs, and when are you going to feel that you have proven your business model?” Nobody had ever asked me about my business in that way before. Until then, it was always, “When are you going to break even? When are you going to need your next investment round?” This woman investor asked questions that resonated with me more than I had experienced with other male possible investors.
Altenburger: My role in x-runner has a lot to do with production. And in Peru, this is a very male-dominated sector. In Peru, and maybe more generally, there is a cultural difference in the sense that they very much believe that certain professions are made for men and other professions are made for women. It is not necessarily that men don’t want to see women in work. Not at all – they think women should work. But working in production in Peru was really difficult as a European woman. They simply could not accept that a woman could be as knowledgeable as they were. It was the first time that I really felt it was hard to work with men. Compared with Europe, there is much more of a macho culture full of very proud men who are very proud of what they know and what they can do.
I started having male co-workers come with me to meetings. And I just showed up and have been showing over and over and over again that I know what I am doing and that I fully understand what they are doing and that I cannot be cheated. I have gained some respect but I am not fully there.
What does success in business look like to you?
Medem: To me, it looks like becoming profitable but with something that you know will last at least a couple of years. When I feel that we are making profit I want to feel that this is actually sort of the beginning.
Personally, success means that I have a team that is not only happy with their work but is a real team that sees each other as a group of people working together towards a goal and feels identified with the same success that I see as a success. Success has to be something that everyone feels is a success.
There is a movement developing around the idea of empowering women and leveling the playing field for women in business. What are some of the ways people can support women entrepreneurs and create a 50/50 economy where men and women are equal?
Altenburger: We need to keep up these kinds of conversations. We, as women, have proven in so many ways our strength and endurance, and just because we haven’t really had the chance yet to show it in leadership positions in companies, it doesn’t mean it is not there.
Public conversations and media is the best way we can change the picture that is generally around women. We have to be louder and bigger and move beyond just looking at individual hero cases. It’s really about women who naturally create success in their own way and that success doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by profit.
Agora Partnerships just launched Accelerate Women Now (AWN), an initiative fueled by those who believe in the power and potential of women business leaders to be change-makers in their communities and across the globe. AWN aims to raise money for the Agora Women’s Scholarship fund to ensure that no woman with real potential to improve her community through entrepreneurship is deterred from participating in the Agora Accelerator due to cost.
This post was written by Dana Warren, Communications Associate at Agora Partnerships, as part of a series on accelerating women in business. Read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.