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Innovation for the Emerging Middle Class — Christine Kenna, Partner at IGNIA

Miguel Armaza interviews Christine Kenna, Partner at IGNIA, a Venture Capital firm that invests in innovative solutions for the emerging middle class in Latin America.

Christine joined IGNIA in 2011 and has been investing and working with entrepreneurs in strategic planning, critical problem solving, and operational issues.

We discussed her background, investing approach, the evolution of the fintech ecosystem in the region, and the important efforts she leads to continue improving diversity and inclusion within the private capital industry in Latin America.

Listen to the full interview → Spotify | Soundcloud | Apple Podcasts

Growing up in Palo Alto, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, Christine would have never imagined she would one day find herself living and working in Mexico City. But that is exactly what she has been doing for the last 15 years and, in fact, now proudly describes herself as a “Chilanga-Gringa”.

Christine launched her career as a management consultant at Parthenon Group in the late 90s and would spend most of her time traveling with clients. Although she visited several locations, it was an assignment in Mexico City that impacted her the most. In Mexico, she discovered the incredible pain points that the emerging middle class encountered on a daily basis and also realized there was an opportunity for a lot of work to be done. Christine left Parthenon to get her MBA at Harvard Business School, where she met professor Michael Chu, who would later go on to found IGNIA. Her first stop after MBA graduation was Google, where she joined the company at a period of hypergrowth and worked in their Silicon Valley headquarters and Google Paris. But after a few years, she started to look for a tech role in a region that did not have privileged access to technology and eventually returned to Mexico to join Education First (EF), a fast-growing education startup.

IGNIA Ventures

Working at a venture-backed startup helped Christine realize the power of smart capital to enable positive change in an ecosystem. Which is why when she reconnected with her old HBS professor, Michael Chu, she jumped at the opportunity to join IGNIA.

Founded in 2007, IGNIA was the first VC based in Mexico City. The firm was initially started as an impact-driven fund, with the goal of helping build and develop the wider ecosystem. And although the startup scene in Latin America was just getting started, the hardest part was not finding entrepreneurs, but instead, the biggest challenge was that there were no other funds to co-invest with.

Over the years, the company has remained committed to its original thesis to support entrepreneurs solving problems for the emerging middle class. They have also realized the importance of looking for startups with potential for outstanding returns. Better said by Christine, “in order to create impact, we have to build sustainable companies that have exceptional returns. And in order to draw more capital to the region and create new industries, we continue to have to help these companies and entrepreneurs be wildly successful also with their returns.”

The startup ecosystem today is almost unrecognizable from what it was 13 years. The number of impressive entrepreneurs with bolder and more ambitious aspirations has grown exponentially and there are dozens of strong VCs looking for the next big startup. International investors have also taken notice and we have seen the likes of A16Z or Sequoia make a considerable number of investments in the last 5 years — yet, growth capital is still the biggest link and something Christine hopes will continue improving over time.

Fintech in Latin America

IGNIA’s sweet spot is investing at Series A and, although they are sector agnostic, their portfolio is heavily invested in Fintech with close to 50% of their companies focused on financial services. Christine remains bullish about the industry and points out many areas that are still completely unaddressed, like financial services for SMBs, cross border payments, and tools to power the growing wave of digital commerce.

We are still in the early days and companies have noticed. In her own words, “You know, Latin America is the third largest region of internet penetration across the world, with 450 million connected users. (…) And all the big tech companies already know this. Spotify has Mexico as their number one market; Uber is Mexico’s second-largest market; Facebook, their fifth-largest market; Netflix has Mexico as their second-largest market. So this is not a secret.”

Diversity

One of Christine’s most important missions is to help bring diversity and inclusion into the investing ecosystem. The numbers are not good and female investors in the region represent only 1% of senior investment roles in private equity and around 6% in venture capital. Christine reminds us that these numbers are limiting the returns and effectiveness they can have, particularly because there are countless of studies showing that diverse decisions and diverse opinions create higher returns. So for the 75% of funds that don’t have any women on their investment teams, they are actually making a disservice to their LPs and hurting their performance. Specifically, a recent study concluded that if you increase by 10% the level of females participating in investment decisions, funds can increase overall returns by 1.5% and generate 10% more profitable exits.

Christine mentioned several organizations that are helping drive meaningful change in the region and because this is such an important issue, we are including all the links below.

  • Mujeres Invirtiendo — Network of 150 female investment professionals across Mexico.
  • WeInvest Latam — Network of female investment professionals across Latin America.
  • AMEXCAP — Mexican Association of Private Capital
  • IgniaUnlocked — comprehensive list of resources and best practices for entrepreneurs, covering fundraising, pitching, corporate governance, due diligence, and diversity & inclusion tools.

About IGNIA

IGNIA is a leading Mexico-based venture capital firm that partners with entrepreneurs who are reinventing the way to do business with the emerging middle class. IGNIA invests in sectors where innovation has a high impact on people’s lives such as healthcare, housing, financial services and basic services (water, energy and communications). By providing effective market responses to the enormously underserved needs of low income populations, IGNIA empowers entrepreneurship and builds a more equitable.

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Miguel Armaza

Miguel Armaza

🎙Co-President/Podcast Host @WhartonFintech. Fintech investor @ Gilgamesh. 📚MBA/MA Candidate @Wharton/@LauderInstitute. Author of Fintech Leaders Newsletter✍️