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Leonor Melo de Velasco: Growing Hand-in-Hand with the Women of Colombia

By Meghan Flaherty

Leonor Melo de Velasco has something unique among microfinance pioneers: a degree in dental surgery. As a young professional, Leonor studied and practiced dentistry, while remaining actively engaged as a volunteer for community causes in her home country of Colombia. Called upon to help with relief efforts after the 1983 earthquake in the small southwestern city Popayán, she saw firsthand how lack of access to financial services limited low-income families’ potential to build economic security. In particular, she saw how low-income women especially suffered from that lack of access.

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Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, Leonor completely shifted her career path and founded the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Fundación Mundo Mujer in 1985. She has shepherded the organization through 30 years of growth, including its recent transformation into a bank renamed Mundo Mujer el Banco de la Comunidad, and remains a leader in the field of financial inclusion for women.

From a young age, Leonor felt a calling to serve others. Her grandmother set a strong example, inviting Leonor to accompany her as she offered meals to poor families and volunteered at local community centers and hospitals. While she enjoyed her career in dentistry, Leonor was always drawn to social justice initiatives. Through contacts on the Red Cross post-earthquake relief team in Popayán, Leonor heard about the women-focused microfinance projects being undertaken in Cali by Women’s World Banking and Fundación WWB Colombia. Women’s World Banking’s mission to empower low-income women through access to financial services rang true with Leonor, and she decided to build an organization that would fill this need for Popayán during earthquake reconstruction and beyond.

While Leonor had the support of many generous individuals and partner institutions to build Mundo Mujer, she realized that she herself was emerging as the institution’s long-term leader. Thus, as the organization continued to build its human resources, accounting, and other internal capacities, Leonor began working to strengthen her own business and managerial skills. After completing prerequisite classes in accounting and math, she obtained a master’s degree in Finance and Administration and also participated in various leadership workshops hosted by international organizations.

“With a savings account, women can plan for the future. Through access to credit and savings, women gain decision-making power in their businesses and in their homes and thus build the self-esteem that will enable them to stand up in the face of mistreatment. They gain strength.”

Over the course of her career, experience has taught Leonor that when work is done with true care and dedication, one can overcome any obstacle. As Mundo Mujer has evolved, Leonor’s guiding principle has remained the same: “We grow hand in hand with our clients; when they are successful, we are successful.” This client-centric perspective makes ethical and responsible lending practices a top priority for the organization. Looking ahead to the increased presence of digital financial services for low-income clients, Leonor emphasizes that Mundo Mujer’s initiatives in this area will continue follow its core principles, basing decisions on their utility for clients rather than on trends of the moment.

Leonor considers Mundo Mujer’s 2015 transformation into a bank a key step towards the long-term goal of maximizing client welfare and increasing women’s financial inclusion. The organization now offers a more comprehensive and effective selection of financial services for low-income women, including savings accounts.

“Savings is wealth,” Leonor explains. “With a savings account, women can plan for the future. Through access to credit and savings, women gain decision-making power in their businesses and in their homes and thus build the self-esteem that will enable them to stand up in the face of mistreatment. They gain strength.”

In addition to the clear benefits that financial inclusion offers women clients, Leonor also sees an important role for Mundo Mujer in promoting women’s equal participation in the workforce. She believes gender diversity in leadership to be extremely important, particularly in the women-focused microfinance sector. “Women bring something different to the table,” says Leonor. “It is neither more nor less than what men bring, but they bring a different perspective and a strong dedication.” At Mundo Mujer, the majority of employees are women, and managers strive to proactively develop female talent.

With three decades’ experience as a woman leader in financial inclusion, Leonor has insightful advice for young women just starting their careers in this field: “Know what you want. If you know clearly what you want from life and what makes you happy, you can set your goals and work hard to achieve them.” Leonor believes strongly that “there is no limit to the potential of women leaders,” whether in the home, in businesses, or as individuals. As she herself has demonstrated, one woman can indeed make a difference.