This Startup is Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Brazil With Leadership Skills

photo of Maria Clara Magalhaes
Photo: Be.Labs
Maria Clara Magalhaes

By: Prachi Patel

THE INSTITUTE Maria Clara Magalhães grew up in Arapiraca, Brazil, a small town far from the metropolitan areas of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. She was raised in a patriarchal culture where, she says, women are treated as subordinates and the rate of violence against them is high. It was tough to be a book-loving girl with a passion for math, physics, and soccer.

“There were no rules saying girls couldn’t do those things. It was a social norm,” Magalhães says. “Girls were mostly playing with dolls.”

Now the company the IEEE member helped to found is trying to instill systematic change in the way women are treated in her state of Alagoas—the most violent in the country—and beyond. Be.Labs, where she is chief creative officer, is a social technology company working to promote gender equality, bring economic power to women, and raise awareness of domestic violence.

It does that by providing a pre-acceleration program for female entrepreneurs and conducting leadership training to increase the number of women in executive positions. Magalhães is also helping to develop an interactive, artificial intelligence–based technology to detect implicit gender bias and signs of domestic violence in people.

Be.Labs was one of the winners of last year’s IEEE Entrepreneurship Stars virtual competition. The program recognizes engineering-driven ventures that align with the IEEE mission of fostering technology, innovation, and excellence for the benefit of humanity. In addition to the recognition, awardees become honorary IEEE members for a year.

A DIFFICULT JOURNEY

Magalhães says she was lucky to have two strong women as role models—her mother and grandmother—who encouraged her to pursue her passions. Her mother was an entrepreneur who opened a preuniversity school in Arapiraca. Magalhães was the first girl to take soccer and karate lessons—which she persuaded her father to allow.

As a youngster, she was a voracious reader and loved science and mathematics.

“I was the girl who studied math and then competed in the math olympiad in high school,” she says. Her desire to follow her interests and shatter societal expectations framed the path she chose for her higher education.

“I chose to become an engineer because I wanted to confront a society that said I wouldn’t be able to study what is stereotypically considered a male profession,” she says.

In 2013 she began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the Universidade Federal de Campina Grande. There she met the handful of like-minded women in the program. The environment at the school was sexist, she says, with female students facing harassment by teachers and classmates, as well as not being taken seriously.

She gravitated to IEEE in the first semester, she says, because she “saw a big opportunity to grow and acquire soft skills.” She helped launch the university’s IEEE Women in Engineering chapter, which last year won the IEEE WIE Student Branch Affinity Group of the Year Award.

IEEE turned out to be pivotal for her professional and personal life. She met her future husband at the school’s first student branch meeting. Later she met his aunt, Marcela Fujiy, when Fujiy was invited to speak at a WIE event. The two women quickly bonded because of their shared passion of entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment. Fujiy became Magalhães’ mentor as well as her business partner.

Fujiy owned and operated a local franchise of specialty chocolate company Kopenhagen. She and her husband, Christian, an engineer for global automation and technology company ABB, had moved back to Brazil after living in Sweden, and were hoping to start another business.

In late 2017, while Magalhães was in the Philippines taking a year off from school to volunteer for a faith-based organization, she got a call from Fujiy, and the two women hatched a plan to start Be.Labs.

AEMPOWERING WOMEN

The Fujiys and Magalhães together launched the startup in 2018. It now has 10 employees. The company’s pre-accelerator is geared to help women who either have or want to start their own company.

The businesses vary in maturity, “from projects that are being initiated to companies that need an innovation boost and new technologies,” Magalhães says. “Our focus is on women in northeastern Brazil, where most of the businesses are traditional but are adapting to the digital economy.”

Be.Labs helps them with advice from experts and founders of successful businesses, plus networking with mentors and other entrepreneurial women. The company holds educational workshops on developing business plans, pitching investors, recognizing potential customers, developing products and marketing strategies, and understanding current market trends and future prospects.

MORE TO DO

After helping to found Be.Labs, Magalhães still wanted to do more. A 2019 report by the Brazilian Public Safety Forum showed that a woman is a victim of domestic violence in Brazil every two minutes. To help address the problem, Be.Labs is developing a chatbot that could help flag signs of discrimination against women as well as signs of potential domestic abuse or violence.

The chatbot, which is at a conceptual stage, will be powered by machine-learning software that will be trained on simulated conversations with volunteers, Magalhães says. The conversations might include, for instance, words or phrases that reflect misogynistic attitudes. The software should be able to learn the patterns from examples and from the volunteers’ feedback. The hope is that once the robot is trained, it could be used to help people recognize signs of gender bias and domestic violence. Magalhães says the R&D team plans to incorporate phone-based measurements of heart rate and eye movement in the chatbot to analyze emotions in people while they are speaking about sensitive topics.

Be.Labs is in talks with investors—including venture capitalists inside and outside Brazil and technology accelerators in Sweden and the United Kingdom—about funding to develop a more marketable prototype, she says.

Be.Labs hasn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic halt its momentum. A few months into the pandemic, the company launched a mobile app, Logom, to help connect charitable organizations with people in need of food, personal hygiene products and other essentials.

Dividing time between academics and the startup meant it took longer for Magalhães to complete her schoolwork. When she earned her bachelor’s degree last year, she says, it fulfilled her dream of breaking barriers imposed on her when she was young.

“As a child and teen I was always struggling to be who I wanted to be,” she says. “I wanted to change things from the inside, to acquire this kind of power to move the social norms that are imposed on us.”

IEEE has helped shape her internal drive to be different and to make a difference. By exposing her to female role models in technology, IEEE led her to grow academically and professionally, she says.

“The connections, the technical support, the feeling of contributing to a better world through technology,” she says, “is what keeps me loyal to the IEEE.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 16 April 2021.