Estratek, Colombia’s Corporate Startup Accelerator
Estratek is the brainchild of María del Pilar Mejía, a natural-born entrepreneur. In elementary school, this young Colombian woman sold cookies and alfajores, which she hid in a thermos so as not to attract teachers’ attention. Since one of her hobbies was painting and drawing, she also spent time making cards with messages of love and friendship.
As a teenager she suffered from anorexia. She became shy, withdrawn and had very low self-esteem. But during a family reunion, her parents finally woke up to what was happening to María del Pilar. Recurring visits to the psychologist and the nutritionist started to reverse the physical and emotional damage suffered by the teenager, who was 14 years old at the time.
She gained 12 kilos and returned to the standard weight according to her age. Shortly after, when she was about to finish high school, she was chosen by Colombian underwear brand Leonisa to model. “I couldn’t believe it. I was right next to such beautiful women and I just told myself: “I am not so ugly or horrible after all.” That gig helped me rediscover myself and gain confidence”.
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A Path filled with Trials and Setbacks before Estratek
She enrolled in the production engineering career and upon reaching the fifth semester, the entrepreneur born in Medellín decided to take six months off to go to Australia to study English and work part time.
Upon completion, she set aside part of her savings for a trip through Thailand and, upon returning to Colombia, she partnered with a friend to sell desserts at the different university campuses of the “city of eternal Spring”. They distributed more than 400 desserts every week.
Everything was going perfectly well for Mejía, until her friend went off to Brazil. “I continued alone but after a few months I quit. I was eager to turn this venture into a famous dessert company, but I gave up. I was not persistent”, confesses the entrepreneur, who also invested in another model that didn’t pay off. It was an online sales business called tiendaabierta.com.
When she finished her career, Maria became interested in the science and technology field. She set out to be the toughest (knowledgeable) in that area and enrolled in an Innovation Management degree program while working as an engineering analyst at Leonisa. Her job there was to make the cutting process more efficient through innovation.
With her boyfriend, Sebastián Castrillón, she started doing some research in the field, which in 2010 was a new theme in Medellín. It was clear to both of them that they wanted to provide a disruptive and pioneering business model, aligned with technology and innovation. Estratek was about to emerge.
Estratek was born as a research and business development alternative
With a robust group of partners, such as Parque del Emprendimiento, Ruta N, la Andi del Futuro and Proantioquia , María del Pilar and Sebastián founded Estratek in 2012, a consulting firm that helped large corporations identify business models based on innovation, science and technology.
A distinguished clientele with names, such as the state oil company Ecopetrol, among other business giants in Colombia, allowed Estratek to generate profits above 100 million pesos ($30,000).
By the end of 2014, the team had 10 people on board; but with the depreciation of the peso with regard to the dollar, companies began adjusting their annual budgets early the following year, sacrificing areas such as innovation.
“Several contracts were terminated and we went broke. We borrowed money to be able to pay off our employees”, says Mejía.
Now, while this door insisted on closing, others appeared to be wide open for them. María del Pilar applied for a scholarship offered by the British government in Colombia. After several filters, she achieved the desired dream, which was to study in England with a fully paid master’s degree.
Both she and her husband went to the European country for a year and entrusted Nicolai Eslava with the task to continue with some ongoing projects at Estratek.
After 12 months at the University of Sussex, Maria obtained a master’s degree in strategic innovation. Upon returning to her home country, the Estratek revolution began.
Estratek went from selling information to accelerating business units
In 2016, Nicolai, Sebastián and María del Pilar reinvented themselves and “we stopped selling PDF information that corporations never implemented in their processes”.
Instead, they chose to accelerate corporate startups with the results of those same innovation and development studies. The proposal they made to large corporations was: “allow us to build a company with these results.”
The Corona group, a Colombian multinational engaged in manufacturing and marketing construction and home products, was the first to believe in them. By maximizing the use of resources, a method that challenges traditional structures, and with a group of entrepreneurs from different areas, Estratek helped develop Nexentia (a business unit of the corporation focused on the development of products in sectors such as food, pharmaceuticals, medicine, cosmetics and chemical products).
“Our first undertaking was Forticaps, calcium and mineral supplements developed with nanotechnology for highly competitive horses. We modernized the entire service chain and after a few months, Corona managed to outperform the market leader”, said the young entrepreneur.
Currently, with the same corporation, they are implementing the same methodology for the creation of a similar product for dogs.
The Estratek team is the mastermind behind 11 other high impact projects in the areas of innovation, science and technology in Colombia. It is made up of “recycled entrepreneurs”, those who have had more than one failed attempt as micro-entrepreneurs, but who have all the knowledge, spunk and spirit to carry out daring projects.
“Estratek‘s methodology is to produce competitive businesses from scratch and in the shortest possible time, taking advantage of the technical and financial capabilities of corporations”, stated Mejia. She also stressed that the model is known for speedy sales and that is why “we partner with other entrepreneurs to accelerate the projects”.
The Colombian government’s pending task when it comes to Startups
One of the focal points of the policy of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications of Colombia (MinTIC) – during the 2018-2022 term – is generating more digital businesses, providing the necessary conditions for this industry to become dynamic and be able to make significant investments to bring the benefits of technology to different population sectors.
However, Mejía emphasizes that the Colombian government is still not fully aware of the needs and interests of companies engaging in science and technology because they measure them like any traditional company. “We need more government support, not only when the business is thriving, but also when things are going bad.”
90% of large companies fail in their undertakings because they are crippled by their own rules and paradigms.
Unfortunately, she adds, many of us are left to fend for ourselves when things go wrong because there is no support, incentives or privileges.
In Estratek’s specific case, the payroll is made up of 30 people, which has had a positive impact on some 300 families. The “first job” policy prevails in its internal policy, which means providing a job opportunity for young graduates so that they can gain experience in the market.
Gender Gaps in the Colombian Entrepreneurship Environment
For María del Pilar, co-founder of Estratek, it is “boring and annoying” to go to women’s entrepreneurial fairs, not for lack of talent, but due to the absence of business models involving technological challenges, such as software, apps, artificial intelligence, big data or biotechnology, as otherwise happens in business meetups involving men.
Being leaders in corporate environments is also much more difficult for women. And this Colombian experienced it firsthand when, for example, she had to abandon a project once because the client was a misogynist.
Another aspect that remains challenging for Mejía is feminine nature itself. “There is a general taboo about mentioning the hormonal changes we experience each month. It is a sin to be absent from work due to the discomfort caused by colic, migraines or endometriosis episodes that many suffer due to menstruation”.
And things get even dimmer when it comes right down to pregnancy because, according to the entrepreneur, this stage of a woman’s life is seen as “a hindrance” for companies, since there is a perception that “it affects productivity”. As a woman and business leader, she dreams of designing a strategy so that women who are pregnant or caring for young children can work part time. The co-founder of Estratek ends by explaining that “the idea is to find another woman to be her match, that is, sharing the same job profile, so that the position can be filled by both, but on different schedules”.