Inspirational Woman: Veronica Celis Vergara | Founder & CEO, EnlightAID

Veronica CelisVeronica is a Chilean architect, TEDx speaker and tech4good entrepreneur. She is the founder and CEO of EnlightAID, a startup providing real-time transparency to the use of donations.

In this role, she has established partnerships in three continents, along with being the designer of the technology and the spokesperson for the company.

Verónica is a LEED® GA Accredited Architect with a Masters in Landscape and Territorial Design, having international experience in architectural design, sustainable consulting and project management. Among other recognitions, she was named a MIT’s Top Innovators Under 35 in 2020 and as one of the top innovators of Latin America and the Caribbean by the Interamerican Development Bank in 2018.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role

I am the founder and CEO of EnlightAID, a company created to give real-time transparency to the use of donations. I’m an architect by training, and originally, our project had nothing to do with tech. We aimed to create an NGO to build sustainable public schools in Chile, my home country. Early on, my team and I realized neither of us donated to anything. Our problem was lack of trust. We decided to, first, understand if that was a “real” problem or something in our heads. We found out that it is a very real problem, according to the UN 30% of all donations are lost to corruption. we found data from the World Economic Forum, showing that roughly 5% of the world’s GDP is lost in corruption. We read reports from the UK stating that less than half of the brits trusted NGOs. So there was at least half of a full country struggling with the same distrust problem we did, and as you know by now, we had good reason for it.

It was then and there that EnlightAID, an idea that was always meant to be a construction project, morphed into tech4good. We decided to focus on building a platform that would give real-time transparency to the use of donations. That way we could empower all kinds of impact oriented initiatives to run their projects transparently. We released the first version of EnlightAID in 2017 and had the opportunity to work with small projects in Chile, Perú, México, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Norway. Proving that fully transparent and corruption-free donations were possible.

We now have partially released the second version of EnlightAID and are hoping to reinstate donations around mid June. We are already collaborating with NGOs in Chile, México and Germany and what we need now is for people to sign up in https://enlightaid.org/#/ and start making noise about the platform. Only then will it become so important that organizations will have to become transparent and no resources will have to get lost again.

Did you know, if we solved corruption in donations for ONLY 6 countries, we could end world hunger and still have over 40 billion dollars to spend on other projects? The sheer potential of that for our world always makes me feel like we are really going in the right direction.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not really. I have always had dreams, they have evolved and morphed depending on my age and what I have been doing at the time. I have certain guiding principles like the fact that since I can remember I wanted to do something that would benefit not only myself but others as well. Having an impact has looked different depending on the stage of my life.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Let me think about this one...Yes!! Every week! Of course the major ones are not every week, but I think as a founder finding the strength to motivate yourself every single day is a challenge in itself and believe me I have it every day. Even more in pandemic times! As I spend a lot more time at home, the temptation to stay in bed, eating chocolate and snuggling with my dogs while I watch Netflix is one I fight with on a daily basis. Talking about more serious challenges, before EnlightAID I faced the man who was my boss at the time and the conflict ended up with nobody in management speaking to me for about three months. I would go back home crying almost every day at the time.

Since I started EnlightAID, I’ve faced discrimination. As a Latinx founder, and as a woman, it has become almost normal for people to look down on me in tech events, for VCs to try to exclude me from conversations in favor of my european-male-25 years older co-founder. I used to be really upset about it, now sometimes I enjoy using that in my favor. I give people the time to think I’m just my co-founder’s secretary and let them talk for a little while, then I’ll start speaking and when they realize in fact I am the one in charge I can see the wheels turning inside their heads and how their faces transform.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I have a few I’m proud of, creating EnlightAID is definitely high in the list, and one of my favorite moments has been to become an MIT Top Innovator Under 35 because of it in 2020. In the last few weeks, I also got to scratch one of my ultimate bucket list items, I gave my first TEDx talk. Just standing on that red roundy carpet was amazing!

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Never giving up. Things have been very hard at times, myself and EnlightAID have been rejected multiple times for funding, by potential clients, for grants. You name it! But we keep going. There have been occasions when we have needed to pause, lick our wounds and then we got up once again. But we never give up. I think something important is to know that sometimes you have to go back a step, two to the side, and just then you can move forward.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Keep learning every day, make sure you know something about a lot of topics in your industry, that way you can have a seat at multidisciplinary tables. On the other hand, find at least one thing where you can be amazing and you can know almost everything there is to know about that topic. Keep learning about it, never stop learning, never give up on your curiosity. Challenge your beliefs about it, unlearn what you realize is not working anymore.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes! As with every industry, country, market, there are barriers for women that have not fallen. We cannot say just yet that we stand on equal ground. I know for me finding allies has been key, because sometimes you could be screaming at the top of your lungs but people who don’t want to listen to you simply won’t. But if someone they respect helps you get that seat at the table, they will listen. I’m eternally grateful to my co-founder who always makes sure we are seen as a team, even when at times people have wanted to exclude me and just talk to him.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

One of the things I would love to do when our company grows is to implement genderless CVs. Eliminate names, nationalities, marital status and all of that stuff that doesn’t really speak about someone’s capacity. I think diversity goes way beyond gender, we need to work with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different nationalities, different generations. Only then will we have true diversity. If companies are able to create that kind of team, they are making it a women friendly environment, at least that is what I think.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would give access to technology such as computers, phones, consoles and the internet to girls at a very young age. I would show girls games, teach them how to create their own levels, code, create 3D models and so much more. Tech is really so diverse, girls could use it to create art, design robots, make music...I feel sometimes education is too structured and there is little room for free play and experimentation. I would give girls the room, the safety and the tools to play with tech.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Since I love design I’m always grateful to the amazing learning resources Adobe software has created within their site which you can watch for free and there are so many resources to get you started. That is literally how I started on UX/UI design, with the adobe resources and as I love to call it “asking youtube”.


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