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Brazilians Hate Their Banks. This $10 Billion Startup Wants to Change That

September 17, 2019, 5:05 PM UTC

Cristina Junqueira, co-founder of Brazilian digital banking startup Nubank, knows exactly who her customers are. They’re fed up with the establishment—and before she launched an alternative, so was she.

“I worked for the largest incumbent bank in Brazil for five years, and I was just done making rich people richer,” she told Fortune’s Jen Wieczner at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit in Toronto. “I was trying to make a lot of changes to make consumers’ lives better, and failing miserably at it. And at some point I was like, you know what, I’m done.”

Before starting Nubank, Junqueira served at Brazil’s giant Itaú Unibanco, and at LuizaCred, the financial services unit of Brazilian retailer Magazine Luiza.

Nubank—officially Nu Pagamentos S.A.—offers banking through a mobile app, better interest rates than other regional banks, and a credit card issued in partnership with Mastercard. It operates primarily in Brazil, but recently expanded to Mexico. Nubank has more than 12 million customers, and is now valued at more than $10 billion, making it the largest digital banking startup in the world.

According to Junqueira, Nubank has been so successful because its disruptive approach is particularly needed on her home turf.

“If you look into Latin America, the incumbents are so bad. I know banks aren’t loved anywhere, but they’re especially hated there.” Nubank says Brazilians pay the highest banking fees and interest rates in the world. According to Junqueira, those “decades of abuse” made customers hungry for Nubank’s offering, leading to rapid organic growth.

Even if banks elsewhere in the world are less abusive, Junqueira thinks digital banking startups like hers have huge potential globally.

“Everywhere in the world, the banking industry is being disrupted… Consumers are ready for digital alternatives, to do everything from their mobile phones and not have to go to a branch in their lives.”

On her way to upending banking as we know it, Junqueira has faced the challenge of raising money in a venture capital environment that remains markedly stingy with female founders. She even pitched investors on the company’s Series A round while seven months pregnant.

“You can imagine the type of reaction that I got,” she says. “The nicest ones were things like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen a pregnant woman pitch.'” But she successfully closed the funding round, with help from Velez’s experience in venture capital. She signed the paperwork in the hospital, days before giving birth to her daughter.

“I wanted them to feel that it didn’t matter,” Junqueira says of her approach to overcoming bias in fundraising as a woman. “That I was in, that this was my company, it my life’s project. And I was willing to do whatever it took to get it off the ground.”

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