CHICAS PODEROSAS Empowering Women in Latin America’s News Industry

Written by Frank DiMaria

Chicas Poderosas is a very comfortable space for women to share their frustrations and the problems they are facing, such as bullying in newsrooms, the glass ceiling or problems with management.
— Mariana Santos, co-founder and CEO of Unicorn Interactive


Female journalists in Latin America are powerless in their newsrooms. They lack a connection to the digital aspect of storytelling in news production and are excluded from decision-making in the editorial process. Although they’re allowed to investigate and write stories, that’s where the connection to their stories and to their readers ends, says Mariana Santos, co-founder and CEO of Unicorn Interactive, a new independent media start up on digital storytelling and a former member of the interactive team at The Guardian in London. “(They email) their story to the development building where usually a group of developers, men, take care of the story and put it online,” she said. 

Men choose the news stories that Latin Americans read. They alone wield the power that grants them access to communities enabling them to form connections with readers in those communities. “Enabling women to not only have access to tell their stories digitally, own the digital skills to do so and empowering them with entrepreneurial and leadership skills will allow more women to sit at the main table of decision making when it’s time to decide which stories to tell. Giving more balance to these systems would allow both sides of the stories to be told,” Santos said.

Santos is trying to empower female Latin American journalists through a movement she founded called Chicas Poderosas. In a series of events in Latin America and the U.S., Chicas Poderosas brings female journalists together, providing them an environment in which they can discuss issues important to them. “Chicas Poderosas is a very comfortable space for women to share their frustrations and the problems they are facing, such as bullying in newsrooms, the glass ceiling or problems with management,” Santos said. Chicas Poderosas teaches female journalists and journalism students how to flourish in their careers. 

Santos first brought her movement to the U.S. in 2014 with an event at Univision and the University of Miami. It attracted 100 women, and a few men, from Latin America and the greater Miami area. “The reason I brought it to Miami was because I always want to bridge the developing countries with the developed countries,” Santos said. Latin Americans fight to solve social and political problems everyday, giving them a different sensibility than those living in the U.S. Through Chicas Poderosas, Santos brings individuals with varying backgrounds and mindsets together, so they can sit at the same table and discuss salient issues in journalism. 

Later that year, she organized another event in the U.S. This time it was at Stanford. Santos called the event in Miami a flagship event. She called the one at Stanford a “kick starter.”

Learning from Silicon Valley

There’s a stark contrast between the lifestyles of those living in developing countries and those who inhabit the cubicles of an Internet startup in Silicon Valley. In many ways the two realities are separated by 100 years of technological progress. The Stanford event brought these two realities together to see what they could learn from one another. 

For four days, 30 women journalists from Latin America trained and mentored future female journalists. They shared the most important takeaways of digital storytelling and presented talks on the countless issues women face in media in Latin America. Santos’ goal was to train a cadre of ambassadors who could later organize and deliver Chicas Poderosas events in their city, region or country without Santos’ direction. “Once I left Latin America, the events stopped happening because I was no longer physically there, so I couldn’t organize events myself,” Santos said. 

Since the Stanford event, the Chicas Poderosas movement has exploded, Santos said, with events taking place simultaneously in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. In 2016, Santos held the third Chicas Poderosas event in the U.S. 

Empowering Women and Rejuvenating Careers

The site of the third U.S. event was Florida International University in Miami last April. Barbara Corbellini Duarte, a multimedia journalist at the South Florida Sun Sentinel, helped organize the event. The theme was I Am More Than What You See. “Women so many times, and not just in journalism but (in journalism as well), are judged by their looks a lot more than men. When we are young, people judge us. They think we don’t have enough experience because we are too young, and we’re supposed to look pretty,” Corbellini Duarte said. Women are not allowed to grow old, she said, while men are allowed to get wrinkles and be themselves. “Men can walk around with the face they have, with the body they have, and it’s OK. Women are expected to look fabulous and to put on makeup and to do their hair,” she said. 

Corbellini Duarte organized the FIU event to empower female journalism students. But she was the one who was empowered and energized. Journalism had jaded Corbellini Duarte, so much so that she even considered leaving the field. Then Chicas Poderosas at FIU happened. “Watching all the young students be so excited about journalism and believe in it and watching how it can come together and how we can exchange ideas, that was just incredible,” Corbellini Duarte said. 

The FIU event had such an effect on one of the attendees that she ended up abandoning her career in banking and immersed herself in journalism. She enrolled in a master’s program in journalism and is now writing her own blog. “It was incredible to inspire people,” Corbellini Duarte said. “Bringing people together is key. Men have been doing this for years, supporting each other, doing things after work and having their men’s clubs,” she said.

Broadening the Scope

Santos is continually widening her network to identify individuals who can engage audiences as Chicas Poderosas ambassadors. Once trained by Santos, ambassadors develop and design their own presentations based on topics they wish to address within their communities. In 2017, Santos will hold events at USC and at NYU. 

With her movement in its fourth year, Santos plans to focus on a few key areas in 2017. She noticed some women were coming out of Chicas Poderosas training sessions with dreams of starting their own independent news outlets. Few, however, have the expertise to realize these dreams. This year, Santos plans on offering training on entrepreneurship through Chicas Poderosas. 

As it has done in the past, Chicas Poderosas will continue to focus on investigative journalism, especially in Latin America, and on building communities. “This is the key to success of Chicas Poderosas. A lot of women helping each other,” Santos said. •