Feeling Pretty and Witty Online in LatAm

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (06/26/2000) - The Miss Venezuela pageant? Won it. The Miss Universe Pageant? Won it. Degrees in political science and municipal management? Got them. The race for president of Venezuela? Lost it, but led the polls for a long time. A race for state governor? Won it. And last week, she had a bouncing baby boy after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy.

These are some of Irene Sáez's achievements in the past two decades. Pretty impressive. But now she is getting into an area which could make rough Venezuelan politics and the cutthroat world of beauty pageants feel like child's play. Sáez, 38, is entering the Internet market in Latin America.

She announced the move after she walked into a small conference room last week at the historic and posh Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, clad in a dark-blue two-piece suit which highlighted her trademark blonde mane but didn't hide her advanced pregnancy -- so advanced, in fact, that the baby would be born three days later.

She stepped up to the microphone and delivered an uplifting, heartfelt speech drenched in optimism -- another one of her trademarks. The Internet can empower Latin American women and help them be healthier, wealthier, more educated and more aware, she said with vehemence and conviction, again and again.

That's why she has joined an Internet startup that operates a Web site called Conectadas.com, aimed primarily at Latin American women. For the foreseeable future, she will devote her time to her family and to her role with Conectadas.com, which initially involves writing two weekly columns, Sáez explained.

This is a new stage for her, she said. She had to put her rising political career on hold in February and step aside as governor of Venezuela's Nueva Esparta state when her pregnancy became high-risk. But she plans to use the Internet to continue serving the public, especially women.

Sáez showed no signs of doubt over her new venture. She seemed oblivious to the reality that too many commercial Web sites have been created recently to serve Latin America, where the number of Internet users is too small to support them.

She seemed unconcerned that in the past year, at least six sites have been launched to target the same audience as Conectadas.com -- Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking women in Latin America, Spain and the U.S. If she knows that many of the startups aimed at Latin America are running out of cash, laying off employees and running for cover, she didn't let on. The word "defeat" doesn't seem to exist in Irene Sáez's vocabulary.

Not to knock Conectadas.com. The Miami-based company, founded in August 1999, has what looks on paper at least like a solid management team and powerful backers, including Ricardo Cisneros, vice chairman of the board of Venezuela's giant media conglomerate Cisneros Group.

Conectadas.com secured US$2.3 million in its first round of financing, and is working on its second round, said co-founder and chief operating officer Monique Skruzny. Nonetheless, the company will have a tough time differentiating itself.

Who knows? Maybe Sáez's iron-clad conviction will give Conectadas.com the edge it will need to survive.

After all, this is a woman who transformed Chacao after she became its mayor in 1992, restoring order, safety and civility to this Caracas municipality, which had fallen prey to crime and chaos. Chacao's transformation was so dramatic that people started calling it "Irenelandia," a play with the word Disneylandia, as Disney World is called in Spanish.

This is also a fervently religious woman who throughout her political career has endured vicious and frequent ridicule without losing her dignity, poise and grace, all the while effecting significant change and delivering on her promises.

Maybe Irene Sáez has a lesson in store for companies doing business in Latin America's Internet market. Maybe she'll find a way to keep Conectadas.com -- which means "connected" -- from getting unplugged. If she does, it will be a beauty.

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