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Canela: Woman-led Startup Changing Hispanic Media

Isabel Rafferty isn’t the kind of person to let a pandemic slow her down. In 2019, she launched her startup, Canela Media. The following year, as other businesses scrambled to meet the challenges posed by Covid-19, Isabel launched Canela.TV, her company’s flagship division. In 2022, she secured US$32 million in Series A funding, and today, her enterprise is thriving, with BMO as a proud banking partner.

Canela is a video-streaming service that caters to the Spanish-speaking market. It provides a variety of Latin-focused programming, from telenovelas and cooking shows to Spanish-language films and TV series. And, unlike the giants of the industry such as Netflix, Canela is absolutely free to users.

“Years of working in the multicultural media space opened my eyes to a big opportunity in the market,” says Isabel. “Latin households were searching for Spanish-language content, and advertisers were looking for ways to reach them. I saw a way to bring the two together, through streaming. And that’s how Canela was born.”

A clear market focus

Isabel’s key insight was that content needed to be provided for free. Her research showed that a majority of Hispanic low-income households had limited access to banking services—and thus there was a large market that advertisers wanted to reach but that didn’t have the discretionary income for a video-streaming service. The answer was a free service that would be funded through advertising and sponsorships. Her challenge was to find the angel investors needed to provide seed capital to get the company off the ground.

It was a challenge she took up with enthusiasm—and through hard work and persistence she found success. Her unique business model and her long experience in the Spanish-speaking market attracted investors who shared her perspective. Significantly, all the money raised in the seed round came from women- and minority-owned venture capital firms. The company’s vision of serving an underserved community was also shared by BMO’s EMpower team.

BMO EMpower is a five-year, US$5 billion community investment initiative focused on creating an inclusive economic recovery across the bank’s U.S. footprint. It aims to overcome financing challenges faced by women and minority clients, by earmarking lending capital for businesses, nonprofits, homeowners and municipal development projects. As a startup led by a Latina woman and creating jobs and economic activity in the Hispanic community, Canela’s mission coincided perfectly with BMO EMpower’s mandate. When the company moved from its seed round to Series A, BMO was ready to help.

BMO has deep expertise in media technology that made us a perfect fit for Canela as it grew. We quickly developed a strong relationship with the company, providing it with deposit services and additional financial muscle through a $10 million line of credit. Our participation came at a critical time in its short history. With Series A funding complete, Canela is preparing to produce original content for Canela.TV and Canela Music, as well as launch Canela Kids for a youth audience. Of particular note is that it is now entering key markets in Latin America, which represents enormous potential for the company’s future.

A shared vision for a common good

Canela’s story is a compelling one that showcases how breaking down barriers to inclusion opens up new horizons. As a pioneer in the traditionally male-dominated media sector, Isabel is paving the way for other women entrepreneurs. She has also shown how minority-funded and -run businesses can carve out new markets that are often overlooked. And she is giving voice to Hispanic communities and cultures across the U.S. For BMO and for Isabel, the success of Canela is an inspiring example of how banks and businesses can come together to grow the good.

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