*The Brasil IBD team on arrival*
I want to preface my post by saying a few weeks or even months abroad does not make me or anyone an authority on a country and its people. That truly takes a lifetime. This is my third trip to Brasil (no, that’s not a typo; it’s spelled with an s), and I am still making new discoveries about this place each and every day.
I’m about to start week three of my International Business Development (IBD) trip to Brasil. The first few days were purely recreational, spent wandering about in Salvador da Bahia. Salvador is very distinct when compared to the storied beaches and samba music from Rio de Janeiro that most [American] people associate with Brasil. I did make it to Rio for one night after meeting up with the rest of my project team. I’ve been before but this time rather than stick to the touristy areas like Copacabana and Ipanema, we went out in Lapa. Last time, I was warned it wasn’t safe.
I can’t say whether it is Brasil or me that has changed so much in the past 5 years, but I am no longer comfortable referring to this nation as “developing.” Even “emerging” doesn’t seem right. Whether it’s the flex fuel and natural gas cars, the waiters equipped with PDA’s and wireless credit card machines or the veritable opulence of Campos do Jordao, if this country isn’t developed and emerged, how can [America] claim to be? I’ve been to China and India, 2/3 of the remaining BRIC countries. There, with their skylines dominated by cranes, those words have more resonance than they do here. It’s not my purpose to opine on word choice, only to question whether we [Americans] are quick enough to recognize the accomplishments of that part of the world we used to so pompously refer to as the Third World. (Please forgive my own preachiness here; isn’t it ironic though?)
If I were to form an opinion of China having only visited Shanghai, I would surely conclude that China was among one of the more advanced economies of the world. Fortunately, my perspective on Brasil has been derived from more than just one data point, and I will still be the first to admit that the economic growth of Brasil in the past few decades has not benefited everyone equally (after all these people are still brasileiros). All joking aside, the favelas are a testament to the perennial challenges of social equality that every nation faces. Here in Brasil, those challenges may be felt more acutely than back in the US, but anyone that thinks we’ve done a better job of dealing with them must not have turned on CNN in the days after Katrina. I’m a firm believer that to whom much has been given, much more should be expected, and a society should be judged by how it cares for its weakest members.
One problem that’s derived from the inequality is the high crime rate in Brasil, particularly in urban centers. I’m speaking more specifically to the so-called petty crime that I have experienced as a tourist, but the same idea applies to illegal logging and drug trafficing. The Brazilian government has worked very hard to overcome the perception earned in the ’80’s that it was unsafe here for tourists here. Corruption among police is reportedly on the decline, but the jail system is still so strained that it is hardly worth the effort to track down and arrest a mugger who never actually hurt anyone, something that I could clearly see in the apathetic looks of the police scattered around Pelourninho for security. To really address high crime rates, enforcement alone isn’t enough. People must be saved from the desperation that would push them to crime, and that is where all this pontificating comes back to the world of business, market solutions, and economic development.
Right now I’m working for a entrepreneur who has developed a portfolio of novel technologies in search of a market. Formally he was a researcher, and he told me that he could have made all the money he wanted in that field but he want to create something of value. He wanted to develop technologies that would solve problems for people, and he would actually prefer if he didn’t have to worry about making money from them (it’s not really his core competency). He probably has no clue what a social entrepreneur is, and I sincerely believe he is more excited about solving problems than trying to change the world (one of his technologies is for liposuction). Still, could there be a truer social entrepreneur? For a number of reasons that would require an entire post themselves, he has grown frustrated with the business environment here and is looking abroad for relief. If only [Brasil] could push through the legal reforms to keep entrepreneurs like this one focused on solving the problems here.
I’ve been inspired again, as I was in my last year of college, to move to Brasil. I love it here, and I see a huge market opportunity that some may be overlooking amidst the fervor to tap China and India. It is an opportunity to do well while doing good, but not without obstacles. On the spectrum of “social entrepreneurs” I definitely fall further out toward the entrepreneur side of things. I believe that a company can realize the most good in the world through economic vitality: providing goods and services and creating jobs. Of course, we will need to learn to share the gains from business better to see it become a significant part of the solution. Hopefully that’s going to come from the generation of inspired leaders Haas is working to develop right now.