With Cristo Redentor at eye level to my right and Pão de Açucar directly in front of me, we banked left over the water and descended quickly. The ground disappeared behind us as we dipped frighteningly close to sea level. Across Guanabara Bay, highlighted by the soft glow of the afternoon sun, architect Oscar Niemeyer’s Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói came into view to my right. Another hard left turn and sharp drop, this time my stomach did a flip as we passed anchored ships of all sizes dotting the harbor awaiting their turn to dock. One more quick left turn, past dozens of outstretched crane arms and the colonial Fiscal Island dangling at the edge of a narrow pier, and back to the Cristo, this time high overhead. Still no solid ground in sight, the Azul Airlines Embraer 195 jet made a jolting landing and came to an abrupt stop on the mid-harbor airstrip at Santos Dumont airport in Rio de Janeiro.
Every time I fly into Rio, I still get the same feeling – the thrill of overwhelming beauty unfolding around me at the intersection of sea, city, and mountainous jungle, infused with excitement about many unknowns. Though I’ve flown into Santos Dumont a handful of times now, I still love the suspense as the plane enters the approach pattern tour of Rio’s most iconic sights and makes a surprise landing in the middle of the ocean, where it seems impossible that tarmac would exist.
This time I was more excited than usual. It was my first time flying on Azul Airlines – Brazil’s low cost airline established in 2008 by JetBlue founder, David Neeleman. As a video interview of Neeleman played on the screen in front of me, I felt like we were kindred spirits of sorts. A fellow American with a love for Brazil and a vision of harnessing seemingly endless opportunity, I was entering Rio for the first time as an entrepreneur and international business owner about to have a go at it, too. It sent chills down my spine as I disembarked and made my way to the airport bus, one step closer to my destination. I smiled giddily to myself thinking about the opportunities ahead as the bus traced its way along the Copacabana coastline.
My love affair with Latin America didn’t begin with Brazil. I’m actually not quite sure when it started, but ever since I can remember, I always wanted to learn other languages and get knee deep in other cultures. I spent all of high school and college on a quest to become fluent in Spanish, which took me on a semester abroad in Madrid during my junior year. I became quickly enamored with “exotic” foods– jamón serrano, tortilla española, and batatas bravas – essentially ham, eggs, and potatoes, which, prepared a la española, heightened my senses in a way in which only new discovery of familiar things could.
In much the same way, my discovery of Latin America has elicited similar feelings as I experience new sensations from daily life. I’ll never forget the tamale man selling “riiicos, tamaaales, oaxaqueeeños, calientitoooos!” at the top of his lungs up and down the streets every evening I spent in Mexico City for nearly 4 years. First, as a Fulbright Binational Business Fellow interning full time at NM Rothschild & Sons in mergers & acquisitions, and then as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company. At the end of my Fulbright in May of 2008, when I began seriously looking for a career during the onset of the global crisis, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave Mexico, so I was fortunate to land at Bain. There was something inherently attractive about gaining unique exposure way beyond my tenure to executive-level strategic problems that growing global businesses faced in developing Latin America. Motivated smart people do well here.
It wasn’t until I inadvertently tricked an educated, well-traveled client in Bogotá into believing that I was Mexican, however, that I truly understood the concept of cultural fluency. All those years that I thought I spoke Spanish meant nothing until I could fluidly switch between business Spanish and Mexican slang while simultaneously making social commentary in a way that demonstrated an innate understanding of linguistic and cultural nuances. Now that I knew what that felt like, I wanted to try it again.
With my admittance into the MBA/MA dual-degree program at the Wharton School of Business and the Lauder Institute of International Studies came the daunting task of learning a new language – and culture – from scratch: Portuguese. I was determined to do it in order to access a new spectrum of opportunities in Brazil, a country gaining in importance yet long isolated from the rest of the world. Armed with my newfound understanding of cultural fluency, I picked up Portuguese at lightning speed once it was clear to me that the opportunities in Brazil were limitless. Every single one of the 25 companies I visited with my track mates during the Lauder summer immersion spoke of their ambitious plans for growth, hindered only by the lack of a qualified talent pool. If 100% of companies in a representative sample of Latin America’s largest economy felt that way, it must mean there were infinite opportunities presenting themselves through the challenges.
My Brazilian ham, eggs, and potatoes is perhaps Rio de Janeiro itself, where a tropical lifestyle meshes surprisingly well with a strong work ethic and impressive socioeconomic ladder climbing. Perhaps because I am now more tuned into the Brazilian Dream, but also because it offers a great alternative to the stagnant-at-best US and European job markets, I am constantly hearing from a dozen foreigners seeking a livelihood here for everyone one expat already in town. I felt completely engulfed by the new businesses cropping up in São Paulo alone that are targeting the “new middle class” – a significant group of consumers with buying power that never existed before. In eCommerce alone, there are opportunities to purchase goods online that, two years ago, were only available to the wealthy who could afford to travel abroad to purchase them or pay up to ten times their value domestically.
The increase in top line revenue from these consumers is not without its challenges. How do companies that previously served a higher socioeconomic class position themselves for the emerging middle class market without cutting too deeply into their margins? Furthermore, how do companies hire and retain motivated, smart employees from a diminishing labor pool and underserved education system without getting stuck paying unreasonably high salaries? These are but a few of a whole host of questions facing a wide variety of companies today. But with these challenges come opportunities – to fix, to build upon, and to develop.
During a Lauder visit to Grupo Abril, Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, chairman and editorial director Roberto Civita got it right: “If I could be anywhere in the world at age 27, I would be in Brazil.” Motivated smart people do well here.