Highlights from the conference that helped us visualize Brazil’s future
Disclaimer: the purpose of this post is to share what I learned and saw at the Brazil Conference, not to discuss my political opinions
Brazil Conference is a student-run, 2-day forum held at Harvard and MIT to discuss pressing topics including economics, politics, entrepreneurship and technology in Brazil. It brings together some of Brazil’s — and the planet’s — most prominent individuals, as well as Brazilian youth living around the world. It’s like the World Economic Forum, except Brazil is the focus.
Back in November 2016, I learned about HackBrazil, a 1-month hackathon hosted by Brazil Conference while I was thinking about projects I could build to contribute to my home country. My winter break was then filled with excitement, planning, and tinkering after finding out I was 1 out of 20 finalist teams. The moment I realized what this conference had planned in terms of dialogue, inspiration, and people, I knew it would be one of my most remarkable events of 2017. I’m delighted to share some of the highlights from last weekend.
For a weekend, Warren Buffett, Jorge Paulo Lemann, Kaká, Dilma Rousseff, Larry Summers, Sergio Moro and many other public figures gathered at a student-run conference to talk about Brazil. This is unprecedented and speaks volumes about the unrelenting commitment towards this country.
“Brazil is going through a self-esteem crisis” was to me one of the most remarkable statements from the conference. A speaker commented that we seem to be experts at talking about our issues — we sell ourselves short. What this country needs are a confidence boost (from within) and a higher tolerance for failure and risk-taking. I realized very recently that both Brazil and China — my other home country — are highly critical of failure. In the US, however, we hear “fail fast” and “take risks” regularly. A lot of the visionaries we know — Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson — seem to carry an extraordinary amount of obstinacy and belief in their endeavors; one doesn’t go far with too much self-depreciation.
Investments in Brazil
In a panel featuring Daniel Levites, Financial Services Principal at EY, Roderick Greenlees, Global Head of Investment Banking at Itau (Brazil’s largest wholesale bank) and other industry leaders, there was optimism about Brazil’s returns on equity. There are huge opportunities for investment and growth — often, investments can yield higher returns than those in the USA — but the red tape and bureaucracy are substantial obstacles; apparently, it can take about 100 days to set up a company in Brazil.
Among the factors that concern foreign investors are corruption and political complexities, and that’s why Lava Jato (a corruption investigation carried out by the Federal Police of Brazil — translates to “Operation Car Wash”) matters. Nizan Guanaes, a Brazilian advertising tycoon later echoed that Lava Jato is an asset to Brazil. But not only do we want to prove that we’re working on the political issues, we also need to strengthen corporate governance in Brazilian companies and organizations.
A question posed to the panel asked how, as students or professionals living outside of Brazil, we can “pitch” our country to foreigners. One of the panelists emphasized the benefits of having pride and confidence in where we come from while spreading awareness about Brazil to those around us.
Brazil Conference featured both Dilma Rousseff, the former President of Brazil who was impeached in 2016 and Sergio Moro, Brazilian federal judge and commander-in-chief of the Lava Jato investigations targeting corruption and bribery among politicians and business executives. Moro also has strong hopes for the future and expressed his disappointment with Brazilians who leave the country due to disillusionment and feeling like there is no hope for conditions to get better.
Two days after Brazil Conference, when Dilma came to Brown University, she mentioned that she learned quite a bit about dialogues over the weekend. Both at Brazil Conference and at Brown, she stated that she experienced two coups d’états in her life — one during the military dictatorship and the other was her own impeachment. In addition to declaring that there was a political agenda behind her impeachment, she wanted us to acknowledge that corruption can exist beyond government. She emphasized that corruption happens in corporations, the military and among individuals. The example she used — that I do find quite insightful — is that perhaps one of the biggest corruption scandals in recent history was the subprime crisis of 2008.
When answering my question (at Brown) about what she could tell young Brazilians abroad who are demoralized by their home country and want little to do with it, she was adamant about their responsibility to give back. She said it in a way that sounded like, if you used Brazil’s resources to get to where you are, you should feel the responsibility to contribute. She claimed that Ciências Sem Fronteiras — a scholarship that sends Brazilians in STEM students to study at universities abroad — was one of her proudest projects and that it’s a pity that it’s currently being reevaluated and potentially discontinued.
There was a lot of talk about democracy, reducing poverty and combating corruption. When asked about Brazil’s 25+ political party system vs the 2-party system in the US, she said that “25 is unnecessary, but it also doesn’t have to be 2.”
Back at the Brazil Conference, Larry Summers (Former Treasury Secretary of the US) and Arminio Fraga (Former President of the Central Bank of Brazil) shared their optimism for Brazil especially after witnessing the caliber of this conference. Fraga encouraged us to stay engaged with policy.
My main takeaway regarding corruption and politics is that change should be a bottom-up phenomenon. It is a collective act that requires personal engagement and accountability.
The panel on high tech in Brazil was probably the one I was anticipating the most. I set next to Fernando Haddad, former Mayor of São Paulo during this panel. He spends most of his time lecturing now, but was still curious about the development of Professor Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab Lab (workshops for digital fabrication) in São Paulo. “MIT is a safe space for weird people,” Professor Gershenfeld (MIT) said. This suggests the importance of creating communities for “nerds” in the form of hackerspaces, meetups, workshops and hackathons. Brazil has a growing number of developers and STEM students whose interests need to be supported for high tech to prosper in the country.
One of the panelists, Victor Lazarte — a software entrepreneur and game developer — brought up the point that a lot of Brazilians, instead of thinking globally, do so within the confines of their country. If we want our tech to measure up to, say Israel’s, Brazilians need to think bigger when applying their skills.
HackBrazil, in my opinion, was a brilliant initiative. Its premise was that Brazilians have the “hacker” mentality in that we are very creative (for better or worse). It encouraged Brazilian creators at home and abroad to build software and hardware solutions for some of our country’s most pressing problems. It allowed young Brazilians, some of whom have never been outside of the country, to pitch their projects at MIT in front of world-class investors. The team that came up with a “connected pacifier” that measured a child’s temperature to help reduce infant mortality was incredibly genuine and devoted; another team was using big data to reduce water waste.
As a student of computer science who has met plenty of Brazilian tech talent at home, at school and at my internships in the US, I have no doubt about the potential that thrives in this country; but we need to feed it more. Fun fact — both Facebook and Microsoft’s VR divisions are spearheaded by Brazilians right now, Instagram was co-founded by a Brazilian, and Brown’s popular Machine Learning and Distributed Systems classes are taught by Brazilians.
The Quest for a Fantastic Future
Warren Buffett, our surprise guest at the end of the conference, commented that countries engaged in commerce have always done better. His conversation with Jorge Paulo Lemann exuded a lot of hope for the future — especially when in the hands of the young people present at the conference. I have little doubt that one of Brazil’s future presidents could have been at the conference, and that there were young hackers at the event who could have formed a Brazilian “Paypal Mafia” capable of taking Silicon Valley by storm.
If we dream and execute relentlessly, maintain self-awareness and speak to where we come from with pride, the world isn’t just our oyster — it’s our pão de queijo, our açaí, our água de coco.