Business school is a fast-paced, jam-packed two years and I was trying to convince myself that spending one academic quarter (out of a total of six) abroad was a bad idea. I reached out to my friend, also named Stephanie, to be the voice of reason. I had already studied in England, traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia and worked in India, so I was pretty set, right? Without skipping a beat, Stephanie pointed out, “Wait, you haven’t been to South America.” And lo and behold, an obsession was born.
Having worked in India, and observing a lot of interesting social and economic minutiae that added to my understanding of growth in this BRIC country, I decided to pursue Brazil as my first choice. I was pleased and excited to learn of my placement at COPPEAD, Universidade Federal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Leaving home to live in Brazil for three months was one of the scariest things I have ever done– the closest I have come to flying without a net. I didn’t speak a lick of Portuguese (and later learned that a) in Rio, Portuguese sounds nothing like Spanish, and b) nobody in Rio speaks a lick of English!) I didn’t have my accommodations squared away yet; the plan was to live in a hostel for one or two nights and find an apartment or room to sublet ASAP! And with generalized fears about violence in the favelas and robbery of tourists, I just wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into.
Though an extreme ramp up, I look back on my days in Brazil as some of the happiest of my life. In fact, overcoming those initial (and major) obstacles around communication, accommodation and transportation, I think, added to an enhanced sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
For example, my first attempt to secure food was rather comical. Unable to figure out the menu at the cantina– frango? feijoada?–I walked to the counter and pointed at the chicken. The cashier flapped his arms like a chicken. I nodded. The cashier rubbed his fingers together– the international sign for “money.” I handed it over and the transaction was a success! My final week in Rio, when I was able to confidently say to a cashier “misto quente e suco de abacaxi sem acucar,” I felt a great sense of pride from knowing just how far I’d come.
I will be honest that the academics at COPPEAD were not as difficult as the curriculum at Anderson; however, there were some bright spots. In Brand Management class, my favorite case study was the Unilever case (INSEAD) about a clothes detergent brand extension to the Northeast part of Brazil, a very poor region of the country. In this situation, price was a huge factor; however, due to the high rate of illiteracy in the Northeast, the remoteness of the villages, the fact that clothing was washed in the river and the immense pride mothers took in keeping their families’ clothing clean, there were other factors that deeply impacted product development, promotion and distribution. Moreover, our professor was a teaching assistant while securing his PhD at INSEAD and was a contributor to the case study– so he was very excited to share and teach this lesson in particular.
One rather atypical occurrence during my time in Brazil was the warfare that broke out in the favelas. Poverty in Rio and the subsequent violence– mainly robbery– that occurs is fairly well-known; most locals say, nonchalantly, that you will get robbed at some point during your time in Rio and that you shouldn’t try to fight back. During our three months there, at least three students were robbed, two violently: one had a broken bottle held against his stomach and was robbed of his phone (in very crowded area, I might add) and another was robbed at gunpoint while working out at night by the beach (police warn tourists not to be anywhere near the beach at night).
As expats, we generally knew about the flare-up that started on a Sunday afternoon and, like the locals, assumed it would blow over quickly. By Thursday, local students weren’t coming to school (afraid that their cars would be hijacked and set on fire) so school administrators decided to cancel school in the interest of student safety. My landlord, a woman who had lived in Rio over 30 years, sent me and my roommate an email saying that this violence was much greater than any that had occurred in Rio for some time and that we should avoid going out if possible.
And as I began to get more acquainted with what was happening, I realized that the favelas affected were those quite close to my school. On a busride earlier that week, my friend and I smelled something burning, which I realized was probably a stolen vehicle that was set ablaze somewhere in the favela. The situation was resolved by the end of one week and none of the students was directly impacted by the events. I think the most profound impact on me from this situation was not knowing how to feel and constantly recalibrating my emotions. Being in a foreign place, I always had a low-level feeling of fear. When the violence started, I figured it was normal and ignored it; but when locals started voicing fear and changing their patterns, I knew it was bad, but how bad? How afraid should I be?
Despite this blip, the rest of my time in Brazil was glorious. I had the opportunity to travel on the weekends. Even with trips to Iguacu, the Pantanal, Bahia and the Northeast, there remains so many other parts of Brazil that I have yet to experience. But it was a fantastic time and I am so happy that I made the decision to spend the time there.