São Paulo, Brazil: a fascinating visit
by Josh Bernoff
São Paulo, Brazil is the center of much of the business activity in South America's largest economy, and a very intriguing place to visit. I spent a week, in part to participate in JumpEducation and IDG's Digital Age conference, which also featured Martin Lindstrom and John Batelle. Some observations, not all associated with groundswell-type stuff:
CEOs here want to blog. I met with CEOs of companies large and small, and this question kept coming up. "How much time does it take?" "What if someone criticizes us?" I told them what I tell people in the US -- first decide on your goals. But I was intrigued that this idea was so popular. I think businesspeople in Brazil are more used to taking risks.
Some Brazilian companies are leaders in doing well by doing good. I was really impressed with the management at two companies I met with: Natura and ABN Amro. Natura is a huge cosmetics company that uses 680,000 "consultants" (that is, ordinary women) to sell their products throughout Latin America -- and has a sparkling clear brand. Natura includes impact on the environment in its core goals and expects to become carbon neutral by 2008, which is an amazing goal for a manufacturing company. ABN Amro, Brazil's fourth largest bank, stands out for its "sustainability" projects, especially important in this country that has so many poor and such a large part of the world's resources. My impression on meeting these companies' top managers was that they are green because it is part of who they are, not just because it's fashionable. I believe this will create sustainable advantage. American and European companies could learn from this.
Watch for the next stage in the Brazilian Internet phenomenon. Brazilians (at least the professional class) are renowned for the speed with which they take up new technologies -- both MSN Messenger and Google's Orkut social network caught on here like a flash and are now close to universal. My question is: will they change as fast as they took these tools up? Will Facebook displace Orkut with Brazilians, or are they too dedicated to Orkut to change? This should be fascinating to watch.
This is a city of incredible contrasts. Here's what you see right away on the drive into the city from the airport: ugly prisons, dirt-poor favelas, a clearly polluted river, and, as soon as you get closer in to the city, tall apartment buildings that rival the worst of soviet architecture, covered with graffiti. This is such a city of contrasts -- the professionals I met were bright and forward-thinking, and there is so much powerful positive thinking going on here along with the worst of it. I'm not smart enough to predict where this is all going, but it had a powerful effect on me. It does seem clear that the decisions made in Brazil, as well as in other rapidly developing countries, will determine the fate of the planet. Perhaps social networks used by those smart professionals will help find the solutions to these problems.
I may have seen one of the world's great bookstores. Last year I met with Sergio Herz, director of Livraria Cultura, and he showed me the shell of a movie theater that he was turning into the flagship branch of his bookstore chain. This year it was done. What an incredible place! They kept the ramp leading down in the center of the store (it used to be the seats in the theater) so you are naturally drawn into the three floors of the store. There is a stylized dragon skeleton hanging from the ceiling, and another in the children's section -- parents can hang out with their kids inside the dragon's ribs and read. There is the obligatory cafe, which along with the store was buzzing with customers at 6:00 pm. The store also includes a performance space in the back that had just featured a concert. Large and small video screens all over promote upcoming events without being intrusive. I just had to say wow. Too bad (for me) most of the books were in Portuguese, but if I were a Paulista I'd spend a lot of my life there.
I may also have seen some of the world's worst drivers. Like many rapidly growing cities, São Paulo is beset by choking traffic, which is exacerbated by hundreds of thousands of people on scooters who take incredible risks (my hosts told me that one gets into an accident every half hour). I thought the drivers in Boston were aggressive but the Paulistas put them to shame. Every single person in São Paulo must have decided to leave on Friday afternoon, which unfortunately is when I chose to go back to the airport. The trip, which had taken 45 minutes on the way in, took 2 1/2 hours on the return. I also saw this incredible sight: an ambulance slowly making its way through nearly-stopped traffic on a highway, with a score of scooters in its wake -- they must have sensed a faster escape and grabbed the opening. Once the ambulance ceased to make progress, the scooters zipped around it and continued to move between lanes of stopped cars at an incredible pace, horns beeping. Surreal.
Finally I'll leave you with this little picture, which was taken in the lobby at Abril, the media company where I gave a speech. The real people in the picture are Joyce Gomes and Ricardo Franco, two of the Forrester account people who made my trip far more enjoyable. The poster reads, in Portuguese, "Winning in a world transformed by social technologies."