It’s a hot and sunny day in São Paulo and we’re on our way to meet Henrique Pinto, one of Brazil’s leading ‘new-generation’ businessmen. We’re in the upmarket Jardins Paulista neighbourhood, looking for a restaurant called Figueira that is meant to be near the famous Oscar Freire shopping district.
“Apparently the place is built around a gigantic fig tree,” I tell Maarten. He looks at me with a sceptical smile and I can see him think, “A giant fig tree, in the middle of São Paulo, sounds like an urban myth,” but he only smiles and says: “Sounds special – let’s go check it out!”
There’s a distinct Brazilian mood in the air at Figueira – people sipping cocktails, laughter and flirting in the air, and the rhythms of bossa nova in the background. And, as promised: a giant fig tree in the middle of the patio dining area. As soon as we walk in, a sharply dressed 30-something-year-old guy steps up to us. “Anouk, Maarten! Welcome to São Paulo! Come this way, let’s sit down.”
After we order drinks, I turn to Henrique. “So we hear that you are something of a serial entrepreneur, setting up successful businesses one after another. Do you have a magic touch or is Brazil changing?”
“Ha!” he says with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eyes. “Good question! I guess it’s a bit of both. You know, I have no pretentions, I come from a modest background. When I started out at the age of 18, I had everything and nothing: on the one hand I was lucky to have a caring and supportive family behind me, and to have received a good education. On the other hand, I had no connections, and no financial backing whatsoever. I was hungry though, I had an unstoppable drive and the will to succeed. I saw the opportunity my parents had given me and was able to make the most of it.”
“Okay,” I say, “but there are plenty of young people out there with ambition and goodwill, but they don’t make it to the top by the age of 37.”
Henrique gazes into the distance as he considers my remark. “That’s true,” he says as he turns back to look at me. “I’m not saying it was easy. Brazil was a different place when I started out. The economy was isolated, not everyone had access to education and – worst of all – you needed jeitinho to get anything done.”
“You needed what?” asks Maarten with a puzzled look.
“Jeitinho brasileiro,” says Henrique as he turns to her with a smile, “a very Brazilian term, how can I translate it?” He makes a snaking motion with his hand. “It’s about always finding a way round the rules: breaking traffic laws, bribing officials, evading taxes, getting your distant relative in the ministry to speed up a procedure… basically corruption and nepotism.
“Forty years ago it was the way to get ahead, what smart people did – and kids were raised to admire people who made it and got rich through jeitinho. It was a system that made the rich richer, and left the poor with no opportunities. For kids growing up on the bottom rungs of society, the only way of succeeding, of living the dream, was football.”
“So how did you get around jeitinho?” asks Maarten. “How do you break a system like that?”
“By fighting it.” Henrique suddenly has a fierce look in his eyes. “A dream is just a dream if you don’t wake up every morning and go fight for it.” He pauses for a minute and takes a sip of his açai fruit juice. “I’m not saying it was easy – it was a struggle. We – by ‘we’ I mean the new generation of entrepreneurs – were trying to change deeply engrained habits. We didn’t just want change for ourselves, we wanted change for the country.”
“And you did that setting a new example,” I say. “And by inspiring people to believe in themselves.”
New business ethics
“That’s right,” says Henrique, “but of course it’s easier said than done. It was hard work, we faced resistance every step of the way… We had to fundamentally change this country’s business ethics, and make a decisive shift away from corruption.”
“And what do the new business ethics mean in practice?” asks Maarten.
“It’s many things on many levels: it means paying your taxes and abiding by the law, but also sharing your success, motivating people and showing people that if you really want something and set your mind to it, you can make it,” explains Henrique.
“My generation and those after us have turned things around. Today’s youth reject everything to do with jeitinho and Brazil is a different country than it was 30 years ago. We have generated a virtuous cycle in which the economy is moving from strength to strength, more and more people have access to education, infrastructure is improving and overall living standards and expectations are constantly rising.”
“I read that in the 1980s Brazil was defaulting on its debt, while today it’s the eighth largest economy in the world,” says Maarten. “That’s a pretty unbelievable change to be part of.”
Henrique nods. “It’s been an incredible journey. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than contributing to my country’s development by giving people the opportunity to prove themselves. Together with a small group of entrepreneurs, we made Brazil what it is now. We invested heavily in the domestic economy, played by the rules and provided thousands of families with the opportunity to rise out of poverty. As an example, the CEOs in three of my companies started as interns. They now run multi-million dollar companies with me; they’ve literally grown together with the companies.”
“We heard you also give motivational speeches to the younger generation and underprivileged communities. I can really imagine people are inspired by you – both by your words and your achievements,” I say. “Where do you draw this incredible strength from?”
Henrique laughs. “I’m a strong believer in the power of the mind: if you work hard and believe in yourself, if you unleash all your passion and capacity, then the world is your oyster. I am deeply convinced of this – it is how I live and how I work.”
© 2012 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands