Impact At Scale

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Innovation in Rio: Insights from the Coworking Sector

By: Laura Fairman, Georgetown University Student, School of Foreign Service ’18

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of sharp social and economic contrasts. Densely inhabited, impoverished hillside communities lie in close proximity to the extravagant beachfront properties of Copacabana and Ipanema. For the second largest city in Brazil, urban poverty presents significant challenges in terms of health, education, security, and governance. Innovative solutions, both local and led by outside organizations, promote entrepreneurship as a path to economic and human development. From beach barracas to fruit stalls, souvenir pop-up shops to artists selling their work, entrepreneurship surrounds you in Rio de Janeiro.

I was interested in exploring the landscape of social entrepreneurship in Rio as it compares to my experience in the United States, so I sat down with Guto de Lima, a local leader seeking to expand both the concepts of design thinking and the accessibility of entrepreneurship resources throughout Brazil. Guto is a partner at Nex Coworking, a company founded in Curitiba in 2011 that offers coworking space and educational seminars. After a positive reception in Curitiba, Nex Coworking expanded to Rio de Janeiro in 2016, where Guto is currently based with plans to expand to three other cities in Brazil. Guto is a dynamic speaker, and it was clear during our conversation that he is deeply passionate about expanding the social entrepreneurship community in Brazil, which is the core mission of Nex Coworking. Our conversation explored the themes of local politics, cultural differences, and the importance of strong values to any sector.

How did you come to work at Nex Coworking?

Guto explained that he comes from a background in graphic design and design thinking. He first worked with Nex Coworking in Curitiba as a client, and he was then brought onto the Nex team. He was instrumental in Nex’s expansion, from constructing the scalable business plan to securing investors to designing the interior coworking space.

How does Nex Coworking fit into the ecosystem of social enterprise in Rio?

Guto points to the size and diversity of Nex as boundary-pushing within the field of social impact in Brazil. “When we opened the Curitiba venture, we were the biggest in Brazil.”

He says that Nex’s “special uniqueness is about the size of the community. In Rio [Nex has the] capability to receive 300 different professionals, which is a lot compared to the coworking players in Brazil.” Aside from Nex, the relatively few (but growing) number of existing coworking spaces are informal and/or selective in the kinds of companies with which they choose to work. Nex Coworking challenges this model with its inclusivity, working with a range of companies from new startups and freelancers to lawyers, think tanks, and creative companies. Guto explains that they are actively “trying to include different profiles in order to give [entrepreneurs] broader knowledge and opportunities.”

I had the opportunity of visiting the Rio office, and I instantly felt at ease: the open working spaces, modern design, and coworkers’ café reminded me of social impact hubs like 1776 or WeWork here in the United States. Within Brazil, the existence of this kind of work environment for businesses is an emerging concept. Guto points to ergonomic design standards and natural lighting, which he poses generates positivity and happiness in the office. This inclusivity which Guto speaks of means that Nex works with all interested entrepreneurs “no matter the size or phase of the business. We decided to raise the bar.” Supporting diverse entrepreneurs within the sector is very important to Guto, and he explains that “diversity for me is a driver, and I think the look and feel of the business affects that.”

What is the interaction between public, private, and nonprofit sectors in Rio and Brazil?

Given public discontent with the inaction and corruption of the local government, Guto offers the view that entrepreneurial advances will encourage government action rather than discourage it. Unfortunately, his opinion of the Brazilian government’s effect on a climate for innovation is less optimistic. “If they don’t make things worse, they are doing a great job,” he explains “That’s it. They don’t help, at all. You create the venture, and then the government follows trying to adapt to the laws and rules in what’s going on.” He also fears that any progression in the entrepreneurial environment may be hindered or reversed by the following administration: “Even if you find someone trustful who is trying to help, when the new government comes in, they change everyone.” Nex Coworking works outside of government affairs, acting with the mindset that “the private sector needs to create the ventures and then the government will follow.”

What are the challenges posed to entrepreneurs working in Rio?

Guto’s experience with Nex Coworking in Rio illustrates how a local culture can influence organizational norms. Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, follow a work-life balance that is different from anywhere else in Brazil. Guto says this “hedonism” is due to “their culture and their relationship with life and people. There is a natural mysticism in the air.” Flexibility is key to work in this climate, where meetings can easily be cancelled due to traffic delays or the ever-present allure of the beach. To this point, Guto says that, “Even if you set a meeting with them and they don’t show up it is reasonable, because it is about living life. Their personal interests are above the common interests. Somehow I think this reflects on the business area and also on all kinds of relationships.”

While this atmosphere poses unique scheduling challenges to innovators operating under time constraints, Guto notes that there are also benefits of Carioca culture. “Cariocas are so creative, so natural and spontaneous, and they flow. They connect their hearts, and they are more emotional than Paulistas [residents of São Paulo], for example. They love to talk with you for hours, and they interrupt you while you are talking to someone else inside the subway.” This lends well to the collaboration, creativity, and passion that is essential in social entrepreneurship.

How do local politics affect the work you do?

Given the complexity of urban challenges in a city like Rio, local politics and civil society have a huge impact on socially-conscious businesses and the startup community. Guto notes that there are “many social ventures in Rio because the city has this very unique social contrast because of the poor and the rich people who live so near each other. The mix and this tension between these two polarities makes Rio a unique place to understand people, culture, politics, and businesses.”

So which local developments are gaining attention? Guto explains that in Rio, “many partnerships between companies and social organizations [are] trying to fight against poverty, lack of education, and hunger. The structure of our cultural heritage is so deeply rooted.  Sometimes I feel like the social ventures are trying to fight the wrong disease. There is also this issue in Brazil that anywhere you put money, you have problems with the transparency and the management of this money. Then it becomes even uglier. That’s why it’s so hard to find initiatives that actually work and transform things.”

How have you seen the city, or Brazil at large, evolve in the field of social impact?

Guto points to the digital transformation as a game-changer for social entrepreneurs. Social media and the proliferation of internet access has increased transparency in data availability. From this, Guto says that “we’ve created some tools to pressure the government to offer real time information [to the public concerning] what the politicians are doing, how they are spending their public money, and the results of the ventures [they’re running] with public money.” He also points to the growth in social movements and in public consciousness around racism, sexism, and homophobia.

With these recent trends we have discussed, what is your vision for the future of social entrepreneurship and innovation in Rio?

Guto mainly sees a need for reform within the government to allow social entrepreneurship to flourish in Brazil. Aside from hard policy and organizational reform, this includes a cultural shift towards greater transparency and a tolerance for individual differences. Guto also hopes to see more collaboration between academia and the business field, as he perceives a knowledge gap where students’ technical and behavioral skills are not effectively implemented to further social ventures. “In the academy you can find these skills, and at the same time they lack this business drive.” He says investing in education will be the key to a transformative future.

Talking with Guto gave me the insights to contextualize what I had observed of Carioca culture and social entrepreneurship in Brazil. While there are certainly political and developmental challenges to growth in the field of social impact, I am hopeful that committed local leaders like Guto will work for a more dynamic and inclusive Rio de Janeiro.

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