I recently finished a four-city tour of Latin America, most of which was for Kenan-Flagler’s OneMBA Latin American residency. It started with Bogota, Columbia, where I met with a thriving medical device distributor, and saw how Bogota has taken great strides in removing the stains of its drug cartel past.
The trip then moved to Rio de Janeiro where I spent some time with Copacabana Beach and taking in awe-inspiring views from Sugarloaf Mountain (a small price to pay for being gone for two weeks). I then spent three days in Sau Paulo, Brazil with over 100 MBA students from around the world. We heard lectures from local businesses and government leaders, as well as from academics.
One such lecturer was a retired Brazilian ambassador who was very seasoned in the ways of Brazil. His insights were fascinating, and his critique of doing business in Brazil very honest. Even though Brazil was his home, he didn’t try to gloss over its corruption or burdensome tax structure, while at the same time stating that a global business couldn’t afford to not do business in Brazil. We then visited with the company, Natura, a company born and raised in Brazil that now exceeds more than $3 billion dollars (USD) in revenue. Natura has succeeded with a laser focus on not just the bottom line, but the triple bottom line of profitability, social responsibility and sustainability. Natura is an example of the resiliency and capability of the entrepreneurial spirit to thrive in many diverse and even difficult environments.
Mexico City was our final stopping point and I had the opportunity to meet with two local companies: one a large kids “edutainment” company and the other a small medical device distributor. Mexico remains a rather hospitable place to do business, even though they struggle with their cartels and corruption. Challenges and opportunities also await Mexico. Their oil export business is threatened by the US’s own oil boom, and they’re still way too dependent on America for exports (over 85% of Mexico’s exports go to the US). I heard it at least twice in Mexico that when the US sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia. However, if Mexico can at least partially de-nationalize their oil industry and also expand exports to Asia and India, they can accelerate their economic growth.
Each step of the way there are challenges to overcome for both Brazil and Mexico. Breaking free from poverty, moving populations to the middle class, and transforming economies from a third world status to a developing economy to a fully developed economy doesn’t happen by accident. Nor does economic progress forward guarantee continued economic progress forward. Oftentimes the biggest challenges for developing countries are themselves – leadership that panders and exploits and a population lacking understanding of the hard work and policies necessary for economic success. In all this, there are business opportunities and moments of success that can be achieved, but companies and entrepreneurs must have patience, courage, and prudence, and must be committed to more than just the profit bottom line.
This was our third international residency and third time that we studied and socialized with the same students from 5 different universities and over 10 different countries. The familiarity and comfort we have with each other helped foster greater honesty and collaboration. These trips remind me of the value of an education that provides more than just book knowledge. This is an education that truly gives you an edge.
Lee Lowder is an attorney who is pursuing his MBA at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler’s Business School. HIs previous posts: