Nick’s First Week on Assignment in Brazil

My name is Nicholas Ferguson, and I’m in the process of completing a placement with _SocialStarters in Rio de Janeiro. Before speaking of my experience in Rio to date, it might be worth sharing why I embarked on this journey.

For the last 11 years I’ve worked for a large multi-national business in London and during a period where work became particularly stressful I decided to look into the option of a sabbatical with the intention of taking a break, clearing my mind, hopefully learning something new and “giving something back”.

I came across _SocialStarters through an organisation named Escape the City based in London, UK. What I like about _SocialStarters is the fact that they take a bespoke approach to matching experienced professionals’ abilities with the needs of entrepreneurs in the social space. After a detailed conversation with Andrea, one of the co-founders, I was presented with 5 very different options across the UK and Brazil all of which had appeal, which made the selection process challenging!

In the end I decided upon Brazilidade, a small community-based tourism project fronted by the incredibly talented and charming Sheila Souza, in her native Santa Marta favela. I was introduced to Sheila via a Skype call and given an overview of her business and the challenges she needed help with. I was also given guidance on where to stay and what to expect from my trip to Rio.

Upon my arrival in Rio I met with _SocialStarters’ local representative, Jiselle, and we discussed in greater detail some of the priorities for Brazilidade and how I could help Sheila. I met Sheila in Santa Marta the following day (day 2) and she showed me round the favela, we spoke for over 5 hours and I instantly felt a strong connection with her vision and ambitions.

Brazilidade’s main focus is on changing stereotypes about favela culture in Brazil and investing the proceeds from her tours and lectures back into the community. In recent years, Sheila has struggled with acquiring new customers and my first task has been to help her tighten her business plan and understand how to overcome her key challenges. I meet with her regularly – most days – either in the favela or in public spaces and we also find time to socialise, giving me a very important overview of Brazilian culture.

Coming from a commercial background, my experiences with Brazilidade to date have given me great insight into how a social business is run; I’d say the change of pace is probably the biggest difference compared with what I’m used to. It’s also interesting shifting from a position of business owner to consultant. In the next few weeks I hope to be able to provide Sheila with a blueprint which she can then apply to processes as she continues to develop her business.

My experience to date has been brilliant, one which I will never forget and I feel like I’m learning all the time. Although it might be hard to always quantify the tangible nature of the learnings I believe that on my return to London I will feel enriched. Brazil is an incredibly hospitable country, Sheila has been an incredibly warm and professional host to date and I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. I look forward to reporting back on the full experience.


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