MBA Programs in Emerging Markets: Brazil

Breakneck economic growth is drawing international students to Brazil for business school. What can they expect?

Looking at recent global economic news, it seems that Brazil has been getting more than its fair share of attention – perhaps justifiably so, seeing as how this South American country has somehow been able to sustain dynamic growth even as most of the world has been suffering from an economic downturn.

Brazil is part of the “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) group of large emerging markets that have seemingly unstoppable growth. Some of the largest multinational companies are already steadily making headway in Brazil (Wal-Mart plans to open 90 stores there this year alone).

These developments have also been affecting business schools in Brazil. Until recently, Brazil’s MBA student flow was overwhelmingly outbound. Conventional wisdom was that the best programs were to be found in the United States and Britain.

Now, however, international students are clamoring to get into Brazilian business schools, not only to experience the country’s unique culture, but also to vie for a foothold on one of the world’s fastest-moving economies.

But can an MBA from a Brazilian school help to take advantage of this powerful emerging market?

Sean Carpenter hopes so. After working in New York City and San Francisco, he decided he wanted to live and work in Brazil – and began studying for his MBA at the Fundação Instituto de Administração at the University of São Paulo.

“My whole thing was, if I want to learn the language and culture, and learn about doing business in Brazil, I need to be there, live it, and do it,” he says. Carpenter is currently halfway through the program, and hopes that networking will help him to stay in Brazil and work there after graduation.

Marina de Camargo Heck, associate dean of the OneMBA EMBA program and professor at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) business school in São Paulo, says that this networking is imperative for somebody seeking to do business in Brazil.

“If he wants to go to Brazil and start a business from scratch,” she explains of a theoretical entrepreneur, “he will probably have to have a Brazilian business partner.” Brazilian MBA programs can provide opportunities for just that, because most involve interaction with local entrepreneurs and businesses.

Laura Klibanow, an MBA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found ample opportunity for interaction with local businesses when she visited São Paulo as part of her school’s “Doing Business in Brazil” program.

“To really understand business in Brazil, you need to understand the culture in Brazil,” she says, “because the way they do business is not the same as the way we do business in the US, and the culture is reflected in all aspects of life.”

Particularly, Klibanow noted a “fluency of communication.” Even between managers and their employees, “conversation can flow between business and personal issues, and it’s not taboo.”

But even with good networking and cultural insight, don’t expect an MBA degree from a Brazilian school to be a free ticket into Brazilian business. Marc Burbridge of the Business School São Paulo says that in the real world, Brazilian companies may still choose to hire locals over qualified international candidates, because “people who have experience in their own countries can have better facilities.”

But Burbidge is also quick to point out that in an increasingly globalized economy, attending a Brazilian MBA program can provide international experience that is valued in Brazil.

“Brazilian companies today want the best talent they can get,” he says, “and they expect their top talent to be multilingual, and to be able to function in the global environment.”

Where to go and what to expect

Today, international students considering MBA programs in Brazil have several options.

Starting in the late 1990s, Business School São Paulo was the first in Brazil to offer an MBA program entirely in English. Since then, several schools have followed suit to attract international students. These include FGV, Fundação Instituto de Administração at the University of São Paulo (FIA), and the Instituto COPPEAD de Administração at the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro.

And these aren’t fly-by-night schools – COPPEAD has been featured in the Financial Times ranking of 100 top global MBA programs 7 times since 2001, while FIA and FGV have accreditations from AMBA and AACSB, respectively.

The short of it is that you do not need to be fluent in Portuguese to study in Brazil at a reputable university. However, according to Burbridge, if you are seriously considering doing business in Brazil, fluency in Portuguese is essential.

“Although many companies say that English is their language,” he says, “day to day, you’re going to need Portuguese.” Even at places like the American Chamber of Commerce, the meetings are mostly conducted in Portuguese.

Besides the language issue, a few other cultural quirks may surprise international MBA students studying in Brazil. On her study trip, Laura Klibanow found business culture in São Paulo to be uninhibited at times and less formal than elsewhere.

“It’s very relaxed,” says Klibanow. “People aren’t necessarily on a strict time schedule – and you can’t get frustrated with that.”

But those social adjustments may be a small price to pay in order to get on board a future economic behemoth. “There’s an expression that Brazil is the land of the future, and always will be,” says Marc Burbridge. “But I think that the future is arriving today.”

Photo: Artyominc / Creative Commons (cropped)

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