For the 61 students who turned up at French business school Skema’s new Brazilian campus last year, the experience provided as many lessons outside the classroom as from within.
“Currency and prices changed a lot,” recalls 23-year-old Mathilde Cesses from Toulouse, one of the campus’s first intake. “One day we were so rich and the next so poor. It was something that had an impact on our daily life. In Europe, we are not used to prices changing so much.”
Patricia Girod, director of the new campus in Belo Horizonte, acknowledges the students had to learn quickly how to deal with the harsh realities facing Brazil. “Inflation and currency risk are things students have to live with,” she says. “It is real life and they have a feeling for the crisis the country is going through. I don’t need to tell them it is a complicated country. They learn it the first day they arrive.”
When Skema first planned its Brazilian site, little did it know the country would be rocked by political scandals and one of the most prolonged recessions in its history.
The campus, which was established in partnership with Brazilian business school Fundação Dom Cabral, is one of three locations outside France where students on Skema’s masters in international management programme can choose to study. In addition to three domestic campuses, it has bases in the US state of North Carolina and Jiangsu in China.
Girod says the reason for setting up in the Latin American country was simple. “We chose Brazil dbecause it has the biggest economy [in Latin America] and there is a lot of foreign investment,” she says. “It would be strange if you are a business looking to expand in Latin America and you did not consider Brazil.”
The school expects the number of starting its masters in management programme to almost quadruple by January 2017.
In a country plagued in some parts by serious crime — almost 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2014 — Belo Horizonte provides a relatively secure environment for students to interact with fledgling and well-established companies.
Often referred to as the Brazilian Silicon Valley, Belo Horizonte, a city of about 1.5m people in the south east of the country, is home to more than 200 start-ups, while well-known names including Fiat, Google and Toshiba also have operations in the region.
“Being in a place where innovative companies are based is very important to us,” says Girod. Skema’s ambition is that alumni from its Belo Horizonte campus will one day return to the country to do business. “We are educating future managers. We want to open their minds to Brazil.”
International companies looking to expand into Latin America typically prefer Mexico or Chile as a base, as the Portuguese language in Brazil can be a barrier to entry.
Emilie Chidiac was among the first cohort of students to arrive at the Belo Horizonte campus and describes the teaching experience as vastly different to what she had known before. “The French and Brazilian cultures are very different. For the Brazilian teachers, it was the first time they were teaching foreign students so they too had to adapt and learn,” she says.
The professors who teach on the Skema masters course also act as consultants to Brazilian companies, meaning students can take advantage of the strong business links forged by their mentors.
Marie-Hélène Panthier, who studied in Brazil for six months, describes the masters programme as “more than just an academic course”.
“It was a great chance to . . . discover how the country works,” she says. “We visited a lot of companies and it was great to see things for real. Our teachers knew a lot of people and helped connect us with firms.”
Cesses, who will return to Belo Horizonte later this year to take up a post with engineering services company Vinci Energies, says close interaction with businesses in Belo Horizonte “helped students who wanted to start a career in Brazil”.
She says students were able to gain an insight into a range of business sectors, including interaction with the country’s national electricity and water companies and businesses moving into solar energy.
Representatives from innovative social projects such as Associação de Proteção e Assistência ao Condenado, an alternative prison system in Brazil that does not use guards, were invited to give talks to students.
Outside the classroom, Skema students arriving in Brazil have experienced first hand the economic and political crisis unfolding around them. Alongside the deep recession being experienced in the country, Brazilian senators recently voted to impeach suspended president Dilma Rousseff for breaking budget laws — a charge she denies.
In addition, a probe into a $3bn bribe-for-contracts scandal at Petrobras, the national energy company that was chaired by Rousseff before she became president, has resulted in the arrest and jailing of several high-ranking businessmen and lawmakers.
Despite the country’s challenges, Skema is optimistic about the future of its campus in Brazil and aims to increase the intake of students at its Belo Horizonte site to approximately 1,000 in four to five years’ time.
But not all Skema alumni are optimistic they will one day return to Brazil to pursue their international business careers, at least in the short term. “Brazil has a lot of opportunities, particularly in international business,” says Chidiac. “The sad part is the situation today is very complicated and it is hard to find a job.”
Some of the world’s most innovative companies have been looking up Belo Horizonte on the map recently, with fledgling businesses helping the city earn a reputation as Brazil’s answer to Silicon Valley.
Situated 360km from Rio de Janeiro and 500km from São Paulo, Brazil’s sixth-largest city is home to more than 200 start-ups and 10 incubators.
Overlooked by the Serra do Curral range, Belo Horizonte, which takes its name from its mountain views, is the capital of the Minas Gerais state, a region that has played a crucial role in Brazil’s mining and agricultural industries.
Belo Horizonte is known as Brazil’s garden city for its abundance of trees and has experienced significant change in recent years with rapid expansion of its service sector. Today, 80 per cent of the city’s economy is based on trade, finance and property.
Multinationals began to arrive in Belo Horizonte during the 1970s, and the city is now home to global brands including Fiat, Arcelor, Toshiba and Google. Moving in alongside global software and IT providers, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have also established themselves in the region.
Away from industry, Belo Horizonte benefits from strong tourism, despite many visitors to Brazil being drawn to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and the bustling metropolis of São Paulo.
It has also attracted some of the world’s sporting elite, with Belo Horizonte a base for two of Brazil’s top-flight football teams: Cruzeiro Esporte Clube and Clube Atlético Mineiro.
Belo Horizonte was one of the host cities during the 2014 World Cup and several matches were played in the local Mineirão stadium, which was built in the 1960s and renovated especially for the tournament.
The city also played a vital role in this year’s Olympic Games, with British athletes training at one of Belo Horizonte’s sports grounds on their way to Rio and matches in the women’s football tournament being played there.