Brazil wins friends overseas

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An American and a Brazilian meet to discuss a business deal. After waiting 20 minutes for the Brazilian to arrive, the American gives a PowerPoint presentation demonstrating the steps needed to execute the deal. The Brazilian is a little baffled. He would prefer to get on with the deal itself, he says, but not before he has taken his American friend out for lunch.

Understanding cultural differences such as these is key to doing business in Brazil and doing it well, say the directors of the country’s MBA programmes. This means teaching increasing numbers of international business students how decades of rampant inflation and currency crises have left Brazilians unaccustomed to long-term planning, or letting these students see for themselves the importance of workplace networking.

The Bric countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – have seen an influx of international applications, with students eager to secure an MBA while submerging themselves in the culture of the country they hope to work in, or form close business ties with.

MBA enrolment at the top institutions in Brazil is increasing. According to data from the US-based Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test, Brazilian citizens sat for 1,628 GMAT exams worldwide in the 2010 test year, compared with 1,312 in the 2006 test year.

But demand is growing fastest among international students. The percentage of GMAT scores sent to Brazilian graduate management education programmes by non-Brazilians rose from 8.3 per cent in 2006 to 20 per cent in 2010. Although the majority of these students are already living in Brazil, a different breed of students is emerging: graduates from elite universities overseas who go to Brazil to master one of the world’s most promising economies.

“These kids are really fast, they’re bright, they’ve already earned their stripes back in Europe or the US and now they want to venture into the wild a little,” says VanDyck Silveira, head of Ibmec, one of Brazil’s top business schools.

“We’ve detected a few of them but over the next few years these types of economic pilgrims should be flourishing. They’re taking a huge bet, thinking: ‘Where would I see myself working or investing in the next 10 years?’” he says. Of Ibmec’s 5,000 MBA students, 600 are international. Four years ago, there were only a handful of these overseas students.

Making the decision to study for an MBA in Brazil is something of a gamble. This is not because the quality of the course is necessarily inferior, rather it is the sector’s structural peculiarities that mean these globe-trotting whizz kids are still in the minority.

First, the Brazilian MBA is almost exclusively offered as a part-time course, mainly because few locals are able to afford full-time study and Brazil’s high interest rates make student loans impractical. For this reason, the typical international student is already working in Brazil and opts to study for an MBA in their free time, with their employer paying a large proportion of the tuition fees. (A two-year MBA programme typically costs about $30,000.) A second obstacle for potential overseas MBA students is language: the majority of MBA programmes are still taught only in Portuguese.

Finally, the Brazilian MBA course itself is often viewed as a lightweight version of the US model. This is because postgraduate education in Brazil is divided into Lato sensu and Stricto sensu courses, of which only the latter are strictly regulated by the government. The MBA in Brazil is generally considered a specialist course rather than a master's degree and so falls under the Lato sensu category. The only stipulation is that it must include a minimum of 360 hours of tuition.

“A Brazilian MBA is rarely over 600 hours, whereas the usual full-time MBA programme in the US or London is approximately 1,600 hours,” says Ricardo Betti, an education consultant at MBA Empresarial, a human resources company. “MBA is more like a brand name here.”

However, as Brazil’s influence grows and more budding entrepreneurs line up to learn the tricks of the country’s boardrooms, this is slowly beginning to change. Employers themselves are becoming more aware of which Brazilian MBAs are worth having thanks to the emergence of independent accreditation groups, such as the National MBA Association, and more efforts are also being made to cater to international students.

Many schools, such as Coppead Graduate School of Business in Rio de Janeiro, now run exchange programmes with schools around the world. The school, one of the few to offer a two-year full-time course, hosts international students for 10-week periods twice a year from schools such as the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania.

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As Coppead started to offer more modules in English, it found that it was attracting more international students. This year, 45 overseas students are participating in the exchange programme, compared with 35 last year.

“Brazil is really in fashion, everyone wants to come here,” says Kleber Figueiredo, the school’s dean.

Others have gone a step further. São Paulo’s Fundação Instituto de Administração (FIA) launched a full-time MBA three years ago, taught entirely in English and costing R$38,500 ($24,275, £24,275).

While some of its international students remain in Brazil after the one-year programme, others return to their own countries to become specialists on Brazil for banks or consultancy firms, says James Wright, the MBA programme’s co-ordinator.

“Like China, Brazil is a ‘high-context’ culture where things are not so black and white. These students have to learn the jeito,” he says, referring to the notorious knack Brazilians have for getting things done, ranging from the innovative to the illegal.

However, one of the most surprising aspects of the FIA course is that about half of the 30 students in the class are usually Brazilians. Traditionally, those Brazilians who could afford to study overseas would go to the US or Europe, as it was considered more prestigious and a good way to make international contacts. But, with so many overseas students flooding into Brazil, Brazilians are now finding that they can secure international experience and also some of that prestige closer to home.

“Another Brazilian trait is this prejudice that whatever comes from abroad is always better – a legacy of colonialism,” explains Paulo Resende, the development director at Fundação Dom Cabral, another top school.

“It’s taken these foreign companies to come to Brazil to finally teach Brazilians that this country may be the one that’s better off now.”

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