Brazil's Insper business school
Teaching at Brazil's Insper business school © Ricardo Lisboa

In the amphitheatre-like classrooms at São Paulo’s Insper business school, students discuss topics taught around the world: cash flow, working capital, managing change. Yet here there is a distinct Brazilian accent to the lessons — crucial in a country facing ingrained problems such as the custo Brasil. The “Brazil cost” refers to the additional expenses and difficulties of doing business in the country, the result of problems such as a heavy tax burden and complex labour laws, weak infrastructure and arduous bureaucracy.

Economist and Insper president Marcos de Barros Lisboa is on a mission to improve the cumbersome business environment of Latin America’s largest economy. He is often to be found walking the halls and corridors, talking with students, professors and business people visiting the school he has run for six years and made one of the most respected in the region.

On this occasion Lisboa is showing André Esteves, the billionaire founder of BTG Pactual, Brazil’s biggest independent investment bank, around Insper’s new $23m state of the art building, which the banker helped fund. “This school has a different mindset,” Esteves says. “It serves businesses, it serves society — I love this place.”

Lisboa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, was secretary for political economy during the first government of leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and is a former vice-president of São Paulo-based Itaú, Latin America’s largest bank. He personifies the relationship between academia, public service and Brazilian big businesses that has eased Insper up the rankings for executive education. “Improving the country also means improving the business environment. To do that, we need to combine businesses with public policy, which we do here,” Lisboa says.

Marcos Lisboa (C)
Different mindset: Brazil’s situation means classes at Insper must combine business with public policy, says Marcos Lisboa, above, centre © Ricardo Lisboa

The school began life in 1987, soon after Brazil’s return to democratic rule, as the teaching unit of Ibmec, a research institution focused on capital markets and based in Rio de Janeiro. It initially offered a masters in finance and an executive MBA. In 2004, financier and Harvard graduate Claudio Haddad bought the Ibmec stake of fellow banker Paulo Guedes, who is now Brazil’s finance minister. He then split off Ibmec’s unit in São Paulo and turned it into a not-for-profit institution that depends on donations and student fees. It was renamed Insper five years later.

Today, the school offers undergraduate, graduate and executive education programmes. Insper teaches engineering and public policy courses as well as the staple topics in business, economics and law. Yet it is the number of students in executive education that stands out, both in open-enrolment and customised courses, climbing steeply from 3,600 in 2015 to more than 6,500 last year — half the school’s total intake.

“The original vocation of Insper was executive education, so we have been expanding our portfolio of programmes,” explains Marcelo Orticelli, who is in charge of the 101 executive programmes, which range from three days to three months. In a country that is often inward-looking and is still dominated by huge companies, some state-run, his clientele is drawn predominantly from Brazil — including Banco do Brasil, Itaú and the military police of the state of São Paulo. Some courses are tailored to the specific needs of Brazil’s business environment, such as agribusiness in one of the world’s top exporters of soya, corn and meat.

Carolina da Costa, Insper’s vice-president and founder of its Centre for Leadership and Innovation, lectures on critical thinking to students coming from big businesses such as banking group Santander. “We are made of a membrane that is very permeable with the market,” she says. “We want companies here, we want companies to design things along with us to generate knowledge.”

Several projects that are now part of the curriculum have been developed in partnerships with businesses. Walking round the school’s corridors, visitors can look in on a class for the Toyota Dealer Management Course, for example, while in a nearby laboratory, students are developing a more efficient beer tap for AmBev, the local subsidiary of global brewer AB InBev.

Insper’s professors argue that the school’s interdisciplinary approach distinguishes it from the other Brazilian schools that feature in the FT’s executive education rankings. One is Fundação Dom Cabral, founded in 1976, which has one of the largest faculties dedicated to executive education, making it a regional powerhouse in the field. Another is EAESP at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, which was founded two decades earlier, aimed at spreading the US “perspective of business management” coupled with the interests of the traditional Brazilian power players of the time, as described by two of its professors, Rafael Alcadipani and Carlos Osmar Bertero.

At Insper, says Vanessa Rahal, who is in charge of law courses, “somebody may get into a management course, but that person will also study economics, law, technology, computer programming, because all problems in life are interdisciplinary”. Indeed, Lisboa adds that “the complexity of the tax system in this country requires lawyers, economists and accountants who can impart knowledge to companies that lack the technical information”.

Corruption has been another influence on the design of courses, following a string of scandals that implicated swaths of Brazil’s corporate establishment. “There is great concern with ethics these days; it has become a fashionable word,” says Da Costa. “This is generating dilemmas for students and these dilemmas need to be talked about and straightened out in class.”

Carolina da Costa of Insper
Good intentions: ‘There is a great concern with ethics these days,’ says Carolina da Costa of Insper © Ricardo Lisboa

Brazil also needs to increase productivity to jump-start growth after a harsh recession, and this will require more innovation and a better-educated workforce. Despite being one of the world’s largest economies and having a young workforce, Brazil ranked 79th out of 140 countries for quality of higher education and training, and 73rd for innovation capacity in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Competitiveness Index. (It improved to 40th out of 140 countries in 2018 in innovation; higher education was not ranked, but Brazil came 124th for graduate skillsets.)

Yet many in Brazil continue to champion the old mechanisms of government intervention to favour their sectors. In April, shares in state-run oil company Petrobras tanked after nationalist president Jair Bolsonaro halted a scheduled increase in diesel prices, to stave off a strike by truckers. This is what Lisboa calls the “old Brazil”, which protects vested interests, as opposed to the “new Brazil”, willing to innovate and open itself up to competition.

“Our role is to collaborate by improving the rules of the game, the design of institutions, and management, whether in the public sector or the private sector,” says Lisboa. One way of doing this is by having a plurality of voices at the school. These range from Insper professor and former leftist presidential candidate and São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad to billionaire banker Pedro Moreira Salles, who sits on the school’s board of governors.

“We have a tendency to mix and match here, to value diversity,” says Ricardo Paes de Barros, a professor at Insper who helped design Brazil’s social welfare scheme, Bolsa Família, and is chief economist at São Paulo’s Ayrton Senna Institute (a charity to help young people’s development). He sometimes lectures alongside Fernando Haddad, the pair contradicting each other in class — an effective tool to sharpen the judgment of the country’s future business executives. “Students can go and make money afterwards, but they will do so with a critical sense,” he says.

Moreira Salles agrees. “There are students here who understand the technical part of business, but also public policy,” he says. “For Brazil, this is fundamental, because it is nurturing citizens, not just professionals.”

The FT Executive Education Rankings 2019 will be published on June 3 2019

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