Disrupting Brazil: UFMG in Berkeley – Part I
Cal is known for attracting top talent from all around the world, from Southeast Asia to the Southern Cone. While this university is nothing more than a combination of individuals from all walks of life, there are no two identical journeys in Berkeley. During the past three months, Raissa Guerra and Karla Liboreiro, two brilliant and enthusiastic students from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), decided to build a bridge between their projects and research in Belo Horizonte and the Bay Area. This is the first part of their story:
CRV: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re currently working on, and why did you decide to come to Berkeley?
KL: I am from Brazil, from Belo Horizonte, which is in the State of Minas Gerais. Simply put, I decided to come to Berkeley because it is undoubtedly one of the most important universities in the world when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship. I actually came across the opportunity to come here while I was a PhD student in Technology and Biopharmaceutical Innovation at UFMG. Through the partnership between UFMG’s School of Engineering and the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship, our university can send a select group of students here to further develop the projects that they had already started developing in the classrooms and laboratories in Belo Horizonte. I wanted to come here so much that I even decided to change some of the structure and objectives of my PhD so my program could be in the right timeframe for me to be eligible to come. It is worth noting, however, that it was not easy to make it to the final list of students who were going to be attending, but ultimately UFMG saw that my project would help change the academic environment of the School of Engineering and UFMG as a whole, and that I was truly motivated to come to Berkeley. And they were right: I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone stop me from doing so.
If I had to point out one defining trait through my personal and professional life I would say that it’s my relentlessness. I have been able to pursue and get almost everything I have wanted up to date, conditional on me working really hard for it. A clear example of this happened right after UFMG finally selected me to come to Berkeley for these past three months.
You wouldn’t believe my frustration when I realized that even though I had been selected, I had no savings to support myself here. I realized I needed money, and that I needed it fast if I was intending to be here by the beginning of January before SCET’s Bootcamp. I started thinking what the most expensive items in my expense list were going to be, and the first ones that came to mind were my flight and the place where I’d stay. My motivation to be part of this experience even made me create my own crowdfunding campaign, which actually proved to be pretty successful thanks to the 62 people who believed in me, in my project, and in my ability to make it all happen. After realizing that my crowdfunding campaign wasn’t going to be enough to pay for all of my expenses, I decided to approach a travel organization in Brazil to try to see if they could somehow help me pay for my ticket and my hotel room. I realized that the most effective strategy was going to be to show them how the tourist industry in Brazil could significantly benefit from the research I was going to carry out in Berkeley. I even told them I could be a teacher and offered to give some training lessons on entrepreneurship and innovation to their staff after coming back from the Bay Area. I also promoted this training lessons idea with a big company where I worked before I decided to pursue my Master and PhD courses and they decided to help me.
After less than one month of campaigning for funds, I had gotten the sponsorship from the traveling company and from the mining company. I also contacted the State Agency for the Promotion of Science and Technology in Minas Gerais to ask whether they could buy my plane ticket, and after many weeks, they finally agreed on financing it. That’s how I started on this journey, and now I hope I can deliver the training sessions and lectures for the Brazilian students and firms that believed in me.
CRV: Sounds like UFMG and several other players in Brazil really saw potential in your research. What is your project all about?
KL: My project is about how educational institutions, especially universities, can become more innovative and multidisciplinary so they can manage to produce more entrepreneurs and grow the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the local industries. I basically came here to understand how does entrepreneurship happen in Berkeley and in Silicon Valley, so I could gain enough insights to redefine the educational structure in back home.
CRV: How would you describe or characterize the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Silicon Valley? Do we really live in a bubble here?
KL: The big difference between Silicon Valley and Belo Horizonte is that here people have the infrastructure (labs, classes, etc.), lots of funding, and most importantly, people who really want to help to improve the entrepreneurship ecosystem. You just have to see how many prominent alumni from UC Berkeley come and give back to the university because they want to see more startup founders and world changers come out of this place.
I could also point out another key difference between UC Berkeley and UFMG: In Berkeley, professors can be running their own companies on the side at the same time that they are teaching their classes. This is definitely not the case in UFMG, where almost every professor have an exclusive contract with with UFMG, since in Brazil most of the public universities do not allow professors to invest their time in anything other than teaching and researching. These professors are also not authorized to own their own firm, because as professors they are acting as public servants.
In Brazil’s public universities it is more difficult to work as a professor and as an entrepreneur at the same time because it raises the issue of conflict of interests. However, the good news is that changes in legislation in the last couple of years have made it a point to improve upon this topic and guide the deans to have more professors that are also entrepreneurs. What now prevents a teacher from formally investing some of his time outside of the university is called Exclusive Dedication, which is a clause that can actually be changed upon request according to the interests of the parties involved. Needless to say, this setup directly impacts the real-time connection that the faculty can foster with the different industries in the country, and ends up restricting the momentum that could be built between in-class innovations at places like UFMG and the rest of Brazil.
As I said before, I have also seen that it is surprisingly natural for people here in the US to be willing to help each other, even if it is only with a simple connection or referral to the right person. In Brazil, even though we have brilliant people who want to make an impact, individuals are usually not as open to help and this can also decrease the availability of resources to anyone who aims to become an innovator or entrepreneur.
CRV: You mention that here we have all these lectures and bootcamps, but the truth is there are amazing entrepreneurs who have never taken this type of classes before. So how important are these classes to foster entrepreneurship when entrepreneurs are usually characterized by being innately able to bootstrap their own opportunities? Do you think entrepreneurship can be taught?
KL: It is extremely difficult to find the right ways to motivate someone to become an entrepreneur. If you put together a class of one hundred students to teach entrepreneurship, you might later find out that some of them don’t actually want to be entrepreneurs. However, something really “personal” and very difficult to describe ends up happening within some of these students that ultimately ignites a spark for them and brings them together to promote change and transcend. These are the real entrepreneurs, not the ones who only want to follow the money and go through life saying “I opened my business just to become a billionaire.”
CRV: If you have limited resources like most educational institutions have, would you invest those resources in trying to strengthen the skill set of people that already identify as part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, or would you invest them in people that haven’t thought of entrepreneurship but that you could see them becoming good entrepreneurs?
KL: I would choose to motivate new people. I would try to understand what each student and each professor ultimately wants to do with their lives and what are the things that matter the most to them. Particularly for professors, I would try to make them understand the importance of creating a multidisciplinary environment for students to be able to experience how the foundation of different disciplines cause students to see problems in different ways. In general, I would also recommend universities to promote events where professors and students from different areas can interact and talk about their research projects. I’m sure they could find common points and interests to collaborate and enrich their insights and their experience.
“Students and professors need to understand that they cannot be innovative by themselves. They have to connect to people from different areas and experiences, working in a multidisciplinary way. Reaching out shouldn’t be just a routine strategy when validating a product in a market: it should also be embedded in the design and creation of the product itself.” – Karla Liboreiro – Ph. D Student in Technological and Biopharmaceutical Innovation at UFMG/Brazil
CRV: Should universities makes entrepreneurship courses mandatory as part of their curriculum or should they make them optional just to attract people who are truly interested?
KL: The only way a mandatory courses on entrepreneurship could work is if you have a great way of approaching and engaging all of the different personalities and types of students attending the class. If you just fill your class with lectures where you review the theory of entrepreneurship and business creation, then you won’t be successful with your attendees. If you made these courses optional, the most important thing that you need to consider is how to market it to attract the right students from all kinds of disciplines. You have to be able to determine how to prompt some interest from everyone ranging from future anthropologists and neuroscientists to engineers and economists.
In short, experience has taught us that you won’t be successful if you try to come up with a one-approach-fits-all method for teaching how to be an entrepreneur. No discipline or area of knowledge can be disregarded during the process of idea creation and product development, and you cannot engage two disciplines in the same way in order for them to fully participate.
Some years ago philosophy and psychology were not seen as necessary disciplines for the development of a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem; now, we have come to understand that a philosopher or a psychologist can think things on such a deep level and, that them alone could help redefine the entire strategy of a company.
CRV: What do you think that Berkeley could learn from Belo Horizonte?
KL: Our way to survive with scarcity and our joy and gratitude when we have an opportunity. In Brazil, our population doesn’t have significant capital or resources, and we do have significant socioeconomic inequality. That is truly what has made us recognize the value of being able to bootstrap your own idea and think as big as possible in order to find new resources and for others to follow your lead.
UC Berkeley could also create a semester-long multidisciplinary class conducted by professors from different departments. An example that Cal could emulate is OPEI, a class we created at UFMG in Belo Horizonte which combines six professors from electrical engineering, production engineering, business administration, physics and biology. This class has been very successful in motivating students to work in multidisciplinary teams and build their own projects and businesses.