As The Brazilian Dude who friends happen to know me back in Silicon Valley, I sometimes receive emails asking for help in finding candidates for foreign companies that are getting established in Brazil. Oddly enough, the job description (probably written by a local HR firm) quite often includes the name of specific top Brazilian universities in bold letters as a requirement for the job: Usually USP or Unicamp for tech positions, or FGV MBA for management. You may be asking yourself what's wrong with that, as Steve Jobs once said "A players hire A players" and all… But by adopting this practice in Brazil you may find yourself in the middle of a bozo explosion (as Steve Jobs once said too).
The assumption behind hiring a top-university graduate in the US is not necessarily that the candidate had access to outstanding education (although that is likely correct). In reality, that Stanford or Harvard piece of paper serves at the very minimum as a certification that the candidate is smart. From a hiring standpoint, a top-university candidate is a way to minimize risk against other candidates who might be bad-ass ninjas but also difficult to certify or validate. Besides, no sane manager will be mad to receive a resume from HR with a MIT stamp on it. And indeed that practice served well the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters (arguably), so it's natural that other high-tech companies follow the same strategies as they expand to developing countries.
Welcome to Brazil.
First, one obvious reason this hiring strategy is unrealistic in Brazil is because we are simply not comparing apples with apples: Brazilian's top university (USP — Universidade de São Paulo) is not even ranked among the worldwide top-100 (it is in fact # 158). FGV (Fundação Getúlio Vargas), the country's top MBA program, did not even make the list. Although one may question the source I am using, rest assured you will not find an equivalent of Stanford, MIT or Harvard in Brazil.
But, most importantly, the key hiring mistake foreign companies make in Brazil is to assume that any graduate from a top Brazilian university will perform better than graduates from second or even third-level universities. This assumption is simply false, because in Brazil the entire educational system from pre-school onwards is socially (and, yes, racially) segregated, and therefore top universities accept only the higher caste of the society. As a result, these graduates tend to make wrong assumptions of how society works and what makes the country moves, and come up with ideas, solutions and strategies that are not applicable to the realities of the ground because they live in a world completely disconnected from the majority of the country. Most troubling, only a minority of these candidates actually experienced common life in Brazil and thus are unable to deal with a TIB situation (TIB = "This Is Brazil"), such as the entire event planning team not showing up on the product launch day, regulators shutting down the site out of nowhere, or figuring out why a remote server is turning itself off at exactly the same time every day — And all of these situations actually happened, by the way.
In the US it is tough for poor minority kids to make it to Stanford, but it is not uncommon: The elementary, middle and high-school system in California is public (free) and with special tracks for the brightest kids, and there are many programs that push kids towards college. There is also a diversity in programs, with public schools offering different academic focuses and also charter schools available. Once in college, there are subsidized loans, a myriad of scholarships, and options to transfer from community colleges. Yes, I am well aware of the inequalities of the educational system in the US (as my wife was an “at risk students” teacher in California), but overall it is more inclusive and top US universities actually value diversity not only in racial and social terms but also academically.
In Brazil I do not even need to make the case that not all kids are in school, as many street stop signs or subway exits in São Paulo or Rio will make that case on my behalf. The public middle and high-school system is a complete failure, and if you are a product of the public school system, except of very few cases (in specific, some federal technical programs which are the equivalent of trade schools) you are almost guaranteed to not get enrolled into a public university.
Now, here is where things get crazy: My last sentence above was not a typo. USP, the top Brazilian university (which is public, and mind you, completely free) enrolled only 7% of public school system students in 2013. Due to several reasons (our sociologists wrote extensively about it) our middle and high-school public educational system sucks, while our public universities surprisingly excel. And since public universities are top-notch and paid for by the state, in order to get admitted into one the student needs to pass a very tough test, and obviously only those who received excellent education throughout their school life are actually able to pass said test. In other words, those who can afford to pay for private elementary, middle, high school and college test prep end up receiving a four-year fully paid scholarship subsidized by the government. The top private universities obviously are expensive (although they get a lot of government funding and tax breaks) but the situation is not different as the admission test is equally tough. And the conclusion is obvious: In Brazil only the top caste of society goes to top universities.
One could argue that the admission test in Brazil is actually good for the hiring process, because the students had to go through a tough process. My argument against it is that in the US the university admission process tries to evaluate the candidate as a whole, beyond just the academic score: Projects, essays, competitions, interviews and so on. In Brazil the one and only thing that matters is a pass/fail score, creating an incentive for the student to focus on the test rather than a well-rounded education like in the US.
In China (just to mention another example of a developing country I know, since I lived there) there is a similar test called gaokao, which is pretty grueling but there are three factors that proves my point regarding Brazil's education (or lack thereof):
- The gaokao system is not a pass/fail test, but rather a placement system. A 100% score gets you to the top university, a 99% score to the second best, and so on;
- The school system in China up to high-school, both public and private, is not world-class but it is certainly way ahead of Brazil;
- Differently than Brazil, the top Chinese universities are among the top-50, and some schools are top-5 worldwide, some of them including Nobel laureates. Therefore the comparison "Tsinghua is the MIT of China" can indeed be made to some extend.
My point with this “only the elite gets to the university in Brazil” rant is that you (the hiring manager) is not getting the I Am Smart Certificate when hiring from top Brazilian universities. On the contrary, you are simply getting the I Passed The Test ones. In Brazil you want the underdog: The guy or gal who knows how to make things happen, who is resourceful and will get off his/her chair and talk to customers, who is loyal to your product and to your vision, who is not only smart but smart and get things done.
Someone already probably recommended you to look for candidates with the famous Brazilian Ginga, but a top-university bias will very likely exclude them. Sure, graduates from top universities can be go-getters too, but this trait is not included in the curriculum. In fact, I would argue the exact opposite: Thanks to our colonized mindset, the expectation of a top-school graduate is to not actually do the work, but instead to order others to do the work for them (our sociologists wrote extensively about that too), so good luck getting that super-bright MBA off the air-conditioned office to do some customer research.
Simply put, Brazilian top-university candidates do not live in the same Brazil where your customers are. In my opinion our lack of diversity in the workplace is actually the reason for the abysmal failure of the tech start-up ecosystem in Brazil, and why US high-tech companies tend to have such a hard time establishing new offices in the country, as the first hired executives tend to hire friends and classmates from the same circle.
If I was hiring in Brazil I would aggressively recruit the best students from good second-level universities, and let the other companies fight for that one top-university grad — who will then hire a student from a second-level university as an intern to do the actual job... And by “aggressively recruiting” I mean the same strategies used in Silicon Valley, including that very effective one in which companies organize or sponsor high-level events in universities. Why outsource the recruiting task to a Brazilian HR firm when they are as clueless as you are?
In conclusion, I am pointing out that the assumptions taken for granted in hiring practices in the US are invalid in Brazil. In the US there is a high emphasis in the candidate's educational background (at least in the high-tech industry), and I argue that in Brazil the educational background should not count as much, or not be considered at all when it comes to the so-called “top “ universities.
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