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A slum is an organism

Interview with Elaine Smith

Elaine Smith, Director of the Instituto Geração in São Paulo, on cultivating a new generation of privileged individuals and how philanthropy and investment banking can help to improve the state of the world.

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Audi Magazine: Ms. Smith, your name doesn’t sound very Brazilian.

My surname Smith is from my father’s side. After the American Civil War,
his family came to Brazil as immigrants in around 1880. My grandfather
was born here in 1911. I come from a poor background. Although I never
lived in the slums, my family was poor.


You studied business administration. What made you choose that?

It’s what my father did. I didn’t have any other professional role models
aside from my father, who graduated from college when he was 45. He
was the first person in his family to get a degree.

Is your family background what inspired your philanthropic work?

Yes, but not in the way you think. We are Protestants, which was very
unusual in Brazil when I was a kid. Because of my religion, I have always
given ten percent of everything I have. Right from the age of eight, I gave
ten percent of my pocket money—to the community or church charities.


You didn’t sometimes keep back a little extra?

It’s funny, but I didn’t. Eventually, you realize it has become completely
ingrained. You don’t think of it as having, say 100 real and giving away ten.
No, you are holding 100 real, but only 90 real are yours. Ten don’t belong
to you. You must give them away. When I was about 20, there was a scandal
over the Evangelicos who took money from the poor to finance their luxury
lifestyles. Afterwards, my husband asked, “Are those the people you are
giving to? I mean, you give money to the church—to those kinds of priests—
don’t you?” So I decided to shift my social investment and to help the
church with their projects instead. Later on in my career, when I was
working for Goldman Sachs, they had community work as their corporate
responsibility program.

Goldmann Sachs really organizes community work?

They do, and it’s very big. Back in 2000, they had a community work month
and there were 217 different jobs employees could volunteer for.

And everyone was involved?

Yes, everyone. It’s like a voluntary community service month. If you want to
plant a tree in the park, there are 17 openings. If you want to hold babies
in the hospitals, there are ten openings. Basically, there are a lot of options.
I loved doing that work—it really inspired me. So I was quite disappointed
that my next employer J.P. Morgan didn’t offer anything that organized in
Brazil. I offered Human Resources to create a bigger volunteer program,
but I had to do the work in my spare time.

How did you come into contact with Instituto Geração (Generation
Institute) in São Paulo?

In 2009, I received a call from the founder of Instituto Geração and she told
me that she had created this organization that works with a new generation
of wealthy individuals in Brazil and that they wanted me to be part of it. And
I said, “That’s fantastic work you do, but I am not your audience—I come
from a poor background, and my family has no business for me to take over.
I support my parents nowadays, so why me?” And she replied that she
thought it would be great for someone to be part of the program who is so
committed to getting others to become socially engaged.

That was the moment my gradual move to Instituto Geração started.

And you decided to look to the next generation rather than the bank.

Yes and no. I decided that I didn’t want to work in that industry any more.
But at the same time, I had 19 years of experience in banking and asked
myself how I could use that at the institute to help them in some special
way. I was in sales before—which is to say that I was liaising between the
bank, the client and the financial market. Now, I try to do the same thing,
connecting people and articulating arguments but for a different cause.

How does the Instituto Geração work?

We focus a lot on social inclusion in Brazil. For the really poor, that means trying to raise their standard of living to around average. For sure, the rich don’t lead average lives, either—they go around in bulletproof cars, spend their vacations outside Brazil, are afraid of everything and don’t understand the realities. At Instituto Geração, we try to achieve social inclusion from top to bottom so everyone can meet on the middle ground. We offer experiences to about 15 people a year. Over 120 people have participated in the program so far. They are heirs to fortunes and people who work in their families’ businesses. About one in five are being groomed for positions in companies, and some three out of ten are in other professions—doctors, lawyers, consultants and artists. Then there are the people in the middle who just want to be a shareholder, a child or a wife to somebody. We have programs that allow them to understand and experience a social environment different from the one they are used to. That way, you can relate to someone from a different social class, get a better grasp of their problems and where they are coming from.

You can’t solve their problems with preconceived ideas, going around telling them what to do—saying, I’ll give you money so that you can study and do the same thing as I do. No. We encourage participants to co-create a solution, to ask, what can I do for you, what do you need now? You can’t just drop a pile of money in the middle of a slum. A slum is an organism comprising many different parts. Investment alone isn’t enough. For some reason, a lot of people think that money is the only solution. But if you don’t take the time to understand the problem and to really discuss it with those affected, it’s a waste of money.

If Instituto Geração operates at a local level, what does Nexus Global
Network do?

Well, Nexus Global Network is a forum where we try to bring together under one roof very wealthy young people and those who are passionate about a cause or who run their own NGOs. We build leadership and management skills, as some great heads of NGOs find it hard to manage an organization. Someone who has business experience can help to empower them
in that regard.

Do you think being a strong woman makes a difference?
I think it’s the new evolution. Just as women are increasingly taking the reins of power, so are people of color and other ethnic backgrounds. It’s not so much about the role of women as it is about diversity.

Would you say your career path represents a complete about-face?

It’s very common for people to ask me if I’m now fighting on the side of good and if I left banking because of the trouble it caused. I always say no, because I never felt guilty about what I was doing before. It’s the difference between sustainability and creating value. When a company aims to operate sustainably, they are trying to mitigate or reduce their negative impact. In contrast, when they aim to create value, they are trying to work together with different companies to have a positive impact.


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Foto: Andre Vieira

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