How a Guy in Underpants Got into The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN

“How did you do it?”

I’ve been asked that question many times since starting Favela Experience in reference to how the business earned such widespread press coverage. In the eyes of many, our features in Forbes, The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and other international media outlets were our greatest point of success.

Most importantly, this achievement didn’t take any magic, special connections, or spending money. To the contrary, I even coordinated this press and gave Skype interviews from my dungeon-like favela apartment often without putting on pants. If I can do it, so can you.

In comparison to my early desperation for PR (so much so that I did this), by the end of the FIFA World Cup I’d learned a great deal about getting media coverage. The key is straightforward but not easy, and if I could distill it in two words, it’s this:

Be newsworthy.

That might sound as us unhelpful as telling a short person to be tall; yet, newsworthiness consists of two important parts, that when combined, are potent bait for journalists. Nonetheless, to truly understand what subjects the media will report on requires empathizing with the people who run the news business. And “Business” is the operative word because if you don’t recognize the profit motive behind media organizations, then you’ll be forever mystified about why TechCrunch isn’t begging for quotes on your new “way better than Tinder” dating app.

You already know this, but media organizations mostly make their money from advertising revenue. Moreover, advertisers show their ads on blogs, TV, and newspapers because they expect the ads will make them a lot more money than the cost of the ads. In order for them to profit, advertisers typically need as many media viewers as possible to see or hear their ads.

No matter how effective the ad, if media outlets have too few viewers or listeners, then advertisers won’t even consider spending their advertising budgets with those media companies.

Be (Strongly) Emotional

Now, how do media companies (especially those intended for mass audiences) get us to read, watch, and listen? It’s simple: they appeal to our emotions. Not just any emotions–fear, lust, disgust, and intrigue are all some of the strongest ones. Journalists know this, so they’re deliberate in choosing emotional stories.

Look at the most-viewed articles on any mainstream news site, and from the headlines alone you’ll likely be able to pinpoint at least one of those emotions summoning you to click. In its most blatant form, the “sweeps week” phenomenon, by which otherwise-orthodox media covers particularly salacious stories, shows how powerful emotions drive the news.

For Favela Experience, the newsworthy emotions elicited by press pieces about us were fear and disgust. First, stereotypes about drugs and violence in favelas cause the public to (undeservedly) fear favelas, and the idea of unsuspecting tourists staying in favela homes only exacerbates this fright. Furthermore, hyperbolic representations of favelas as “squalid slums” provokes hygienic disgust, and presumptions about a rich kid from Beverly Hills taking advantage or poor favela host families induce moral outrage.

Of course, I wish I could say we were so successful with PR because our story incited fascination and inspiration, but I know it was mostly the negative emotions that led reporters to eventually beg me for interviews. If you’re unsure of that, then next time you turn on the nightly news, notice how most stories focus on disaster, war, crime, and scandal, rather than humanitarianism, peace, selfless acts, and societal advancements.

Ultimately, I encourage those aspiring for PR to make themselves controversial, as long as you’re okay with the press and public demonizing you (as was what happened to me). Breaking social norms and pissing off people (especially the ones whose opinions don’t matter to you) is an excellent tactic to get into the news.

Be Relevant

The other component of newsworthiness is relevance to context. The media cover certain themes at certain times, so fitting one of those themes and then “being in the right place at the right time” can make your story worthwhile.

In the case of Favela Experience, our story was always strongly emotional, but it wasn’t relevant to the mainstream until the public began to think about the World Cup. That didn’t happen until about six months before the tournament, particularly around the Dec. 6, 2013 draw event determining which teams would play in which host cities. Fittingly, the media only really began to approach me then, their requests reaching a fever pitch in May and June of last year. As incredible as it would’ve been to me before, at that point I actually had to turn away many journalists.

Also important to realize is that the World Cup is a recurring event (every four years) with a pretty predictable media coverage timeline. PR seekers can look at other similarly recurring events to determine when their stories will be most relevant.

How Will the Media Find Me?

Prior to getting lucky, I tried different tactics with journalists to varying degrees of success. Had I never sought out press, the media still probably would’ve found me based on the fact that Favela Experience had a searchable web presence, and the journalists knew people who would’ve referred them to me. Regardless, I still advocate “pitching” journalists because this can speed up the process, even though I don’t have specific recommendations on how to do so.

I attempted cold calls, emails, and Tweets in addition to warm introductions (by searching LinkedIn for who had connections at my target media outlets), but since no single method worked better than the others, I suggest experimenting with all of them. To illustrate the unique paths that led to PR, I’m summarizing the chain of events for some of our notable press features:

LAN (the Latin American airline) blog – While LAN’s blog doesn’t have an immense readership, this piece is worth mentioning because it was the only press we paid for, splitting with our partner Favela Adventures the ~$300 cost of comping the writer’s flight, transportation, accommodation, activities, and food. After a friend told me about him, I cold emailed this journalist because he’s also one of the writers of the Lonely Planet travel guide for Brazil. Forgetting he never replied, I saw he Tweeted an article from Rio’s English news site (coincidentally written by one our customers) that mentioned us. I immediately Tweeted back, and shortly thereafter we arranged a weekend-long visit. An added bonus was that the writer later recommended us in Lonely Planet’s 2014 World Cup guide.

Forbes  I read a Forbes profile about my former employer and noticed the writer’s (actually a contributor–see the section below) beat included for-profit social enterprise, so I figured I’d pitch her. I found her personal website listing her cell number and then called and left a voice message. She quickly returned my call but seemed rushed and disinterested, asking that I follow-up with her by email. I did, but only a week later did she respond asking for a Skype interview. The interview was over an hour, but she quickly published the article entirely about me and my business.

The New York Times video and article  Before I moved to Brazil, a mentor introduced me to a journalist friend living in Rio whom I met shortly after arriving in Brazil to run Favela Experience full-time. That woman told me to contact a fixer (a sort of liaison) for international journalists in the country, but that particular fixer didn’t contact me until many months later. At that point working with The New York Times, she contacted me to arrange an in-person visit by an entire multimedia crew.

CNN article – Though I don’t remember if they’d found us from The New York Times pieces, they emailed me to write an article and shoot video. After this was published, many other international media outlets contacted me citing CNN’s coverage, showing how one feature can spiral into many.

The Wall Street Journal video – Without me seeking them out, journalists and producers from The Wall Street Journal arranged an in-person interview for a video piece shortly before the World Cup.

A Shortcut to Forbes and The Huffington Post–”The Contributor Network”

If you want PR for the purpose of credibility (but aren’t so concerned with mass awareness), then consider pitching Forbes and The Huffington Post. Both of these along with other sites’ business models leverage “contributor networks,” legions of writers often without journalism backgrounds who end up writing for free or close to it. These denominated contributors are separate from the regularly paid staff journalists and freelancers whose work is generally more prominently displayed in the publication. Alongside the article author’s name, you can usually see if he or she is a contributor.

If you didn’t realize that crucial difference in author classification last time you read Forbes, then you’re like 99% of the population. At least for now, you can use this general ignorance to your advantage!

I estimate there are over 10 times as many contributors as paid staff, and you’d be surprised at how unremarkable you have to be to be a contributor for Forbes or HuffPo. After hearing horror stories from a friend who works at Forbes and seeing some embarrassingly bad pieces in HuffPo, I know the bar is low to become a contributor.

Most important is that, in general, you can far more easily get a positive response from a contributor than a staff journalist. When pitching, just remember the motivations of contributors might not match staff–they could be out for self-promotion or résumé padding.

Nevertheless, when the article is published, you’ll still get to brag to everyone, at least the ignorant 99%, that you were featured in Forbes, The Huffington Post, or any other of the myriad publications that use contributor networks.

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That Time I Made an English App for Brazilian Prostitutes

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tomas Castelazo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

NOTE: This post itself is rated PG, but the Android app is NSFW.

A Jackson Pollock-esque drizzle of syrup and bacon crumbs trickled down *Lorenzo’s t-shirt as “Living in America” blared on repeat over the house speakers. He stood stooped over an overflowing plate held inches from his face, his basketball shorts’ pockets inexplicably hung inside-out. At 4:00 am I had no right to question him because my appearance wasn’t any more polished than his after another night of user testing.

In retrospect it’s darkly poetic that the best all-you-can-eat American breakfast buffet in Rio de Janeiro is in a brothel, a sexual buffet of sorts. Lorenzo gazed impatiently down at the metal serving tray, neurotically opening and closing the lid in hopes it would magically replenish itself with Eggs Benedict. And I too was almost as determined to get my 14 reals worth of arterial congestion. Even amid that dystopia of lust and gluttony, there was a faint glimmer of compassion in how perhaps as consolation to the women having slow nights, they’d always eat for free.

Only during those twilight hours before the sun broke over Copacabana, between steaming stacks of pancakes and sausages, the weary prostitutes would seem to let their guard down. Sometimes we’d dine next to the women on bar stools, our silent chewing intermittently interrupted by occasional slurps of orange juice. Other times, in an ironic role reversal, Lorenzo and I were still attempting to sell them on our app and explaining its benefits.

Breaking the Taboo

It became an unlikely weekend routine for us, two broke foreign entrepreneurs each running our separate businesses the rest of the time. Lorenzo would endearingly refer to the beachfront blocks below his Manhattan-priced studio apartment as “‘Stoot Row,” and whenever he’d GChat me “stoots tonight,” I’d know my evening plans.

After keeping it to ourselves for so long, the story of how Língua Boa came to be had to be told. It wasn’t as if Lorenzo and I were lifelong friends. We only really knew each other by being gringos trying to accomplish something against the tide of Brazil’s horrendous business climate.

However, our paths to the country were quite different. Having cultivated a passion for Brazil from various visits, I flew to Rio on a one-way ticket two weeks after college graduation to grow my alternative travel venture Favela Experience. On the other hand, when given the opportunity to create the Brazilian software sister company of his dad’s hardware startup, Lorenzo moved knowing merely a few words of Portuguese. Yet, what we most had in common was an aspiration toward greater opportunity for marginalized Brazilians–Lorenzo via quality education from affordable technology and I via increased income for favela families from community-empowered tourism.

One of our first times together was in the fall of 2013 alongside his dad who was visiting for meetings. The conversation fittingly drifted to the looming Copa do Mundo. Lorenzo asked, **”Did you hear about this story with the prostitutes in Belo Horizonte getting English classes for the World Cup?”

Of course I had. After all, my business depended on the FIFA tournament to the point of me maniacally refreshing my Google News feed. That piece of news had recently been the top-trending article on CNN because, well, what’s better click-bait than the stereotyped sensuality of Brazilians and futebol? Disregarding its salaciousness, the report’s context was pertinent–the country’s English fluency rate was miserable. More urgent was that 600 thousand inebriated, predominately male fans from around the globe were set to arrive in less than a year; and contrary to popular belief, no, you really can’t get by on Spanish in Brazil.

Lorenzo nonchalantly continued: “On the side, I started messing around with making an app to teach English to Brazilian prostitutes.”

I was incredulous. Sure, Lorenzo was hardly a buttoned-down guy, but he and his business were publicly visible. Despite that buying and selling sex are both legal (with restrictions) in Brazil, why tarnish your personal and professional reputation associating with such a polarizing industry? Moreover, Lorenzo had to focus on far more important things, like maneuvering government bureaucracy for his business and making rent.

Still, the concept behind the app was intriguing. Of course, he wasn’t imagining its users delivering doctoral thesis defenses, or even having substantial conversation in their new second language.

Instead, he explained, “There’s this Tim Ferriss blog post about how the 100 most common words in English are used half the time.” That meant that hypothetically that a language learner could very quickly begin to communicate with little study. Applying that thinking made sense, and I saw how this was just another example of the 80-20 rule in action.

On top of that, Lorenzo’s dad added that he founded an NGO in developing countries to employ the poor at business process outsourcing centers. Though the workers don’t learn to converse in English, they’re trained in just the technical lexicon needed to be effective at their jobs.

We were still talking about prostitutes, though, so I laughed off the absurdity of Lorenzo’s excitement over something so taboo. Now I see how hypocritical I was as someone working to change the perception of favela residents, another heavily stigmatized group. Specifically, my prejudice stopped me from recognizing that anyone should have access to learn anything, especially if that thing can improve quality of life.

Shameless Opportunism

Around that same time I was consumed by generating awareness of my fledgling community homestay operation in time for a pre-World-Cup crowdfunding campaign. I was studying SEO and realized how much links from reputable sites would advance my internet marketing efforts. Online PR from respected publications could not only convince customers concerned with safety and legitimacy but also boost Favela Experience’s Google rankings. Yet when the traditional route of cold Tweets to journalists was failing, my desperation made me more drastic.

A month after not discussing or even contemplating Lorenzo’s far-fetched idea, we were loitering outside of an Ipanema bar while commiserating about our business problems. A mass of giddy hostelers overflowed into the street before us, foreshadowing a gringo surge magnitudes greater the coming summer for 2014’s FIFA tournament. Suddenly, a wave of brilliance overwhelmed me.

Lorenzo’s app wasn’t so ridiculous after all!

I proclaimed, “We’re going to build the prostitutes app together. It’s sex, soccer, Brazil, and technology all in one. It’ll be too good for the press to resist. And they’ll have to at least add links to my business when they talk about who made the app. Favela Experience will be number one on Google. I’m a genius!”

But, we had to take this seriously. There’d be no half-assing. I was so intent on employing the Lean Startup method that it would’ve made even Eric Ries himself cringe. Before writing a line of code, we were going to get ample, structured feedback on the idea from prostitutes and adjust accordingly. We couldn’t spend a lot of time building something that no one wanted to use. After all, what if prostitutes didn’t even have smartphones? (It turns out they almost all had at least simple Android devices, even a year and a half ago.)

There was one glaring problem. As I was already familiar with strangers’ attacks on the ethics of my controversial business, I worried how the media would portray us. They could paint us as greedy, unscrupulous American male techno-pimps exploiting vulnerable women for profit (even though we never wanted or tried to make any money directly from the app). At the very minimum, they could claim we were contributing to an “immoral” trade.

Our dilemma was that we figured sex workers would only download the app if they thought they’d earn more money through better communication and negotiation with foreigners. For many people that premise in and of itself was reprehensible. So, I proposed we hedge our bets by sneakily incorporating features that could enhance prostitutes’ health and safety outcomes. However, striking the right balance would be tricky. We couldn’t be overbearing and risk deterring users; but the social good component had to be prominent enough that we could reasonably defend ourselves.

Separately, I realize in hindsight I was abruptly asserting part ownership of Lorenzo’s app without even asking. I may have been taking away this cathartic release from the stress of his job. I’m now embarrassed that I was too impressed with myself to care. Fortunately, Lorenzo is so agreeable that it didn’t matter, and he seemed excited that I’d be helping.

Paying to Not Have Sex

One Friday night shortly thereafter my declaration, rough work weeks behind us, we descended Lorenzo’s apartment to begin our research. I was nervous since I’d never actually been inside a brothel, nor even knowingly talked to a prostitute before. We already understood generally where sex workers congregated; however, I was shocked how out in the open it all was, particularly in side street nooks adjacent to five-star hotels like the iconic Copacabana Palace. Having frequently passed through this prime tourism area in daylight, I never noticed any of these seedy establishments.

What made me especially uncomfortable was the men in dark suits on street corners who’d accost us to promote certain brothels and bars. They were seemingly agents guiding potential customers to different establishments, possibly for a commission.

We let one man lead us into a tight alleyway where he opened a door to a musty room full of women standing and aggressively inviting us inside. I was instantly overwhelmed because something about it scared me. Quickly signaling to Lorenzo we should move on, I hoped we could find a more laid-back bar that was more conducive to conversations.

Leaving the suited man behind, we wandered the streets perpendicular to the beach until we peeked into a nearly empty bar with a more mellow atmosphere. We walked in, sat down, and two women soon joined us while others took turns apathetically pole dancing. The staff was at best unenthused and at worst grouchy. Still, it seemed like our best option, so we stayed.

Not long after we got to our table I realized Lorenzo and I had hardly discussed a game plan. What do we talk about, and how do we act? The assumption is that we want to pay for sex, so how do we handle that? Do we have to build some rapport first, or should we just tell them what we’re doing?

Luckily and unluckily, the women were professionals. We felt at ease talking to them, but they were doing their best to seduce us. That included pressure to buy very expensive drinks for ourselves and them. Since I don’t drink alcohol, Lorenzo ended up drinking for me, and his tipsiness didn’t help our cause.

At some point, the women took us for a smoke break outside where they gave us our first of many privileged glimpses into the personal lives of sex workers. One complained about working a boring retail job during the day. The other had a child whom she’d leave with her mom at night, and she was confident none of her family knew what she was doing. Even though these facts were all consistent with I imagined, hearing the women talk about themselves engrossed me.

After some more time together, the ladies excused themselves presumably to use the restroom. Somewhat panicked by our mounting tab, I turned to Lorenzo to regroup and outline what to discuss from then on.

Most importantly, we had to find out if the women even recognized the problem the app could solve. As foreigners ourselves, we could reasonably inquire, “Can knowing English help you make more money?” Once they came back, we talked a lot more about English, but that quickly devolved into them eagerly parroting sexual slang to us in barely understandable attempts at our language.

We weren’t accomplishing much, it was getting late, and it became clear to the women we weren’t going to leave with them, so we asked for the check. At that time Brazil’s currency was far stronger, making our hearts sink when we realized we each owed over $50, an unacceptable hit to the survival budgets we had imposed upon ourselves.

It was an expensive and ineffective outing, but at least we had begun. In the future, we’d have to be more deliberate with our approach and more efficient to get a significant sample size of responses in the short time we allotted ourselves on weekends.

Um Programa Para Garotas de Programa

On a subsequent trip, we finally narrowed down our target location. Unlike the more discreet locales we visited before, Balcony was an anomaly. It defiantly inhabited a beachfront corner of a renowned stretch of Avenida Atlântica grasping for its bygone glory days.

To call Balcony a brothel might be technically inaccurate, and even now I don’t understand its business relationship to prostitution. At street level it was an innocuous awning-covered restaurant serving mediocre, moderately-priced American fare (with the exception of its underrated 4 am breakfast buffet). Throughout the day and evening, couples and even families dined there. However, the establishment’s connected interior housed an ample sports-bar-like area where prostitutes and middle-aged, white male tourists mingled. While I never ventured there, upstairs was a separate nightclub apparently boasting rooms for hourly rates.

What was so ideal about Balcony, besides being two blocks from Lorenzo’s apartment, was that we could casually enter and exit because the property didn’t have bouncers or lines, let alone doors.  On weekends the prostitutes and their raucous clientele would overtake the adjacent plaza, so sometimes we wouldn’t even need to go inside to meet potential users. This layout facilitated a relaxed, welcoming vibe that made conversation with the women easy and even enjoyable.

Perhaps most crucial, though, for our bootstrapped project was that we didn’t have to spend any money there.

Our light wallets and unique purpose created the issue of how to actually approach the women. Immediately stating our attention could draw bewilderment, whereas prolonged chatting under the guise of being typical customers could rob the women of precious time with income-generating men. After many negative reactions, we perfected our introductions to be a compromise between both ends of the spectrum.

Eventually our routine converged on either asking the women in Portuguese if they spoke English or just simply opening in English. We’d then use our own interaction as an example proving the need for our app, and if they were receptive, we’d continue soliciting more feedback. Frankly, the responses were mixed, and surely many positive reactions were to appease us while some negative answers just didn’t understand our shoddy explanations. With practice our pitch became so effortlessly delivered that we could split up to each meet a dozen women a night, and it was then that things started to get interesting.

Their Stories

NOTE: I’ll answer what you’re probably wondering. No, Lorenzo and I didn’t have sex with any of the women from our outings. Believe it or not, we couldn’t afford to pay the $50 to $500 to do so. Ethically and politically, I see nothing wrong with prostitution as long as it’s verifiably consensual, safe, and legal. Like drugs, prostitution happens everywhere regardless of regulations or norms. As such, my position is that we should seek to contain its risks while empowering sex workers. Nonetheless, I never have and never will pay for sex, not because I look down on it but because I myself am not fulfilled by that kind of encounter.

*Camila stuck out. Her dress, while form-fitting, was elegant and exposed far less than the other women. I doubted whether she actually was working by how she stood aloof from the schoolyard-like cliques of other women cackling and jerking around her. She appeared confident other than how she impatiently shot her glance repeatedly from the pulsing crowd to her phone and back. It was as if she awaited a date who was 10 minutes past standing her up. From that mysterious impression, my research goals took a backseat to discovering who she was and why she was there.

As if I couldn’t start with anything else after introducing myself the same way so many times, I approached with, “Hey, do you speak English?”

Yes, she certainly did. In fact, she expressed herself more fluidly and intelligently than most any other native Brazilian I could remember meeting. I was engrossed by everything she had to say because she was such an outlier.

“I learned English when I was little from listening to my uncle’s Rage Against the Machine CDs.”

In spite of her metal-infused educational foundations, she was witty and eloquent, defying society’s stereotype of sex workers. Moreover, she was in her final year of medical school at PUC-Rio, an elite private university where many of my upper-class Brazilian acquaintances studied. I wondered if she sat next to them in class.

Understandably, but to the chagrin of my inquisitive nature, she wasn’t too forthcoming with other details of her life. She told me she came from a little-known interior state that prostitutes its ecosystem to voracious Chinese appetite for raw goods. Moreover, by her atypical demeanor it made sense when she mentioned she’d only do this work around once a month to pay personal expenses. Yet never did she convey feelings of embarrassment about this side job even if it was a secret—a practical one considering machismo’s omnipresence in even Brazil’s most esteemed professions.

Lorenzo joined the conversation, and we must have talked for an hour before she likely remembered why she was even in that Brazilian Applebee’s-cum-bordello to begin with. In all the weekends we returned to Balcony, I don’t recall speaking with Camila again, though I sincerely hope by now her name is preceded by the honorable “Dra.”

Then there was *Solange, reminiscent of a carioca version of hip-hop celebrity Amber Rose, whom Lorenzo met without me at Balcony. As she was basking in her professional peak in her later 30s, she boasted of spending most of the year abroad where she made much more money. Still, she planned that the euros, or pounds, or dollars would lead her back to Rio for FIFA’s nearing June-July mayhem.

Solange was what Silicon Valley VCs would label in a deck as an “early evangelist.” She enthusiastically saw the need for what we were attempting, and she wanted to help. She was going to tell all of her friends about the app and make sure they used it. When our nights became monotonous, seeing her light up as we walked inside and wave Lorenzo over to introduce him to someone new made me reconsider my occasionally foul mood. Unfortunately, by the time we had a downloadable app, it appeared Solange had already jetted off to Europe before we could get a list of leads from her.

Still, perhaps most memorable of all was *Martina from the Amazon. Quickly getting to know us from our repeat visits to Balcony, she didn’t seemed concerned with wasting her time chatting. In particular, she recounted the saga of her romance with her abusive, on-and-off, wealthy foreign boyfriend whom she lived with at times in Europe. It was a lot to take in, but at the same time I was glad she trusted us enough to share the details. In return we told her a lot about ourselves, and she listened eagerly.

Most entertaining, however, was that while it was abundantly clear she was financially unattainable to Lorenzo, Martina seemed to genuinely pursue him anyways. Sometimes I had to return the focus from her flirtations back to app feedback and getting her colleagues’ contact information. Even before dawn as Lorenzo ensured the buffet’s cream cheese and jelly mostly skipped his mouth on a direct path to his t-shirt, she still didn’t give up on him.

Ultimately, the women’s diverse personalities and stories became a highlight of our project for me. As we had to suspect the intentions behind their words and mannerisms, the women could have just as easily mistrusted us, two dubiously Portuguese-proficient gringos with strange non-sexual requests.  (Of course, that’s all neglecting both the blatant and more subtle gendered power dynamics at play.) Perhaps it’s wishful thinking that Camila and others’ interactions were real in the face of a sex marketplace predicated on feigned desire. Still, I like to believe what these women showed me amid the muffled soundtrack of ’80s power ballads was at least partially their true selves.

Two-Man Hackathon

Months of hiatus followed due in part to the demands of our primary jobs and in part to procrastination over actually incorporating user feedback into a working Android app. Largely from being in the right place at the right time, after the FIFA draw announcement amped fanfare, my travel business quickly made headlines—first in Forbes, then The New York TimesCNNand other international media. Consequently my original reason for joining in on Lorenzo’s idea was no longer relevant.

By then it didn’t really matter. Both Lorenzo and I became motivated to get the app done and onto as many devices as possible before the FIFA opening ceremony. To be fair, that was Lorenzo’s goal the entire time as he envisioned a whole suite of trade-specific tools for professions that could benefit from English access—taxi drivers, bellhops, snack vendors, etc. He even had grandiose plans for enterprise software and consumer platforms for sex workers.

Unfortunately, we had only allocated one do-or-die weekend to lock ourselves in Lorenzo’s apartment and produce Língua Boa v. 1.0. It was going to be a rough “minimum viable product” and a rough, mostly sleepless 48 hours. Our fuel of choice (or by necessity) was $1.00 pastel chinês meat and dough bombs from the unappealing bakery below Lorenzo’s building.

We agreed the logic behind the app was ultra-simple. We’d make a glossary of the 100 most useful words and phrases listed in chronological order based on a standard prostitute-client interaction. Each entry would have the English and Portuguese translation alongside a relevant rights-free image with touch-activated English audio. The content themes moved from greetings to flirting to negotiation to sex acts, including the right amount of health, safety, and comfort-related vocabulary.

Because none of our female friends agreed to voice the bawdy audio, I was the one to recite “Nice to meet you” and “My name is” (among more NSFW terminology). Of course, the few friends I’ve showed the app to find that part hilarious.

Also worth noting is that the real use case is less a way for users to be able to recite useful words and more for them to operate the app as an audiovisual aid in their client interactions.

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Since Lorenzo is the one who can actually code, I was left to select the vocabulary, find images, and figure out the Google Play Store. I’d like to say it was a 50-50 effort, but Lorenzo deserves most of the credit.

Notwithstanding his hard work after much frustration, I did come up with the app’s name, Língua Boa. It’s a smug double entendre that’s meant to appeal to the nature of the users’ work, and if you download the app (Android only) or view our hastily-made logo, you should understand.

Given the app’s content, it was a gamble as to whether the Google Play Store would accept our submission. Luckily we had nothing more than the $25 application fee to lose, and possibly because of Google’s laxness the app was never removed.

It’s the Journey, Not the Destination

I’d love to report we got our app to thousands of sex workers across the country during the World Cup and heard high praise of its utility. In a last-ditch effort to spark some PR, I did actually have an interview with The Guardian about the app, but it was never published.

The truth is Língua Boa is crummy, and it was supposed to be, at the least in its first iteration. It’d take weeks more work of testing and development for users to find some value in the app. Though we revisited Balcony a few more times in subsequent months, we didn’t invest enough time into making Língua Boa something anyone wanted.

Certainly we both learned a lot from this entire process. I was grateful for the exposure to a population I otherwise wouldn’t have come to know. I can’t claim to comprehend much about the economics and social reality of sex work or have much first-hand knowledge into the dark underbelly of that industry even if we did see some signs of illegal drug use and underage prostitution. (Balcony was suspiciously shut down on the World Cup’s opening day over child abuse allegations.) Though this project proved not all prostitution is demeaning or exploitative, I deeply respect the individuals, NGOs, academics, and public sector serving at-risk segments of the sex trade.

Toward the end, the experience for me became much more about the practice in empathizing with a taboo group and finding ways to improve sex workers’ livelihoods and well-being. No, we didn’t get far, but my point is that this is a fight worth fighting.

There’s untapped human and commercial potential serving not just sex workers but other “untouchable” populations like the disabled and the unexotic underclass, not to mention the 2.7 billion people living on $2 a day or less. Nevertheless, strides won’t be made without input from and ownership of new initiatives by these groups.

Open minds, creativity, and relentless resourcefulness are what we need to make progress. I’m ready to get to work—are you?

 

*Names have been changed upon request or to protect identities.

**All quotations have been approximated from memories of personal experiences taking place between September 2013 and June 2014.

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What Next?

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I trembled on stage as I gripped the handheld whiteboard scrawled with my answer to the tie-breaker question. My fellow sixth graders sat in the audience fidgeting in their seats with their fingers crossed, hoping I’d beat the other finalist, a fifth-grade savant. I’d written “Scotland,” but the correct response to which country is a former British penal colony was Australia. I was wrong. The other side burst into cheers filling the chapel of my tiny Jewish elementary school. I swallowed a lump in my throat as I shook hands with the ecstatic victor of Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School’s qualifying round for the 2002 National Geographic GeoBee.

The sting of defeat from that moment sticks with me today. However, it’s actually the lead-up to that story that’s far more important for me now. Fundamental to who I am as an adult is a former youth obsession with the names of states and countries along with myriad other world geography trivia. From as young as I can remember, I absorbed every factoid possible about places near and far.

A Childhood Rite

Fortunately, I practiced a helpful ritual every night as I anxiously awaited my mom to put my dinner on the table. Between kitchen-bound shouts of, “What’s for dinner?!,” I’d fervently dart my eyes back and forth over a placemat printed with a map of the US. The visual osmosis was so strong that I could doodle accurate borders of all 50 states from memory in class while tuning out redundant lessons on Hebrew vowel mark placement.

My associated fascination with planes probably made me an annoyingly precocious child on our flights to visit distant family. Before the days of rainbow spectrum terror alerts, my dad would always succumb to my pleas to visit the cockpit to get my metal “wings” pin from the pilot. And while in air, I’d fog up my seat’s ice-specked window with my chubby face pressed firmly against the glass at 35,000 feet. Between servings of peanuts and V8, my gaze was fixed downward at Earth’s vast surface while I imagined the sensation of gliding through a blanket of cotton candy clouds.

In my teens I was giddy to explore somewhere beyond the familiar (as exotic as Passover vacation seeing my relatives in Livingston, New Jersey could be). My wish was granted, and I visited Europe with my parents, eventually partaking in month-long, Spanish language immersion trips to Spain and Argentina with other high schoolers. Then, when I wasn’t ready to go to college immediately, I spent a formative gap year volunteering in Chile.

Latin America’s passion and alluring economic prospects made it my preferred region, and I was determined to become an expert. Consequently, I learned Portuguese, did a semester-long study abroad in Brazil, and kept returning to that dangerously seductive land. (If you’ve read this blog, you know what happened next.)

After a couple years of samba, acai, and starting a venture in one of the worst nations for business, I came to a crucial realization. I was static, an unwelcome requirement of running my enterprise there. At that pace, how was I ever going to reach those abstract corners of my childhood dinner placemat map?

Considering the constraints of human life expectancy and the mounting obligations that come with age, I decided now is the time to journey. Particularly, to go everywhere I want, I have to always be moving. The globe is too expansive for lingering anywhere too long. Yet, endeavoring to see everything is a futile pursuit.

Instead, I want to experience that which is uniquely extraordinary. Certainly there are lots of nice beaches in the world, but I’m only interested in the superlative beaches–the one with the whitest sand, or the sharpest cliffs, or the most entertaining monkey inhabitants. Likewise, there are many mystical temples, an abundance of exuberant festivals, and fancy restaurants in excess. I can’t, nor do I want to, experience them all.

Go East, Young Man

Did I close my eyes and spin a globe? No, I was very deliberate in picking a destination. I’ve just begun a year traveling most of the 19 countries in Southeast and then South Asia. Well, why there?

First of all, the region seems to be the cultural opposite of Latin America, where I became too comfortable after living there for three years from 2008 to 2014. Meaningful travel (not to be confused with vacation) should challenge you physically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. Otherwise, how can I expect the experience to teach me anything? I know I’ll be uncomfortable here because I’ve never been to Asia until now, know few people here, don’t speak its languages and am ignorant of its history and culture.

This doesn’t mean I won’t spend some time doing the fun, touristy things, especially if they’re unique. Already in this first month spent in the Philippines: I learned to kitesurf, joined a five-day island-hopping boat expedition, and achieved Open Water diving certification while exploring Japanese shipwrecks from WWII at 80 feet below the surface.

Second, this region is very affordable to visit. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and other countries a backpacker can do a lot on a $50 daily budget. That’s necessary for me, so I can stretch my earnings from Brazil and still have enough of a cushion for whatever I do next. I’m confident I won’t break the bank by travel hacking (signing up for credit cards to get free airfare and accommodations), couchsurfing (both with friends and their friends as well as through Couchsurfing.com), and judiciously evaluating which activities to book and which to skip.

Third, exploring this region is key to my career aspirations. In broad terms, my interest is using innovative approaches to solve social and environmental problems. More specifically, I’m intrigued by scalable, for-profit models to improve the poor’s livelihoods and quality of life. As such, it’s fitting that Southeast and South Asia already have both lots of need for and activity toward those efforts. For example, India alone possesses 800 million people living on $2 a day or less, yet it’s also home to some of the most promising organizations serving that demographic.

My plan is to meet with such social enterprises to see their field operations in action. Simultaneously, I expect to have significant interactions these business’ customers and other poor people to better understand their reality from their perspective. This could take the form of organized tours offered by renowned development institutions such as Grameen and BRAC in Bangladesh. Alternatively, I could end up asking my tuk-tuk driver to sleep on the floor of his house, cook meals with his family, and play soccer with his kids.

To Adventure

I didn’t have anywhere to sleep tonight until a few hours ago, but had I constructed a regimented itinerary I’d have missed crashing the traditional, drunken wedding of a friend’s Lao colleague this weekend. Showing Lao grandmas how to Harlem Shake to Indochinese crooning in a village set beneath dramatic, limestone karsts isn’t an activity in any tour packages.

My point is that the structure of a trip itinerary would only constrict my open-ended travel goals. I want to be able to change directions on a whim, especially when so much of this region is unknowable through TripAdvisor reviews and Lonely Planet guides.

Ultimately, it’s premature to make any commitments so soon, but I envision this year leading to the connections, experience, and inspiration for starting another business. In the meantime, I’m just wandering.

P.S. You can always see what I’m up to more regularly on Facebook and Instagram.

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Why I Left Brazil

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On October 2, 2014, after 16 consecutive months in the country, I left Brazil with no plans to return. In retrospect, I’m sure I’d have imagined such an early departure as an unacceptable failure if asked in June 2013, when I flew to Rio on a one-way ticket to run Favela Experience.

Back then, I was zealous about proving all the doubters wrong. How exactly those aware of my unconventional business doubted me didn’t really concern me. In reality, many friends, faculty, and acquaintances expressed their confidence in my personal success, in spite of their uncertainty about my business. Nonetheless, I internalized a battle narrative of me versus the world. I was the guy who was going to show everyone that “slum tourism” could not only be ethical and beneficial, but that it could make millions of dollars. I was going to exemplify on a large scale that travel can be a force for good. Regardless of my lofty vision, every academic who accused me of exploitation, every well-to-do Brazilian who gasped in fear, and every investor who shuddered at the concept only further isolated me in my one-man crusade.

By the end of 2013, witnessing my meager savings dwindle to “Oh, shit!” levels, I reached peak loneliness and capitulation. I’d spend days on end by myself in my apartment lying in front of my laptop while a dusty fan blew hot, balmy air into my face from a foot away. It was then I resolved to just get through the June-July FIFA World Cup in order to fulfill our business obligations and leave Brazil.

Besides that, I became pessimistic about fulfilling my aspirations in Brazil as I researched the incorporation, tax, and immigration challenges for a foreign entrepreneur. I quickly came to admire the gringos who manage to grow businesses against the current of inefficiency and corruption in the country. For me, it was already hard enough to make sufficient money to feed myself.

Suddenly and partly by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, Favela Experience began to show promise. We launched a moderately profitable crowdfunding campaign pre-selling World Cup accommodation, we were featured in The New York Times (commencing a media onslaught that lasted through the tournament), I hired our first Rio-based interns, and the busy summer season began.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t fully revel in the sales and recognition because the high volume of guests affected me in an unpredictable way. Until then I’d convinced myself it was better to stay in one place for a long time to understand the culture and build meaningful relationships with locals. However, experiencing the transient nature of my guests, who were often on South-America-wide or even round-the-world journeys, made me jealous. My customers were awaking every day to the wonder of something new while I was stuck in one spot, facing the frustrations of being a solo, immigrant founder in a developing country.

Even though Favela Experience performed well during the World Cup, the frenetic, global atmosphere of the tournament just solidified my wanderlust. With each new customer’s travel tale from an unexplored part of the world, my dream itinerary grew by a leg. After nearly three years of working and studying in Latin America, I was comfortable enough with the region that I wanted to travel somewhere completely different. Thanks to the World Cup rush and my frugal lifestyle, I’d probably saved more money than my classmates doing banking in New York, so I was ready to take my dream trip.

Continuing Favela Experience

But I had one last moral and logistical quandary. I couldn’t simply abandon what we’d built in Brazil. Of course, I desired to give continuity to something into which I poured my soul, something that subsumed my identity. I’d feel riddled with guilt if I were to have simply closed the business and left.

There were a few options, but I wasn’t very hopeful about any of them. All the possibilities I saw were constrained by perhaps my greatest failure–creating a small business dependent on me instead of a modular, standardized system that any qualified team could run. It was I who possessed all the trust-centered relationships, understood the cultural nuances of business in the favela, and developed the intuition to handle every problem. And it was I who also failed to document our business’ processes, which would allow me to best transition the business to other people.

At first, I toyed with the idea of hosts independently managing the entire hospitality experience at their respective properties all under the umbrella of the Favela Experience brand. The flaw in that plan was that we’d struggle to teach our hosts that which was the core value we already offered them. How could we train favela residents to have a foreign traveler’s perspective, business acumen, and an understanding of online marketing, let alone do so in a few months?

Of course, some people have asked me why didn’t I sell the business. Maybe I underestimated what we’d built, but it seemed obvious that Favela Experience was too small and its value too intangible to be bought. Morever, there’s a long history of for-purpose ventures being sold to companies with no regard for their social impact.

Unexpectedly, a solution emerged after explaining my predicament to my friend Adam Newman, a fellow American entrepreneur in Rio. Without telling me, he began hatching a proposal to take over Favela Experience. A few days before the World Cup opening ceremony, over a meal at my favorite favela restaurant, he presented his vision, and we agreed to make it happen.

Initially I was uneasy introducing Adam to hosts as a new partner in the business while withholding my plan to leave. My logic was that I wanted to wait until the hosts were comfortable with Adam before making my announcement. After all, I deeply cared for our hosts as they were truly more than business partners. By spending so much time inside their homes, I felt I was a part of their families, having come to appreciate their wide-ranging eccentricities. Fortunately my goodbyes didn’t become teary pleas for me to stay as I’d imagined, but the discussions were still difficult. One family even guided us together in Christian prayer with our eyes closed and hands interlocked. Nonetheless, I was unsettled by their genuine expectation that I’d return to Brazil soon, given my uncertain career path.

Many meetings between us and hosts later, Adam and his partners Rodrigo Viera from Uruguay and Facundo Esain from Argentina assumed full control of Favela Experience. I simply gave them the business for free, meaning I no longer have any decision-making authority or ownership. To abate my nostalgia for Brazil, I’ll continue as an advisor to Adam, but I’m not involved in daily operations because I want to be able to fully focus on future endeavors.

I’m confident favela tourism has a brighter future than ever with this new team, and I’m excited for what they’ll accomplish especially with the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics.

The Favela MBA

From such a formative experience my greatest lessons are far more about myself and far less about business.

First and foremost, I erred in starting a business alone. Despite some great interns along with supporters in Rio and at home, there was never anyone as emotionally or financially invested in the business as I was. There wasn’t anyone with whom I could share the victories and commiserate about the headaches. Being a lone founder is an experience of intense solitude, and I’m not, nor do I think I need to be, equipped to do it again. Complimentary skillsets are beneficial, but if you have no one to motivate you and hold you accountable, then it’s hard to even employ your own limited skillset.

In addition, I realized I’m not fit in a role revolving around customer service. Those most effective at making angry customers happy don’t make excuses. Instead, they assume blame regardless of whose fault it is in order to swiftly reach a solution. I did this a lot in order to satisfy guests and hosts, and it was draining. I know customer service is mandatory for founders when starting, but in my next venture I’ll have to quickly transition out of that responsibility. Clearly my aversion to customer service mostly precludes me working in the hospitality industry again.

Most importantly, despite the mixed outcome of my first attempt at social entrepreneurship, I’m hooked. I view for-purpose businesses, particularly those targeting poverty and climate change, as the single greatest contributor to a better world in this century. This is what I’m dedicating myself to, and I believe I’m the right person to start and run these businesses.

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0 Deaths, 0 Injuries

“0 Deaths, 0 Injuries”–that’s what the newspaper headline inside my head read in the aftermath of the mental hangover that was the World Cup for Favela Experience. Of course, maybe the same couldn’t be said for the crusading hordes of Argentine fans, at least in terms of the masses who caravanned back to Buenos Aires with dead spirits and injured hearts.

But guess what–we did it! We quite smoothly provided accommodation in two favelas across 10 properties for about 175 guests from around the world over the month-long World Cup period. Better yet, all that activity generated around $45,000 US dollars for favela host families. Putting that in perspective, minimum wage is about $10 US dollars per day here, and Rio’s one of the most expensive cities in the Americas.

Above all, no one died, and I proudly say that only somewhat in jest with skeptics in mind. Whether it was football hooliganism, theft, or opportunistic gang invasions, many journalists, advisers, friends, and potential customers doubted the security of guests in our accommodation and more generally the neighborhoods where we work, particularly during World Cup pandemonium. As has been the case since Favela Experience housed its first guests a year and a half ago, none of our guests reported any crimes committed against them inside the favelas. However, some guests were dog-piled on and robbed during the celebration of a Brazil goal while in the official FIFA Fan Fest viewing area of Copacabana beach. That’s just another anecdote among many that I can point to when travelers reflexively choose to stay in traditional tourist neighborhoods out of safety fears, even though that’s where they’re targeted.

Beyond that, guests were generally satisfied, in spite of our worry that the higher prices for the World Cup could have led to unrealistic expectations of comfort and service for favelas. One guest even wrote me, “[…] this has been the best experience of my travelling life.” Luckily, a positive contributing factor was that our properties had relatively few issues with the supply of water, electricity, and internet, which have often sparked the most complaints from guests who struggle to temper their “First World” expectations. I guess the Brazilian president’s current reelection bid and desperation to look good on the world stage had something to do with the reliability of public utilities. If only that urgency and public pressure could hold year after year.

There were a few incidents nonetheless, but perhaps the oddest was that some Singaporean guests were flying an aerial photography drone off the rooftop of their rental property. When the host found out, he had to calm the nerves of his neighbors, who’d probably never witnessed a camera-equipped drone buzz past their windows. Fortunately, the hyper-suspicious pacification police in the favela didn’t cause any problems. While water conservation, respectful noise levels, and cleanliness appear on our list of rules for guests, I never expected I’d have to add “No drones” on there as well.

Yet, for me, what was most encouraging was the vast diversity of our World Cup guests. They ranged from single male Latin American soccer fans to an American couple with four small children to even a group of 18 French teenage percussionists and chaperons sleeping on the floor of an NGO’s ballet studio. After all, Favela Experience’s mission is to expose travelers to the reality of favela life and break the negative stereotypes about these communities. Regardless of the fact that many of our guests may have booked with us to save money, they were forced to confront both the lively, welcoming nature of our favelas as well as the most pressing problems, such as open sewers. When their jealous friends at home question our guests about their exotic soccer vacations, their true stories instead of sensationalized media reports are what spread to change the perceptions of tens or hundreds times more people than our actual volume of guests. That may very well end up being the greatest impact we have on the world, and it’s an important one to be proud of.

Also key is that we couldn’t have pulled off this success without the steadfast support of two top-notch interns on the ground in Rio. Daniel from Costa Rica and Jo from England ran the show in the Rocinha and Vidigal favelas, respectively. Without them, there would have been some disastrous outcomes. They learned first-hand the challenges of hospitality, whether it was waiting hours for a delayed guest arrival on the street at the favela entrance or translating with police for a worried father whose drunken son had wandered off without returning for the night. I’m deeply grateful for their no-complaints, get-to-work attitude, and I hope they can draw upon their experience in future academic and professional endeavors.

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Favela Experience World Cup team

Challenges and the Road Ahead

Ultimately, though demand was in step with our housing supply during the World Cup, what most constrained us was what most new businesses with grand aspirations run up against—trouble scaling. Specifically, it was tedious and costly to manage logistics and service for each customer’s stay. Cobbling together Google Drive forms and spreadsheets was a headache to customize for the unique components of each guest’s stay (e.g., group size, bed configuration, transportation, language spoken, etc.) and often last-minute requests. We ended up copying and pasting sections of text over and over into emails with frequent modifications specific to each guest. A few times we’d make careless mistakes, occasionally resulting in confusion particularly around the check-in process. Of course, it didn’t help that guests usually lacked working cell service in Rio and sometimes would change their arrival plans without notice.

Now amid the lull of the low tourism season and two years before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, we have a chance to adapt our very high-touch, low-tech service model to accommodate magnitudes more visitors. While part of the value we offer guests is the friendly virtual and in-person contact with other foreigners who know the favelas, it wouldn’t make sense to continue this element in the clunky way we do now when at a greater size.

The way I envision Favela Experience growing in the future requires us to standardize our processes across all guests and hosts and shift more responsibility for guest logistics to hosts themselves, thus becoming more of a product or platform and less of a service. However, there are big changes coming soon I’ll talk about, so I don’t want to speak to soon before little has been decided.

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An Entire Huffington Post Article Attacking Me and Why Beauty Exists in Poverty

Vitriolic Facebook comments, anonymous hate e-mails, academics’ recriminating insinuations—I’m very used to receiving criticism. I quickly learned after dedicating myself to Favela Experience that I’d have to defend the ethics and impact of what we do amid a niche of the travel industry that’s so (rightfully) lambasted. Still, it took longer to realize the spiteful passion our work triggers in often well-intentioned people.

On one end of the spectrum, I’m amused by messages like the following use of my website’s email contact form:

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Opposite that is The Huffington Post article “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: On the Exoticization of Rio’s Favelas” by Gabriela Kruschewsky. The piece is a 1600-word indictment of our alleged exploitation of favela residents and irresponsibility toward visitors.

Ultimately, the author summarizes her point: “The problem is that only half of the information is being presented, only the pleasant half. And the way that it is being presented fails to convey that there are extreme implications that may hurt both the residents and the outsiders flocking to immerse themselves in the ‘real Rio’ come time for the World Cup.”

I can’t address the article’s arguments in earnest because of its sheer disregard for journalistic standards. Op-eds should go beyond feelings to facts. Yet, what should I expect when the writer’s recent portfolio includes “A Fantastic Game Of Dress-Up Transforms Baby Into Your Favorite TV Characters” on HuffPo and “23 Snazzy Nail Ideas For Thanksgiving” on BuzzFeed?

The glaring oversight is how the article cites no one involved with Favela Experience, neither me, team members, hosts, nor guests. It’s clear she made no attempt to interview anyone. Moreover, the author even admits that by not trying Favela Experience, she can’t conclusively judge the business. Still, she could’ve come much closer to doing so after minimal research, which would’ve yielded dozens of contacts, but I only discovered the article thanks to a Google Alerts notification.

Above all, declaring positive portrayals of marginalized places and people to be half-truths only further marginalizes them. Favelas don’t need a warning label as the writer asserts because international mainstream media already inflict far worse damage to their reputation. After all, is it wrong the luxury hotels on Copacabana beach don’t publicize how polluted the ocean water and even the showers on the sand are?

Just because these communities have dire problems (evident to any of our guests who quickly spot overflowing, street-side trash piles and open sewers), doesn’t mean visitors can’t appreciate the vast good here for the benefit of residents. Beauty is present everywhere here, and it’s damaging to always classify it in the context of poor education, health, and sanitation. A DataPopular study revealed 66% of favela residents don’t want to move, so favelas must have some advantages.

Yes, there are wrong ways for others to visit developing areas, but these communities can rise beyond even economic gain when travelers meaningfully interact with locals. By patronizing homestays as well as resident-led tours and establishments, visitors learn the reality of life in these places, both positive and negative. Travelers see value beyond the material, and the perception of worthlessness begins to change for favelas.

Favelas and similar communities around the world desperately need positive images to break unproductive stereotypes that further exclude and isolate them.  Only when we all recognize the good, not as a mere afterthought to the bad, will we integrate all parts into a more just society.

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Why Everyone Should Be Broke (at Least Once)

I wake up to pee, limbo-ing because the wall above my toilet is low and sloped at 45 degrees. The flushed water flows into an open sewer 10 feet beneath my window, and above that is a chicken pen ruled by Ricardo the Relentless Rooster. Suddenly, Ricky’s ritual, 4:00 am cock-a-doodle-doo shakes me from my sleep. I struggle to shut my eyes while I lay on my mattress on the floor in an apartment so devoid of furniture that it could be a MOMA exhibition. Nodding off again, I blissfully dream of my cocky, feathery neighbor as breaded, fried, and cohabitating on a plate with his new neighbors mashed potatoes and gravy. A satanic, KFC Colonel cackles malevolently in the distance.

With morning sun blasting through my curtain-less window, I realize there’s nothing to eat for breakfast. A few minutes later at the market, grocery shopping for me has become a precise calculation of caloric density per Brazilian real. I get to the register, and the cashier’s swipe of my debit card is like a sharp slit to my wrist. Walking out with plastic bags cutting off circulation to my fingers, it’d be much easier to catch a bus, but climbing the vertiginous favela is cheaper than a gym membership.

Back at home, I contemplate going out at night, but why should I punish myself? Every club’s cover fee converts into a debt issued by my future self to my present self. The terms state I may only pay in installments of savings from eating cheaper meals.

I am broke.

And it’s the best thing I can be right now.

I don’t have a smartphone, a washing machine, a bed, a TV, curtains, or even a mirror. I don’t need any of these. I haven’t sworn them off forever, but my sabbatical from “essential” material possessions forces me to value and develop my most fulfilling personal relationships. I’ve found I have more fun resourcefully cooking a two-dollar meal with a friend than I do at a fancy restaurant.

Still, “broke” and “poor” are not synonyms. The latter is more permanent, more dangerous. Poverty means falling with no safety net to catch you before you hit the rock-solid ground of hunger, sickness, and vulnerability. Yet, if I were sick or helpless, I could depend on my family, friends, and government to assist me, but none are supporting me now. I’m incredibly fortunate that my white, male, Beverly Hills privilege will prevent me from ever knowing poverty.

Furthermore, as someone aspiring to build businesses that eradicate poverty while making profits, being broke is the true MBA. After all, good businesses intimately understand their beneficiaries. Good businesses immerse themselves in their customers, employees, and partners’ problems. Then, they create solutions to these problems, figuring out how to make money from them along the way. Empathy can’t be taught from a textbook—it requires genuine human interaction.

I’m never going to feel what it’s like to go to a deteriorating school and not be able to afford medicine. But, being broke forces me to smell the favela’s stench of raw sewage, sweat in the heat when the power goes out, and be stranded when there are no buses home late at night. Consequently, I’m a better mediator between my hosts and guests when the government decides the favelas can go without water for a few days.

I’m not ashamed to want to be very rich, but when I am, I hope being broke now makes me compassionate and modest in my future wealth.

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What We’ve Done and Learned in Four Months

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Credit: Zac Fabian/Rusted Reel Productions

I’m anxious, exhausted, and doubtful one hour, and excited, fulfilled, and hopeful the next. Never has my mood oscillated so much as now while running a business in one of the world’s most challenging environments. I feel that with every advance, there’s a burden of more being on the line.

Even before I plunged into this endeavor, the voice of reason in my head coached me into accepting the monumental challenge of building an enterprise with little experience in an industry and place I know so little about. The voice admonished me that I then couldn’t fathom how much would go wrong and how terrible and helpless it’d make me feel. In that sense Elon Musk is prophetic: “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” I resigned myself to that fact as a fateful necessity like the sensation of being strapped snugly to a roller coaster and hearing that cranking sound in slowing intervals as you round the highest crest.

In spite of this, I don’t know how I could be more fulfilled. It’s exhilarating to “eat what you kill” and be ultimately responsible for your victories and defeats. Whether they’re delusions of grandeur or righteous thoughts, the fairy-tale success scenarios constantly play out in my head. Sure, there’s recognition, wealth, and influence, but there’s an even greater narrative of setting on a path to somehow meaningfully and positively alter the trajectory of the universe. That possibility is the pinnacle of self-actuation and the ultimate motivation.

Our Progress

As difficult as it has been, we’ve made concrete progress that we’re proud of:

  • As we recently started selling World Cup accommodations, we grossed four times more in August and September than what we grossed in June and July.
  • We’ve built our guest capacity to up to 50 people across 9 different properties, and now we’re temporarily holding off on building inventory as we focus on marketing for the World Cup.
  • We’ve (Now I can say “we” instead of “I.”) built the team and brought on both Carlos and Graham, who are helping out virtually outside of their primary commitments.
  • Agora Partnerships‘ Latin American impact accelerator (somewhat like a business incubator for for-profit social enterprises) admitted us into their 2014 cohort.
  • We’ve gotten 100% positive reviews from verified guests on Airbnb.

Lessons Learned

In the past four months, we’ve been surprised and humbled by some of the things we’ve learned that are in many ways applicable to other social enterprises and businesses in Brazil and beyond:

  • In almost every instance in which we’ve asked homeowners/hosts to make important investments out of their own pockets to upgrade their homes for guests, they’ve done so quickly and without much resistance. This was unexpected in that in some cases we’ve recommended nearly $1,000 in upgrades, representing a month or more of income, yet hosts obliged knowing their investments would pay off in the long-run.
  • Believe it or not, our hosts are more apprehensive about guests threatening their property and safety as opposed to the other way around. A key part of my job is assuaging hosts’ fears about guests damaging and stealing their property, engaging in illegal activity for which the host will be liable, and being disrespectful of their family and neighbors.
  • Especially as a new business trying to figure out who our customer are and want they want, we need to “do things that don’t scale,” according to the sage startup guru Paul Graham. We’ve learned lots of important things through time-intensive interaction with customers, which I surely won’t be able to do when we have 500 properties and dozens of new guests coming every day. Going out to lunch, the beach, and parties with customers helps me really understand their motivations and how to structure our offerings for people like them. It can also be pretty fun since our guests tend to self-select into a pretty adventurous, unconventional, and open-minded group.
  • At the same time, when customers are too demanding, we need to just say, “No.” Otherwise, we risk over-customizing our service to them and simply spreading time and money too thin.
  • Online marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re dependent on online channels to direct bookings, but since we don’t have a marketing budget (Hooray for bootstrapping!), we have to constantly develop unpaid channels like SEO, social media, and PR. These all build on themselves over time, but it’s generally a slow start and gradual momentum from there.
  • Just because an organization is big and well-known doesn’t mean we can rely on them. Even big companies screw up the details, so we have to keep buffers and plan contingencies when small things with big consequences go wrong.
  • Advisers are great as a sounding board, but we need emotional support and encouragement just as much. Being a solo founder can be rough and lonely, but my friends, parents, and fellow entrepreneurs in Brazil have been pillars of support.

Undoubtedly, we’re going to make many more serious mistakes as we grow, and while they’ll sting in the moment, we’re ready to learn.

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“Sim, vai ter Copa!”: Why Brazilians Should Want to Host the World Cup in Brazil

I’m re-posting the following guest post I wrote for my friend and fellow gringo Ilya Brotzky’s blog.

 

What words come to mind when you think of Brazil? If you were to ask that to virtually any foreigner, among “beaches,” “bikinis,” and “samba” would certainly be “football.” Of course, all these possibly pernicious stereotypes fail to demonstrate the cultural complexity of the nation, but it’s hard to deny that this country lives and breathes futebol. Then, it’s natural to believe that FIFA’s selection of Brazil for the 2014 World Cup is a perfect location for the event. Yet, it might shock you to learn that amid the recent, anti-government protests gripping the country, one of the common chants emanating from the crowds (and online) has been, “Não vai ter Copa!” (“There won’t be a Cup!”)

Photo credit: Fernando H. C. Oliveira

Photo credit: Fernando H. C. Oliveira

Given the movement’s outrage over government corruption, inadequate social programs, and the oppression of the middle and lower classes, this anti-Cup sentiment is understandable. The shady contracts given to suspicious companies for the construction of infrastructure will exceed the cost of the past three Cups combined. Those opposed to the Cup assert that the billions of reais spent in preparation for the event would be better spent on hospitals and schools than on shiny, new stadiums.

Nonetheless, in spite of these mega-events often failing to leave the positive legacies they promise, the Brazilian people stand to gain a lot from the Cup beyond tourism revenues and extended metro lines.

Though many might discount national sporting success as a distraction to dupe the masses, a Brazilian title victory in 2014 would renew national pride and unity during this time of distrust and pessimism. Given the national team’s landslide win in the Confederations Cup against defending World Cup champion Spain, winning a record-extending sixth World Cup is a good possibility especially with home field advantage. Furthermore, try telling the 65% of the country who still wants the World Cup that they shouldn’t be allowed to cheer for A Seleção on national soil.

Still, perhaps the Cup’s greatest benefit to the country can be the change it spurs in how the world perceives Brazil. Some 600,000 foreigners will descend upon Brazil, and the image of Brazil these revelers develop will propagate when they return home to share their experiences with multitudes more friends, family, and colleagues. Imagine if these visitors were to rave about helpful, foreign-language-speaking Brazilians as well as excellent service at restaurants and hotels in safe, clean neighborhoods.

What’s more is that the Cup will be the single most watched event ever to grace screens all over the globe. As such, with billions of people tuned in, there’s so much opportunity through media to showcase Brazil’s beauty, diversity, and accomplishments. What if the country were to rally behind a crowdfunding campaign to buy a commercial spot for the final match so as to portray all this country offers? Maybe then businesses would be more eager to work in Brazil, tourists would be more excited to visit here, and students would be more open to studying in the country.

As tainted by government, corporations, and FIFA as it might seem, the World Cup represents a rare opportunity to change Brazil for the better. Grassroots initiatives in technology, activism, art, and media can seize this event to shape Brazil’s future, but we need to be creative and resourceful in collaborating for the greatest impact.

Ultimately, the real question isn’t if Brazil will host the World Cup or even if we should want Brazil to host the World Cup. Instead, Brazilians and foreigners alike should be asking what we as citizens, tourists, and football fans can do to make the event the most beneficial possible for this promising country. In the meantime, let’s keep (peacefully) demonstrating for government transparency and public investments to improve Brazilians’ lives across all strata of society.

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