No more bilhetes: Leading education by example

48.  That’s the number of times little Dieguito has missed class since the school year started.  Whether it was because the weather was bad, or someone wasn’t feeling well, or for whatever other reason his parents could not take him in that day, there has always been some excuse.

27.  That’s the number of bilhetes, or tickets, that little Dieguito has received for not having done his homework on the days that he has gone to school.

Dieguito's caderno- Dieguito used to get a bilhete almost every day for not having done his homework.

Dieguito’s caderno: Dieguito used to get a bilhete almost every day for not having done his homework.

The first time I saw his caderno –the notebook where he is meant to write down his homework for the day, but that he instead had filled with bilhetes– he was taking it out to get his father’s signature.  (Every time a child receives a bilhete, he has to take it home to have a parent sign to say that they have seen that their child has not done the work.)  Dieguito’s father looked down at the bilhete, signed it without asking a question, and Dieguito was ready to return to his computer games for the evening.

Sitting there witnessing this interaction, I was a bit surprised.  I was expecting some kind of scolding, or at least an interrogation of some sort.  Why hadn’t he done the homework?  Maybe he had not known how to do it.  Maybe he was being lazy.  Or maybe he was just not receiving the proper kind of encouragement.

I asked him, “Dieguito, why did you get a bilhete?”

He responded, “Because I didn’t do the homework.”

So I asked him, “Why didn’t you do the homework?”

He just shrugged.

“What’s your homework for today?  Do you need some help?  Maybe we can do it together.”

He took out his paper: a list of long-division problems, which he clearly did not understand or even know where to start.  I sat down with him and we began to work through the problems together.  And very soon, this became our nightly routine.

Every evening, I would arrive home and the first thing I would ask was, “Dieguito, what’s the homework for tonight?”  And then, we would sit down together to work through it.  In the beginning, Dieguito was still a bit reluctant.  If we came to a calculation he did not know right away, he would want me to give him the easy answer, and it took a bit of convincing to make him try and keep him engaged.

But as we continued on with our nightly routine, he began to become more and more self-motivated.  Instead of me arriving to the house and asking him if he had homework, he started to be the one to run to me when I entered, excited to announce, “Look!! This is the homework I have for today.”

This week, I was in for an even better surprise.  As I walked through the door, Dieguito came over with a huge smile.  Not only was he happy to show me that he had homework, but this time he beamed wide as he held out a whole page of problems that he had already completed by himself with no help and not even a reminder.

A perfect score- Dieguito received full marks on the first homework assignment he completed all by himself.

A perfect score: Dieguito received full marks on the first homework assignment he completed all by himself.

Working hard- Dieguito fully concentrated on his homework.

Working hard: Dieguito concentrates on his homework.











Doing homework has become something that Dieguito looks forward to and something that he is proud of.  He excitedly shares how he now gets good feedback from the teachers, and he even comments on how he can see his own handwriting is improving.  Homework time has become a highlight of his day; but if it were this easy, he could have been doing it all along.  So why didn’t he?

Honestly, I think he did struggle a bit with the content before.  His teachers were probably not giving him all the support he needed, and I definitely don’t think he was asking questions when he did not understand.  But perhaps more critically, he was also not receiving much motivation at home.  His parents were not involved in making sure he did his homework, and they were not quite setting the example that going to school everyday was a priority.

But was it their fault?  Big Diego, Dieguito’s father, admits himself that he was never very good in school.  And Brenda, his mother, did not get very far herself.  They probably both grew up in homes where their parents did not offer them much support with school either.  And like that, it continues in an on-going cycle where parents do not fully motivate their children through school, not because they do not care, but because, never having learned from a good example themselves, they do not understand what kind of support is required.

The education system in Brazil has its problems, undoubtedly.  Poor infrastructure, the lack of qualified teachers, poorly designed curriculums, etc.; these are all surely huge obstacles, as well.  But the more basic problem starts with setting an example at home.

Since I started working with Dieguito, he still earns an occasional bilhete when he forgets to write down the full assignment, and he still misses a day of school here and there.  But just knowing that someone else cares –that someone will be disappointed if he forgets to do his homework, that someone will be proud when he gets good marks– he now cares about school and his own progress, too.  And seeing the transformation, his parents are now becoming more involved, too, realizing how they can also take a more active role in their son’s learning process, as well.  Really, as I see it, it’s a big change that starts with something small.  Showing a lit bit of interest and offering a tiny push for motivation can go a long way.  And of course, it all starts with setting the right example.


So, is it really necessary to measure impact?

They say when it rains, it pours. And here in Rocinha, it’s no exception. After 5 days without running water (a new record since we have been here) I came home to find half of the apartment flooded. I guess the water came back, which was great. But unfortunately, a tap had been left open…

Life at work has pretty much followed the same pattern. A main part of my research for Pipa has been to reach out to experts in the field in Brazil and beyond to find out how they have designed their own impact thesis and strategy, and to see how they use metrics to drive their mission forward. After weeks of playing phone tag and sending out one-way emails that never received a response, all of the sudden my luck seems to have changed. My inbox is full with messages from investors, fellow accelerator programs, and academics, and I now have three interviews a day scheduled for the next week straight.

From the interviews I have already managed to do in the previous weeks, I have heard a range of different perspectives: investors who put impact vs. finance first, who focus on measuring outputs vs. outcomes, who believe in customized vs. standardized metrics, and some who do not believe in impact metrics at all. Everyone has had a slightly different combination of perspectives on these trade-offs, and I do not think I have heard the same story twice. The only thing that seems to be strikingly clear from each interview is that there really is no one way of approaching how to create and manage impact.

If anything, talking with the experts has only made me less sure that there is a good way to measure impact, and even less sure that there is even a reason why. Impact is really such a broad concept, and trying to force it all together onto one comparable scale is really not feasible or helpful.

Just like a total dollar value does not actually indicate the real health of a company (i.e. what about its governance? presence of corruption? value of human capital? company culture, etc.), there is probably not any metric or even set of metrics for that matter that can paint a perfect picture of impact. And after all, if you are truly making an impact, does it really matter how much?

Don’t get me wrong. I am entirely 100% impact-first myself. For me, the impact is what matters the most; but it does not matter how much because there is no limited value of impact that you can make. The world has an unlimited number of problems, and every problem is a new opportunity to make impact. The only issue with holding this approach to investing is that an investor does have limited resources, and he or she has to make choices on how to spend his o her money and time. In this case, I think metrics can be very valuable. Not as a way to indicate real total impact, but as a way to find some method of making choices and setting priorities on what to invest in and how. These metrics do not have to be perfect. A dollar value isn’t either. But they just need to give some indicator of direction to move ahead– not necessarily down the one right path, but down a path that will make a difference and make an impact regardless.



This post was originally written on Wednesday, August 27, 2013.

Bem-vindo ao Brasil! Exploring a Country by Contrasts

Saudações do Brasil! I arrived last week to Rio de Janeiro, where I have joined the team at Pipa –an accelerator program for social entrepreneurs– with the task to help them develop a system to measure, assess, and manage impact.

The first official week of my placement got off to a bit of a slow start; the Pope was in town for World Youth Day, and to celebrate his visit (and avoid the outrageous extra traffic), most of the city, including my new office, put normal operations on hold for the week.

Meanwhile, with two home office days followed by two feriados (public holidays), I spent my free time away from the office getting to know my new home: Rocinha, Rio’s largest and most densely populated favela.

For my placement with Pipa, I work out of the beautiful Casa 20, a mansion in São Conrado. One of the more affluent neighborhoods of Rio, São Conrado offers a breathtaking and relaxing environment that appeals to tourists and upper class citizens with its luxury golf course and scenic paragliding points. The Pipa mansion shares the same tranquil beauty. Colorful, spacious, and surrounded by lush green, Casa 20 gives a lively and fresh atmosphere, providing what seems to be a perfect space to inspire creativity and innovation.

Casa 20, where I work.

Casa 20, where I work.

So how, then, did I end up in one of Brazil’s infamous urban slums? Why did I leave behind the serenity in the spaciousness of São Conrado to find myself crowding into the winding maze of already narrow streets and stairs that appear even smaller under that buildings stacked story-after-story? Why did I give up the peaceful atmosphere to find a home in a neighborhood known for its history of violence and crime?

Rocinha, where I live.

Rocinha, where I live.

It all started when I was looking at apartments for rent on Airbnb and I came across the opportunity to do a homestay with a family. The ad was posted by one of FMS’s alums, social entrepreneur himself Elliot Rosenberg, who runs Favela Experience– a community tourism agency that helps direct tourism towards developing the community. Upon discovering a fellow scout, any doubts or second thoughts that I otherwise might have had about staying in the favela were completely distinguished. And I immediately started to get excited about the opportunity to explore an area that before had seemed so off limits.

The view out my window at Pipa.

The view out my window at Pipa.

For me, this is not the first time that I have found myself making home in a neighborhood where poverty is present in the streets, where electricity comes and go, and where water is never a guarantee. In fact, when I have traveled previously –whether to rural Honduras or the outskirts of urban Morocco– staying in lesser developed communities has tended to be my preference. But this time, something about the experience has been different; and this time, I continue to be surprised.

The view out the front window at my apartment.

The view out the front window at my apartment.

What has been so shocking to me is the striking array of contrasts so visible everywhere I go: extreme luxury right next to extreme poverty, metropolitan skyscrapers between steep  mountains, etc., and all in walking distance. From my home in the favela, I can walk to the Fashion Mall, one of Rio’s most renowned luxury commercial centers. Five more minutes and I am at the beach. Another five minutes to the other side and I am back in another favela. People live in and out of the face of luxury and poverty on a daily basis. Beach or city center, I see contrasts everywhere I go; but I think these contrasts will prove to be interesting signs of opportunities for innovation and social entrepreneurship. From mansion to favela, the quest begins!

Who knew the best view in town was also the most affordable?

The view from my apartment: Who knew the best view in town was also the most affordable?