After decades of entrepreneurial success, Brazilian investor Jorge Paulo Lemann asked himself: How can I pay it forward and give back to the country that has provided me with the opportunity to succeed?

In 2002, he found his answer and founded the Lemann Foundation—a nonprofit organization that has invested heavily in improving education in Brazil and developing the country’s future social leaders. It does this in part through strategic partnerships with some of the most prestigious universities and organizations in the world.

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Each year, the foundation hosts a Lemann Dialogue—a multiday convening of U.S. educators, influencers and partners to discuss and consider the economic, political and social challenges Brazil is facing. This year’s event was held at the Lemann Center for Entrepreneurship and Educational Innovation in Brazil at Stanford University.

The Lemann Foundation’s CEO Denis Mizne recently sat down for an exclusive interview with us where he discussed the organization and the important role its partners play in the development of new initiatives that will move Brazil forward.

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Missions, education and networks

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get involved with the Lemann Foundation, and what about its mission appealed most to you?

Denis Mizne (DM): In 1997, I founded the Sou da Paz (I Am for Peace) campaign to reduce gun violence in Brazil. We saw great results: Sou da Paz’s violence-prevention projects were instrumental to the 80 percent reduction in homicides that took place in São Paulo over the next decade, as well as to the introduction of crime-prevention initiatives at the national level.

But my partners and I always said that, at the 10-year mark, we would reflect on whether to continue as leaders of the campaign. When that time came, it became clear to me that there was a critical need to reform and reshape the public education landscape in Brazil. As I looked for a professional opportunity that would meet that need, I found the Lemann Foundation and realized we had something in common: We believe deeply that it is only by advancing Brazil’s talent and investing in whatever it takes to help people reach their full potential that we will advance as a country.

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MM: Where did your interest in education stem from, and what sorts of challenges are facing Brazil’s education system?

DM: Though the problems in Brazil are becoming more complex, we believe there is a way to improve things by empowering our most valuable resource: people. Millions of young people are being let down by our public education system every year, and that’s why we are so committed to investing in our country’s talent—first by improving public education and then by identifying and supporting the current generation of leaders, those who already want to dedicate their lives to solving our biggest social issues.

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MM: How did the Lemann Foundation come to partner with so many esteemed U.S. schools, and why is America so important to the growth of Brazil?

DM: Change requires networking, partnership, collaboration. That’s why we work side by side with a network of partners that share our commitment to investing in Brazil’s talent. In addition to our focus on public education, we are also committed to leadership development, and that’s where our university partners—Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Yale, MIT, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, USC—play a critical role.

Through programs like our Lemann Fellowship, where we cover the cost for Brazilians to continue their graduate education at one of our partner universities, we give emerging leaders and aspiring social entrepreneurs access to world-class education, prestigious networks and resources for research, so they have the best possible foundation to build upon when they return to Brazil to tackle our social challenges.

The Brazilian and U.S. education systems have many similarities. Most of the countries’ students are in public education—85 percent in Brazil—they’re both decentralized systems, and they both have big racial and economic inequality. What these similarities mean for us is that we have a lot we can share and learn from each other.

MM: Do other international professionals play a role in any of your work, or do you stick strictly with the United States?

DM: We partner with prestigious universities in the U.S. and the U.K., working with them to produce quality research on Brazil and collaborating with them to give high-potential Brazilians access to the research, network and education they need to tackle Brazil’s social challenges. This kind of partnership gives us the opportunity to learn with global benchmarks but to focus on Brazil’s education and social issues.

Each year myself, our education policy director Camila Pereira, our founder Jorge Paulo and our board take trips to countries like the U.S., Singapore, Japan, the U.K., China and more to learn from the experts—educators, public sector leaders and community leaders across the world—and bring those learnings back to what we’re doing in Brazil. This effort helped in developing the Brazil National Learning Standards document.

We find opportunities to work with the best and the brightest across the world because we know that it is through collaboration and partnership that we’ll shape the best future for Brazil.

Stanford, events and programs

MM: What role does the Lemann Dialogue play in helping achieve your overall mission and why was Stanford chosen as this year’s location?

DM: Over the past eight years, we’ve hosted the Lemann Dialogue in partnership with the universities that house our four Lemann Centers: Harvard University, Columbia University, Stanford University, and the University of Illinois. The event is an opportunity to bring together some of our most committed partners, native Brazilians and experts to discuss the social, economic and political challenges in Brazil.

This annual touch-point serves as a chance for us to learn from others’ successes to network with like-minded thought leaders and to have candid conversations about Brazil’s future. We think dialogue is incredibly important when you’re trying to create change.

This year, the event was held at Stanford University, which is home to the Lemann Center for Entrepreneurship and Educational Innovation in Brazil.

MM: What topics were discussed at this year’s event?

DM: This year’s program was themed “Social Innovation and Brazil’s Future” and included two days of discussions around topics like the similarities between the inequalities in the U.S. and Brazil, teacher training, innovations in the public sector, the Brazilian economy, and an analysis of the most recent presidential election.

MM: What kind of feedback have you gotten from people who have attended Lemann Foundation events?

DM: Our team is very proud of the education and leadership events we organize in Brazil, in the U.S. and, more recently, in the U.K. In all of them, we seek to have a diverse group of speakers and panelists to bring new and different perspectives and also to inspire change and action. While we understand that there may be differences in opinions, we try to create a favorable space for conversation that looks at the root of the problem and offers the best solutions. The feedback we’ve gotten shows we’re already doing this well.

We’ve heard that our events generate great debates about the important challenges Brazil still faces, but always with optimism and the intent of finding new and effective solutions. Another point we’ve heard is about our ability to gather people from all over the country and around the world and creating spaces for them to network, share experiences, connect, support one another in their initiatives or come up with new projects. One way we’ve measured success is by the overwhelming response we get to attend the event the following year. Attendees often say they leave our events with renewed energy to keep working for a better, more equal and more advanced country.

MM: What specific programs and/or changes has the Lemann Foundation implemented in Brazil, and how do you hope the organization will evolve over the next ten years?

DM: Since setting our strategic five-year plan into motion in 2014, 40 million people have used the education technology solutions we support, and our programs have trained 26,000 teachers and educational managers.

We supported the creation of the National Learning Standards Movement, which has supported the development of the country’s first-ever national learning standards document, delivered by the Ministry of Education to the National Education Council in 2017. We also offered technical support on the implementation of this new policy so the new curriculum can reach our students in 2022.

We have also supported a network of more than 500 social leaders who are dedicating their lives to positively impacting our country. About 400 of these leaders graduated from top-tier universities through our Lemann Fellowship program. Many serve as key leaders or decision-makers at NGOs and other foundations looking at how to tackle some of Brazil’s most critical issues.

In addition, some of them also ran in the recent election and garnered more than 2 million votes. Seven were elected, and 40 have joined our first program focused on developing leaders in Brazil’s public sector.

As we look to the future, our goal is that we as a country continue the work we’ve started in tackling social issues and supporting the national public education system. We want to guarantee that students are learning and given an adequate level of support, ultimately building a network of the most talented people who want to advance Brazil.

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