Brazil’s Luiza Helena Trajano is a role model for corporate activism

Tremendous-rich entrepreneurs like to discover brash endeavors outdoors the mainstream of their enterprise—say, the high-profile house race between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, or Larry Ellison’s obsession with the America’s Cup. Nevertheless it stays genuinely uncommon, and worthy of consideration, when a billionaire entrepreneur takes a onerous take a look at the society round their enterprise and commits to brash endeavors to problem inequality, racism, and the disaster fueled by COVID-19.

That’s exactly what’s occurring in Brazil, the place Luiza Helena Trajano, the longtime chief of one of many nation’s most celebrated firms, is producing headlines for her outsized commitments to social justice and public well being. Trajano is the high-profile face of a large electronics-and-appliance retailer named Journal Luiza (in Portuguese, a “journal” is a small retailer that sells a big selection of merchandise). Trajano’s firm has turn into a legendary growth story whose 1,400 shops remodeled retailing in Brazil, made her a billionaire, and turned a 70-year-old, 4-foot-nine-inch girl into a homespun enterprise superstar.

[Photo: Leonidas Santana/iStock/Getty Images Plus]The New York Instances just lately wrote about Trajano’s decision to restrict her firm’s well-liked management-training program for faculty graduates to Black candidates solely. Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, angrily attacked Trajano, however she defended her place as essentially the most direct approach for the group to confront the psychological and emotional legacy of slavery in Brazil, which, she says, nonetheless divides the nation “into a society of colonizers and the colonized.”

This is not her first daring transfer. Again in 2013, she shaped an advocacy group for ladies leaders, Grupo Mulheres do Brasil, that now has greater than 100,000 members and works on pressing social points from housing insecurity to home violence. Trajano has additionally been a vocal proponent of vaccinations and different COVID-fighting measures, once more pitting her towards Bolsonaro, who is one of many world’s most infamous COVID deniers.


Late final 12 months, Trajano was praised by none apart from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (identified universally as Lula), the left-wing labor chief who grew to become Brazil’s president in 2003, lifted an estimated 20 million people out of poverty, and is the present chief within the polls to turn into president once more. (Lula additionally spent 580 days in jail till Brazil’s Supreme Courtroom ordered his release in 2019.) He wrote a paean to her for the Time 100 listing of the world’s most influential individuals. “In a world the place billionaires burn their fortunes on house adventures and yachts, Luiza is devoted to a completely different sort of odyssey,” Lula wrote. “She has taken on the problem of constructing a industrial large whereas establishing a higher Brazil.”

That tribute stopped me in my tracks. Some 4 a long time in the past, after I took a 12 months away from faculty to start out my first journal, a crusading little journal referred to as Multinational Monitor, I acquired to spend time with Lula. He was a radical union activist who had left faculty after second grade, misplaced the little finger on his left hand in an industrial accident at 19, and delighted in tormenting the international auto producers that have been racing to construct factories round better Sao Paulo. In the meantime, a decade in the past, for my ebook Practically Radical, I immersed myself within the unconventional enterprise methods of Journal Luiza, simply as Luiza Helena and her son Frederico, who is now CEO, have been creating a juggernaut. Their work was so spectacular that it actually grew to become a Harvard Business School case study—and a publicly traded firm now price $30 billion.

As I replicate on the unlikely evolution of each of those charismatic figures, I come away with a few classes on the connection between enterprise innovation and social activism—classes that (I hope) apply to leaders in many alternative fields and from many alternative locations.

[Photo: Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

It’s onerous to maintain a nice firm in a deeply troubled society

That doesn’t imply CEOs and entrepreneurs must act like part-time politicians, or that each enterprise innovator additionally needs to be a social activist. Nevertheless it does imply that a really sturdy definition of corporate success has to include a firm’s affect on society—and determine the consequences of inaction by itself long-term prospects. It appears fairly empty to speak about constructing a wholesome corporate tradition in a world the place so many individuals battle with discrimination, lack of healthcare, and a local weather that retains getting hotter and extra risky.

Final November, in one among his many assaults towards Trajano, President Bolsonaro denounced her as a “socialist”—which is fairly comical given her standing as a legendary entrepreneur. However Trajano refused to separate her enterprise achievements from her civic agenda. “I feel social inequality should be confronted,” she replied to the President’s criticism. “If that’s being a socialist, then I’m a socialist.”


[Photo: Joa_Souza/iStock/Getty Imags Plus]

The logic of enterprise innovation can form the drive for social change

There is no inherent battle between a chief’s role as enterprise govt and as a social activist. In reality, activism is at its greatest when there is a direct reference to aggressive technique. One can’t perceive Trajano’s social commitments with out an understanding of her enterprise model. Over time, her firm has turn into massive, highly effective—and wealthy—by assembly the wants of Brazil’s poorest consumers. Not like its main rivals, Journal Luiza didn’t got down to construct large shops for well-to-do prospects in main cities, essentially the most sought-after market in a nation well-known for its skewed revenue distribution. Quite, it targeted on low-income prospects in small cities and rural areas.

Journal Luiza devised a set of progressive enterprise practices to allow them to purchase items that have been beforehand past their attain. No Brazilian firm was as inventive and assertive at trying on the “backside of the pyramid” as the muse of its enterprise—which created a highly effective basis for the corporate’s social activism. “For a poor Brazilian household to purchase a fridge, for a girl who works each day to purchase her first washer, this is not merely a buy,” CEO Frederico Trajano instructed me. “It adjustments and improves the standard of life.”

Management for social change isn’t that completely different from enterprise management

Each work greatest after they’re infused with a spirit of top-down humility and grassroots participation. There’s a cause that billionaires like Bezos, Branson, and Ellison shine the highlight on themselves after they interact in extracurricular pursuits: Their look-at-me fashion of management is additionally how they constructed their firms.

That’s not the case with Luiza Helena Trajano.

Journal Luiza is famously backside up and open ebook. Each two years, for instance, it holds the Encontrão (“Massive Assembly”), the place its most vital initiatives get shaped, critiqued, and improved upon—by 1000’s of staff at each stage of the group. “This sort of grassroots dialogue permits for creation of richer methods,” Marco Pellegatti, a administration guide who has labored intently with Journal Luiza, instructed me. “It leverages the variety of the workforce. It additionally makes for quicker execution, since everybody appears like they’ve a stake within the technique.”

That very same logic applies to Trajano’s civic activism. The social agenda of Mulheres do Brasil extends far past Trajano’s private agenda. Though her current public visibility has sparked every kind of chatter that she would possibly get entangled in Brazil’s presidential election, maybe as Lula’s operating mate, she has dominated out that look-at-me choice.

Years in the past, after I was reviewing Journal Luiza’s head-spinning progress with now-CEO Frederico Tajano, he mirrored on the corporate’s unorthodox enterprise methods and concluded, “Innovation takes you to locations you by no means anticipated to go.” A lot the identical may be mentioned for his mom, in her new incarnation as one among Brazil’s boldest corporate activists. As companies all over the place battle with the demand to create financial worth and embrace progressive social values, executives and entrepreneurs would possibly wish to maintain their eyes on the locations Luiza Helena Trajano is going.