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Archive for October, 2012

Brazil visit – Part 3

Rio is one of those cities that you can never forget once you’ve been there. Its hard to describe the allure of the city – its natural beauty, greenery, the ocean, beaches, the bustle of activity around the city, the centuries old churches and monasteries, food, drinks … it pretty much has it all. And we didn’t even visit during the Carnival!

Quite a few of us left on the Tuesday of the week we spent in Brazil to reach Rio that night. We flew out of the Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo into the Santos Dumont in Rio. Someone forgot to tell me how short that runway was. One second we’re in the air .. the next my lunch is being dug out of my intestines at a few Gs. I guess it was long enough that we lived to tell the tale. We had rooms reserved for us in Windsor Atlantica on Copacabana beach. Of course most Bollywood fans worth their salt were well aware of Rio and the beach, thanks to Bipasha Basu doing her thing in Dhoom 2 some years ago, so it felt just like it did in the movies ;).

Given Rio’s rich history of churches, I decided to go churchhopping on Wednesday. Starting with Christ the Redeemer and the cathedral at the foot of the hill and the chapel at the top, the day provided several opportunities to marvel at the architecture, and peace and quiet at each of these monuments. In the chapel at the top of the Redeemer we were greeted by a beautiful hymn sung in Portuguese by two girls singing along with a guitar strumming the tune. The day culminated, after a long walk and some searching around and asking for directions in English+Spanish+sign language, at the Sao Bento monastery and the amazing church at the monastery. This Benedictine monastery was built in 1641 and commands your attention and awe while calming you down at the same time. They have Gregorian chants performed on Sundays. Sadly, it was a weekday so we had to miss that.

It was not all food for the soul that day. We took a long break in the middle of the day at Confeitaria Colombo, one of the most famous bakery/cafes in Rio that has been around since 1894. The dining area downstairs looks like they transplanted the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace in Versailles somehow into this distant location. The tea and pastries were just amazing and we hit the menu hard, sampling stuff from all sections, asking for menus in English and generally being touristy like the rest of the folks like us out there. Their collection of china was just mind-bogglingly impressive as well! Did I forget to mention that the first meal of the day was as impressive? The selection of tropical fruits and juices at breakfast was just incredible. Combine that with omelettes, pancakes, desserts of all sorts and all sorts of stuff with meat that I walked past – and one could easily consume enough calories for the day right in the morning before heading down to the beach.

On our last day in Rio, some of us headed out to see the Teatro Municipal  after a nice long walk along the beach in the morning before we checked out from our hotel. Right across from the Opera House are the National Library and National Fine Arts Museum. We spent some time at the Museum admiring paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists over the past few centuries. After that, we saw the Carioca Aqueduct which was built in the middle of the 18th century, we headed to the Santa Teresa neighborhood for some food and relaxation. Described as the bohemian side of Rio by Lonely Planet folks, Santa Teresa had amazing restaurants and arts and crafts stores that tourists milled in and out of. We had a great lunch preceded by several rounds of yucca fries, beer and coconut juice (not all in that order), and then headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and head to the airport.

The trip description would not be complete without a mention of our visit to a Botafogo vs. Internacional game in Rio at the Engenhão stadium. It was an amazing experience to cheer along with the home team and try to sing along to their tunes with words of our own. We all also did the required touristy shopping trips to buy havaianas and other memorabilia of the trip for friends and family. And of course, the mother of all clubs, Rio Scenarium,  where a good chunk of the class spent the most part of Friday night, if not all of it. Others would be more qualified to comment on the club scene in Rio, so will leave it to them, but Rio Scenarium was pretty darn impressive and could outshine most clubs I’ve been to in the Bay area any day.

Once again a big hats-off to the team that put this trip together for all their work, and for all the brave souls that brought young kids along on the trip! Many of us benefited from the latter without the travails of having to manage the kids when they were not in their best spirits..

Prior posts in this series: Part 1 and Part 2.

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Wharton SF Unconference 2012

Cool things are happening at a faster clip at Wharton San Francisco this year. We moved to a new campus in January. In April we organized the first sustainability and social impact panel out here which one day will beat the Wharton Social Impact conference back East. In summer, we announced for the first-time that a cohort of full-time MBA students from class of 2013 will spend a semester in San Francisco – 55 of them. To add to that momentum, we had a group of class of 2014 full-time MBA students visit the Bay area on a startp trek last weekend.

All of this culminated in a fascinating and inspiring few hours at the first ever Wharton SF Unconference, put together by the innovative and talented full-timers on campus. The goals were simple – bring all like-minds together, put them in a room, have them ask questions about what they want to know and then collect those into sessions where people discuss those questions. We came up with 9 sessions of 45 minutes each. Topics ranged from “how to find a technical co-founder and build a great startup team”, “what are the differences between starting a B2B and B2C startup”, “what are the opportunities in emerging markets”, “what are the trends in online fashion startups”, “what are the big data opportunities in supply chain”, “what are the best opportunities for MBAs in startups” and a couple others. There was a wealth of information presented by many students in these sessions, including an inspiring talk from my classmate Amilcar on building a great startup. Kudos to Vishy, Neha, Elaine, Christine and others from the full-time cohort on putting this together!

Through these semester in SF cohorts, the full-timers get a unique opportunity to experience our great campus out here in SF and also soak in the spirit of entrepreneurship in the valley. Pretty much every full-timer I spoke to at the event wanted to know more about how one could start or join a startup out here and go about finding co-founders. We also had several first-year students from the full-time cohort from Wharton who stayed on after their startup trek to attend this event. And not to be left out, a few of us WEMBA students made it there as well to share our perspectives. We had Amilcar, Vijay, Parry and Sami speak about their experiences with starting companies and raising capital.

Here’s to more of these events and more opportunities to get to know enterprising Wharton students from back East!

Brazil visit – Part 2

After a long hiatus, here’s the second set of vignettes from the trip, dug out from a rapidly fading memory. I thought it might be worth it to just capture the places I visited and the food and drinks encountered during the week in Brazil. As a non-alcoholic vegetarian, commentary on food and drinks has to be more hearsay I guess than what was actually imbibed by me. So this post will be about the few days in Sao Paulo.

The most memorable group experience at Sao Paulo outside of the company visits was the visit to the Sao Paulo Jockey Club on the first day of our visit there. Between several appetizers and drinks of various ingredients, the class tried to figure out how the betting scene worked in a new country and a new language (those with Jared and other Portuguese speakers nearby had an edge of course) and placed bets on horses that we thought would win. I was bang on target – if I had only listened to the Costanza rule of doing the opposite of what I think. The horse that I picked decided to throw a fit and not even run in that race .. so much for gambling intuition. On Sunday,  some of us visited the Mercadao Municipal Paulistano, the Municipal market and were greeted with a dizzying array of tropical fruits and other delicacies, not to mention a wide array of fruit juice cocktails. After sufficiently filling ourselves with the fruits and juices, we headed to the Villa Madalena area of Sao Paulo and had dinner at an amazing restaurant called Pé de Manga. It was a beautifully designed indoor/outdoor seating restaurant/bar with two big mango trees that people could sit around that gave it its name. Even that early in the evening the place was bustling with activity as young couples as well as large families talked away happily as the sun began to set slowly. I got a few insights into how cold beer is made in Brazil vs. the US from my beer aficionado friends, as well as got to hear several rounds of praises for the Cachaças and Caipirinhas being served by the dozens to my group. This brought back memories of the Bodhi Tree Cafe in Phnom Penh and the natural setting in that place. We followed this extravaganza with a nice walk through tree-lined neighborhoods with big luxury condo complexes surrounded by ten-foot concrete walls and security guards on watch inside as we headed towards Por Do Sol,  an amazing perch to view the city as the sun sets over it. After spending some time there with a motley crowd of other folks we caught cabs and found our way back to our hotel. Monday night was spent by many exploring the Jardins area itself, looking at restaurants and pubs in the Jardim Paulista area where we stayed. Many of us flew out to Rio Tuesday evening, so we could party an extra day in Rio ;).

Rio updates to come in a different post. Need to keep these bite-sized so I can get them out quicker ..

The cost of war

Just got done with reading Rachel Maddow’s book Drift  where she describes how we have veered away from the original intent of the founders in what role the military and government played in deciding on wars. Starting from the times of Jeffersonian prudence of a limited military, to the post-World-Wars hand-wringing around Vietnam, she tracks how our policy evolved towards a larger armed forces and weaponization. Despite Madison and others attempting to empower the Legislature to keep a warmongering Executive in check, the book highlights how over the years we migrated towards a dangerously supra-legal executive authority. Despite the attempt by the Abrams doctrine to get the American people behind every war we wage by requiring the Guards and Reserves to participate, the Reagan years saw a complete dismantling of that framework and an explosion of the military budget as repeated attempts by the Legislature to question military engagements abroad were thwarted by names that are familiar to us thanks to the post-9/11 world we live in today.

She also gives a whirlwind summary of the increasing privatization of our armed forces through private contractors and corporations that are posted alongside the military and the socio-political implications of this dismemberment of what was a unified armed force that reported to the State. In a scary chapter on nuclear arsenal she talks about errors and near-disasters from the past and how much it costs to maintain an aging arsenal that could obliterate the world many times over. Her concerns for the veterans is clear – in how she portrays their loneliness as they return from extended deployments and search around for other veterans for support. The fact that in modern day warfare we are able to continue our lives unhindered for the most part but for the few that are asked to sacrifice their lives makes it easier to wage and prolong wars. All in all, a quick read that leaves you thinking about where we are headed as a country, especially in these few weeks leading up to another critical November where we decide as a country which path we shall choose among the two that we see ahead of us, which will lead us in different directions.

Give2Asia 10th Anniversary Gala

On Tuesday evening, I was fortunate enough to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of Give2Asia. It was befitting that it was on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi where this celebration of Give2Asia’s work among the underprivileged happened. In the past ten years, over $200 million was distributed to 1500+ partners in Asia from over 15000 donors and organizations. The event itself had several grantees of Give2Asia in attendance, as well as the honorees that they recognized this year for their commitment to the cause of empowerment. The keynote during dinner was delivered by Jed Emerson who spoke about the importance of impact investing in transforming the philanthropy landscape. All attendees were also given a copy of his book on impact investing.

It was fascinating to listen to honorees such as Jaishree and Desh Deshpande, Allan Liu, Pat Taylor and about the work of Gwen Moore. I was there representing Milaap, one of the grantees supported by Give2Asia. We offer small loans to individuals and families in India in the areas of entrepreneurship, education, training, water and sanitation. It was great to meet and chat with Jaishree and Desh Deshpande about our work as well and to talk to a lot of the attendees about it. We just launched in the US a few weeks ago, so expect more updates on that work in the coming months.

The evening was also made memorable by an amazing performance by Sarah Krumm and Ao Li from the San Francisco Opera. It was quite humbling to see the wealth of experience in both the corporate world among the donors to Give2Asia as well as in the social impact world among the grantees and partners of the organization. One of  the grantees was Sakena Yacoobi from the Afghan Institute of Learning, working on transforming the lives of Afghan women. It was also heartening to see the commitment of the staff and board members of Give2Asia, many of whom have been with the organization since inception.

Here’s wishing Give2Asia another ten years of success supporting great partners in Asia!

Wharton EMBA SF Brazil visit – Part 1

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about the need alter the cue->routine->reward loop and replace with good ones if you want to break a bad habit. I guess in my case a week-long trip to Brazil did quite the opposite. From ten posts a month, my blogging went downhill to zero for the rest of September. Here’s an attempt at bringing it back to its equilibrium cadence, whatever that turns out to be.

Thanks to the incredible amount of hard work and planning by folks like Emily, Jared, Robbe and Brian along with Juana and the assistance of others like Ashmi, Aleyda, Tosh and Andrey, we had an amazing trip to Brazil. It would be impossible to write about it all in one post, or read it all in one sitting, but we shall both try our best, shall we? It might end up as a multi-part series of a meandering stream of consciousness – which should give you a real taste of how the trip was, especially for my classmates that discovered caipirinhas and caipiroskas there and never had to search for other liquids to quench their thirst.

Lets start with the easy part – the mechanics of it all. The official travel dates were Sept 8-15 but many classmates found time either to travel early to Peru, Chile or Manaus, or stay later to visit the same destinations or see Iguazu. We flew into Sao Paulo, spent three days there and then went to Rio de Janeiro where we spent the rest of the week. The trip itself was supposed to be the culmination of a competitive and global strategy course we did in Term 4, where we were to apply principles learnt to analyze the performance of different companies in Brazil. Towards that end, the student organizers in the class mentioned earlier reached out to various companies in Sao Paulo and Rio and arranged company visits for us. We had a good breadth of industries and company sizes in the mix of visits – McKinsey, TNS, Johnson&Johnson, Itau, General Atlantic, Gol, Natura, Carlyle, Predicta, Azul Airlines, Google, Intel, Qualcomm, Cisco, BG, British American Tobacco, BNDES and Petrobras. We also had a talk by some of the Olympic  organizing committee folks in Rio and a port visit to show us the progress they are making as a city towards hosting the Olympics. We ended the week with an interesting entrepreurship panel with representatives from an incubator, law firm, VC firm and an entrepreneur in Rio.

McKinsey and TNS  presentations were meant to prepare us for the week by giving us an quick tour through the current economic and socio-political situation in Brazil so we would appreciate the week better. Two things from those presentations we had already learnt on the way to the hotel – that you don’t get that many reais for a dollar, and that every auto manufacturer in the world seemed to have showrooms in Sao Paulo with the cab drivers taking a special affinity to Chevys. Alexandre Momma of TNS brought this together in a wonderful anecdote that highlighted another issue with Brazil as well – that of custo Brazil – through a Forbes article on the ridiculous $80,00 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The theme of custo Brazil resonated through several presentations during the week – that of having to hire an army of tax people to understand the nuances of municipal, state, interstate and federal taxes in addition to the maze of value added taxes. President Dilma Rousseff had promised earlier in the year to cut payroll taxes in several industries to stimulate growth by limiting supply side taxes. Last month, the finance minister announced tax breaks on capital goods acquisition for several industries close on the heels of Uncle Ben’s stimulus package in the US. The hope is that this would help Brazil recover from the stagnation in its economy since 2011 like its sister economies in the BRIC.

Despite this, national pride ran high in many presentations – for the incredible growth the country has seen in the past several decades, especially since the hyper-inflationary years until the mid-90s. One common quote in these presentations was that “Brazil is part of BRIC, but Brazil is not BRIC”, stating that the growth and the challenges Brazil faces are unique to it and not generalizable to the other BRIC countries. It was also pretty fascinating to see one of the presenters (Phillip Klien of Predicta) actually use the Gini Index in his presentation and state how he was not happy that currently Brazil was more unequal than the US but that was projected to overtake the US in a few years as a more equal society. I would be really surprised to hear the CEO of an American firm use the Gini Index in his company pitch.

That’s as much as time permits for now – stay tuned for more!