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Emerging Markets: French MBA Entrepreneur Launches Start-Up For Sustainable Brazil

Gwendoline de Ganay left France to begin an MBA at IE Business School in Spain. Her b-school experiences inspired her to launch a start-up, based on sustainability, in Brazil.

By  Seb Murray

Sat Feb 8 2014

The Winter Olympics’ opening weekend kicks off in Sochi today and, in a few months’ time, the world’s focus will turn from Russia to Brazil for the FIFA World Cup and, two years later, the Olympic and Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

Many MBAs will tune into one of sport’s greatest events today – if not to keep up with the latest Russian controversy surrounding the Games – and again when the world’s most popular sport, soccer, graces Sao Paulo in May.

But there will be one MBA watching more keenly than most. Gwendoline de Ganay, a French international graduate of IE Business School, sees it as a business opportunity.

“A lot of my classmates knew they wanted to go into finance. But I went into the MBA knowing I wanted to work in sustainability,” says Gwen. Speaking with her now, it is easy to see why. She is the proud founder of Sustainable Brasil Consulting, a start-up based in Rio that consults some of the country’s biggest companies on sustainability and social responsibility.

Despite a slump in economic growth, Brazil is an emerging market that many leading companies are desperate to enter, enticed by the potential for rapid growth. General Motors, the States-based multinational car manufacturer, has a huge presence in the country, as does Germany’s Volkswagen.

Brazil is also home to some of the big energy players including Petrobras, Esso and Shell – and a raft of home-grown telecommunications companies with a presence on the global stage.

But Gwen’s start-up is not in the business of growth – although I’ve no doubt revenue is important. Rather, it is about improving Brazil’s economy, and it’s social and environmental standings.

Before beginning an MBA she worked at the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society, an organisation that promotes the empowerment of women in business (and other parts of society). It was while organizing events in finance, management and politics that her passion for sustainability hit fever-pitch.

“Working there was the next step in my career for sure,” says Gwen. “You learn about emerging topics and innovation, and I became really passionate about sustainability from a business perspective; what can corporations do to improve the economy, and the social and environmental aspects of their work?

“I invited as many social entrepreneurs to talk at our events as I could, but I reached the limit of what I could do. I could only tell other peoples’ stories, but not work on a project of my own.”

So she quit in 2011 and enrolled at a business school that is renowned for its entrepreneurial spirit and flair. IE, with some of the top MBA ranking programs in Europe, bases much of its MBA curriculum on entrepreneurship – and it is not too shabby when it comes to social responsibility either, says Gwen.

But IE offered more than that. She chose the school because it offered a route into Latin America – a market she was keen to enter on a new and challenging career path. You don’t have to get an MBA to start-up a business – or, indeed, to try and change the world – but it gives you credibility, she says.

“I knew IE would be a good stepping-stone to Latin America and I even did a short exchange to a business school in Rio to help identify opportunities in the region for after graduation,” she says. But what really gave her career a kick was the opportunity to organize IE’s Social Responsibility Forum, the biggest-run student event at the school.

Gwen helped set-up the event, now in its eighth year, which has enabled more than 300 IE students to connect with peers and professionals related to sustainability and social entrepreneurship. This year’s keynote speakers include representatives from L’Oreal and Orpheus Group.

“It took up a lot of my free time, it was hectic,” she says. “But I knew it was what I wanted to do after my MBA and it helped me identify key players in Latin America. I knew then that I wanted to work there.”

The forum was where Gwen met her current business partner, fellow IE MBA Tatiana Machado, whom has ten years of business experience in Brazil.

The Social Responsibility Forum may have ensured that she had no time to take advantage of the schools’ incubators or entrepreneurship programs – but it was a sacrifice worth making. She graduated from IE in 2012 and launched Sustainable Brasil Consulting in November last year; but she started visiting Brazil long before the company’s official launch.

For all the potential in its markets, Brazil remains a sometimes difficult place to do business. When I ask Gwen why she chose the country as her base of operations, her answer is simple: “It makes a lot of sense to work in emerging economies; the big issues of sustainability don’t have such a big awareness like in the US and Europe,” she replies.

“When I visited, I saw how much momentum was building towards the World Cup and Olympics and I could feel that a lot of Brazilian companies wanted to step up their game with sustainability. It was a good moment to enter.”

She started the company after creating a blog detailing her experiences in sustainability. After meeting companies in Brazil, her impression was confirmed and Sustainable Brasil Consulting was a go.

It can be quite trivial setting up a business in the country, due in-part to bureaucracy, Gwen admits. But it gave her time to build relationships with companies.

Then another spanner was thrown into the works; clients began asking her to help set-up initiatives to promote female leadership – something that many organisations, such as Forte Foundation, are championing.

“The future will only be sustainable if we take into account gender equality as well,” Gwen says – something that is still at a low ebb in the business world.

Her work with the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society comes into play here. There are platforms to help women who are already senior executives, she says, “but what about women in their 30s’, making career decisions now? How do we help them?”

“That’s what I’m trying to do here in Brazil,” she adds.

It is surely a scary thought; a young French MBA launching a business on the other side of the world, alone (her business partner didn’t join until recently). And Gwen says an MBA from IE has been instrumental in giving her the confidence to start her own company – as well as the network to make it a success.

So what’s the next step? “Get more clients,” she says, bluntly. “But we’ve been doing our homework. We are ready. The next step is building a reputation, getting more clients, and just growing.”

By the time the World Cup rolls around in a few months’ time, Gwen may just have the reputation she seeks.

And by the time the Olympics kicks off in 2016? Who knows how big the business could be.