Don’t Go To Brazil, Young Man

Paul Kedrosky asks:

Say you were 22-years-old, unattached, and recently graduated and looking for your first job. You want to be part of something big and dynamic, a truly dynamic economy where you’re going to be able to rise up with it.

The U.S. has long been that place, and maybe you think it no longer is — or maybe you do. Whatever. Where in the world — visas aside — would you go?

I got that question the other day from a recent graduate, and I surprised myself with how quickly I could answer it.

Paul chose Brazil. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, the wrong answer.

Ironically, Paul himself notes that "the world is changing rapidly, and the ‘right’ answer from 1998 isn’t likely the right answer in 2008," without realizing that Brazil is very much the right answer from 1998, just before the commodity boom took off.

But more to the point, Brazil simply isn’t friendly to foreign 22-year-old unattached recent graduates looking for their first job. In fact, it isn’t friendly to foreigners looking for work, period. And I’m not talking about visas, I’m talking about employers.

Brazil is run by a very small group of elite families concentrated within the richest enclaves of Sao Paulo and Rio. Brazil doesn’t have its own domestic equivalent of the American Dream – the meritocratic idea that anybody can make it, with enough moxie and a bit of luck. It’s true that a large middle class is emerging, and that many people are making much more money now than they were ten years ago. It’s also true that Brazil, as a nation, is very entrepeneurial. But the fact is that the biggest entrepeneurs come entirely from the white elite; they’ve known each other all their lives, trust each other, employ each others’ offspring, and see no reason to take a punt on some American 22-year-old kid, even if he or she happens to be fluent in Portugese.

Brazil doesn’t embrace foreigners. Its companies are much less likely to be foreign-owned than those of just about any other country in Latin America, and its executives are a very homogenous bunch. In a country justly celebrated for racial and ethnic diversity, everybody with any real power is white; certainly they’re all Brazilian. While no one batted an eyelid at a first-generation immigrant like Sergey Brin making billions in America, that wouldn’t be possible in Brazil.

This is a problem with many emerging markets, not just Brazil. Developed nations like Canada, Switzerland, or the UK are, like the US, proud to be home to big and vibrant companies staffed, run, and even founded by foreigners. Of how many developing nations can that be said?

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