'I Know How Far I Can Go': Black Entrepreneurs Overcome Challenges In Brazil

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Brazil is getting ready to hold a presidential election amid a massive corruption scandal and unprecedented levels of deadly violence. It is clearly a difficult time for many in that country, and young black Brazilians face particularly tough challenges as they try to secure a future amid an economy that is struggling to recover from recession. NPR's Philip Reeves sent this report from Salvador in northeastern Brazil.

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PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In the city of Salvador, there are echoes everywhere of a distant past, when it was capital of Portugal's Brazilian colony and a slave trading port.

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REEVES: Yet these days, its Afro-Brazilian culture is so vibrant that some call this place the Black Rome. Eight out of 10 of the population are black - including Paulo Costa. Costa's selling candies and souvenirs from a cart. This is his own one-man business, he says. He'd like to pay off his debts and expand. But...

PAULO COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It's very hard," he says. No one will invest in him.

Costa's problem is widespread in Brazil. Ninety percent of black-run businesses consist of just one person.

PAULO ROGERIO NUNES: The numbers say that there's institutional racism.

REEVES: Paulo Rogerio Nunes is founder of Vale do Dende, an organization based in Salvador that nurtures small business entrepreneurs, especially from favelas, or low-income neighborhoods.

NUNES: Seventy percent of the poorest people in Brazil are Afro-Brazilians. And less than 5 percent of Afro-Brazilians are represented in the National Congress. And you have less than 1 percent of black women as CEO in the top 500 companies in Brazil.

REEVES: And Nunes says this has a lot to do with history.

NUNES: We are the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, and this has consequences in society.

REEVES: Unlike the U.S., Brazil didn't have Jim Crow laws after abolishing slavery.

NUNES: The difference is because - when you have a formal segregation, when you finish, you need to change the laws. You kind of address the problem. Here in Brazil, we never had the civil rights movements as U.S.

REEVES: Many Brazilians are mixed-race and define themselves by a wide range of skin colors. Historically, black Brazilians have not had a strong sense of collective racial identity. Black pride movements have been changing that. And now young entrepreneurs are joining the fray with enterprises specifically promoting their Afro-Brazilian identity.

LORENA IFE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Lorena Efate is 29. She recently broke up with her partner. It was hard to go out and party because she had to look after her toddler. Ife turned to the Web but found few black Brazilians on dating sites, so she created her own on Facebook for black people seeking friendships or romance. Word quickly spread. One night, when Ife went to bed, she had 500 members...

IFE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...And awoke to find 5,000 requests to join.

IFE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: I was desperate, she says. Until then, I'd handled the site alone. She roped in friends as moderators. Ife's site now has more than 44,000 members. She's hoping to raise funds to create a profit-making app. Ife she says she's often accused of racism because her site only accepts people who self-identify as black. She argues the opposite. It's actually inclusive, she says, because it's about securing space within mainstream Brazilian society for its marginalized black population.

Livia Suarez is also interested in securing space - literally. She's black and 31. And right now she's cycling through Salvador's potholed cobbled streets.

LIVIA SUAREZ: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Suarez realized a while back that a lot of black women haven't had the opportunity to learn to ride bikes, so she set up a black women's collective that's teaching them. She believes for black Brazilians, it's vital to assert the right to access all urban spaces.

SUAREZ: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: She says cycling puts you in touch with your own city and its problems. And it makes you more independent and healthy. The collective's already taught 200 black girls and women to cycle and is planning to expand nationwide.

SAUANNE DO NASCIMENTO: It's hard to talk to the clients by phone. And then when they meet me - like, you? Are you the person who was talking to me on the phone? Are you the person who has traveled to over 25 countries? Really, you?

REEVES: That's Sauanne do Nascimento. A few years ago, she set up a company that sends Brazilians abroad to learn languages. She knows exactly how tough it is to be a young black woman in business in Brazil. Her offices were burgled by thieves who took everything, even the sink. To get up and running again, do Nascimento needed funds. She heard about a bank with a special credit line for businesses like hers.

DO NASCIMENTO: So I called the manager. I was able to talk about my business, and he sent me emails. We were exchanging emails. And he sent me the list of documents, and we scheduled a meeting.

REEVES: The meeting happened. And, says do Nascimento...

DO NASCIMENTO: I never heard from him again. He never said even OK, no. He never replied to my emails or even my calls.

REEVES: Do Nascimento says she knows why.

DO NASCIMENTO: I do (laughter). I do. It's hard to live in a country where most of the people are black and they don't trust us. Actually, I think that they are not used to seeing us in high positions. For something new that requires knowledge, experience, they just don't feel comfortable with that.

DO NASCIMENTO: Do Nascimento eventually raised the funds herself and went back to work. Since then, she's sent some 400 students abroad to study languages. She now has four employees. And that's just for starters, says do Nascimento.

DO NASCIMENTO: Well, I'm so much determined. I have a commitment with my community. I need them to see that I can travel, I can learn language. So I will never stop. I know how competent I am. And I know how far I can go.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Salvador.

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