Driven by the Social, Focusing on Innovation

An exclusive interview with Prof.Mario Aquino Alves, FGV-EAESPsheds light on the professor’s work, philosophies and Brazilian way of life

 By CoBS student Editorial Officers Afifeh Fakori and Kunal Ganorkar.

“Humanity is not just the bright side of the world. It’s also the dark side,” says Prof. Alves, explaining that humanity is essentially two sides of the same coin when it comes to progress. At the same time, and referring to the Harry Potter series, it’s not all black and white for him: “In a world of Gryffindors and Slytherins, you can do just as much good by being a Hufflepuff.”  Let’s leave that for the Potterheads to figure out.

Curious, modest and full of humour, Prof. Mario Aquino Alves is an Associate Professor and the Academic Director of the MSc/PhD in Public Administration programme at FGV/EAESP. He is well known for his work on Social Innovation, Organization Theory, Non-Profit and Public Management and Corporate Social Responsibility. He has authored several papers and book chapters and is heavily involved in research and consulting work.

  1. Professor Alves, let’s begin with your career! Could you tell us a little about the journey that brought you to where you are today?

To begin with, I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration and in Law from FGV in São Paulo. I went on to get my Master’s degree in Non-profit Management, and then started my career with non-profit organisations. At that time Brazil was transitioning into a democracy after the military coup and I got involved with the social movements. Eventually, I also did my PhD on Non-Profit Management. It was a subject that was emerging at that point in time, especially in business schools. During my PhD, I had the opportunity to do a “sandwich” year in the “Centre for Voluntary Organisation” at the London School of Economics. I tried to understand how institutional theory applied to civil society in emerging markets like Brazil. After completing my PhD, I started working at FGV as an assistant. In 2005, I received my tenure and have been an Associate Professor there ever since. Through my work on non-profit organisations and civil society, I also became attached to Corporate Social Responsibility which was evolving at the same time in Brazil. In a nutshell, this is how I entered the field of social innovation. My portfolio also includes the “Ethics in Business and Society” course which I teach to International Master’s students.

  1. Was there any particular event that led you to get involved in social movements from a young age?

I think it has a lot to do with the way I was raised by my parents, but everything really started from the Catholic Church. There were a lot of social movements centred on human rights going on around the Church. When I was about 18, I got involved with one such movement by the “Pastoral Mission of Housing” to tackle the issue of poor housing conditions in the “cortiços” in São Paulo. “Cortiços” are basically high-density urban housing which are sublet to a large number of people and have very poor sanitation and hygiene conditions. The proprietors of the “cortiços” were often scamming the tenants; it was quite like a multi-level marketing scheme. I was working towards addressing the problems in “cortiços” but then I got a little detached from it once I started my Master’s. But even today, the overarching framework of everything I do is related to human rights and its evolution into civil liberty and issues of well-being and respect for the environment.

  1. Alongside your day job as a professor, are you also involved in voluntary activities in Brazil?

Well, not as much as I would like to. Sometimes I offer voluntary bookkeeping services to some non-profit organizations. I have also worked with refugees. Brazil has been facing an acute refugee crisis in the last five years, with great waves of Syrian and Haitian refugees coming in. I volunteered as a translator in a refugee centre where people were trying to hire the refugees. These refugees did not know any Portuguese, and so they needed translators. While working as translators, we were also looking out for the refugees to ensure that they would not be exploited by their potential employers.

Another project I am currently involved with is a research on potential donors for human rights organisations. With the new wave of conservatism in Brazil, the prejudice against transvestites, former inmates and refugees is also growing stronger. These people are often treated as outcasts. The research I am leading is trying to identify why the middle-to-high income potential donors are not yet donating to NGOs fighting to ensure human rights for these marginalized groups.

  1. You are teaching a course called “Social Innovation and Alternative Organisations.” What exactly are these “Alternative Organisations?”

When I talk about alternative organisations, I am mostly talking about cooperatives. In Brazil, for example, one of the most common forms of alternative organisations is cooperatives. People-driven cooperatives are particularly different whereby people come together with almost no resources to drive towards a collective purpose. I also talk about the ephemeral organisations – ones that come into existence in order to achieve a particular mission, be it political, artistic or even cultural – and then subsequently disappear once the objective is attained. Alternative Organisations can also be fintech, social enterprises and government affiliated/ non-affiliated think tanks. I find it interesting to study and deliver lectures on the unconventional kinds of alternative organisations. So, in a way, we are talking about innovation by these organisations and also innovations in the form of these organisations

  1. So I am intrigued, how do you think social organisations sustain if they aren’t essentially based on capitalistic nature, or driven by profits? And what are your views on Capitalism as a whole?

 Well, such organisations are not going to sustain for very long, but then again, they don’t necessarily have to. Usually these organisations are formed with a very specific purpose and hence for a limited duration. During this time, it is enough to ensure that the net costs are always below their revenues or funding. For example, in one of the poorest regions near São Paulo, the cooperative associated farmers are moving from banana plantations to agroforestry. Although the revenues are much lower in agro-forestry, the costs are lower as well. In addition, use of fewer fertilizers and pesticides improves the product quality and benefits the ecosystem at the same time. Ultimately, respect for the environment and biodiversity enhances quality of life. Plus, the co-operative ends up with a variety of products to sell and consume instead of just bananas!

Umm…Capitalism is interesting, in the sense that it is omnipresent, albeit in different forms. But what we need to do today is to raise awareness about this capitalism. We need to be aware of what we are doing – to nature and to human beings – in the pursuit of capitalism. We are talking about the impact we are making, not just for the shareholders but the stakeholders as well. For this reason, sometimes we need to think backward instead of forward. We have come a long way over the past 1,000 years in terms of standard of life and openness to discuss issues like equality. On the other hand, we are in a much worse state in terms of our relation with nature. So that’s it. We need to raise awareness on this issue. As an industrialist, for example, you may be into mining. But are you willing to be an accomplice to the genocide of a nation in Africa or in South America? These are some of the questions we need to ask.

  1. Aside from your career goals, is there some other vision you have for yourself?

Yes, I would really like to make a positive difference in society. On a smaller scale, I want to be there for my family and friends, always. I am a family driven man! And on a personal level, I just… I want to know more!  And I want to create knowledge. Apart from that, I am very passionate about linguistics and I see myself learning Japanese once I retire. If I were to be granted a wish, I would want to travel across the globe and taste all the different types of cheeses in the world!

Needless to say, Prof. Alves is a man full of wisdom and he really knows how to strike a chord with anyone and everyone he encounters. He is currently working on several independent projects and research assignments and we are in for some wonderful revelations during our next meet up with the man who goes by the name of Prof. Mario Aquino Alves.

Afifeh Fakori and Kunal Ganorkar, ESSEC Grande Ecole

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One response to “Driven by the Social, Focusing on Innovation

  1. Pingback: Responsible Leadership – the Certificate | The Council Community: A global alliance of leading schools of business and management·

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