One is a prestigious engineering university with its roots in Brazil’s Ministry of Aeronautics; the other is a fledgling business school with mainly online offerings, launched by a young entrepreneur. But what ITA and FazINOVA have in common is a bold vision for Brazilian higher education—and a shared source of inspiration nearly 5,000 miles to the north at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Seventy years ago, MIT professor of aeronautics Richard Harbert Smith was hired by the Brazilian government to develop a plan for an institute of aeronautics in São José dos Campos—an eccentric idea in an era when agriculture ruled Brazil’s economy. The Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica’s account of its founding notes that the ministry official tasked with acquiring American airplanes extended his trip to visit MIT, and “came back enchanted with the idea of creating a similar institute in Brazil aiming to train engineers with excellence and develop aeronautical technology.”
Smith went on to serve as ITA’s first rector and, since its 1950 founding, the school has often been referred to as the “MIT of Brazil.” In recent years, MIT and ITA students and faculty have encountered one other through such varied projects as an entrepreneurship workshop called Diiaki-ITA, the International Development Design Summit, and research on unmanned aerial vehicles supported by a grant from MIT’s MISTI-Brazil program.
Decades later, Isabel “Bel” Pesce Mattos ’10 has established another educational link between MIT and Brazil. In 2013, the MIT alumna founded FazINOVA (“do innovate”), a private business school unique within the educational landscape of her country. FazINOVA’s online courses, offered for free, teach students professional and personal development, and place a strong emphasis on empowerment. “If someone is 18 today they will have five careers in their life—not jobs, careers,” Pesce told TIME magazine, which included her on its list of “Next Generation Leaders” last November. “But the most important part is that three out of these five don’t exist yet… People need to learn how to learn.”
With FazINOVA’s flexible offerings, Pesce aims to expand access to that kind of learning. Although many of Brazil’s top universities offer free tuition, the admission process is highly competitive and often out of reach for members of the country’s large lower-middle class, who typically cannot afford to leave the workforce while earning a degree. According to TIME, since FazINOVA’s launch, nearly 70,000 people of all ages have taken its online courses, in addition to the 2,000 students who have paid to attend courses at its São Paulo headquarters. The organization also has a strong network of volunteers who spread the word about FazINOVA’s mission in public schools.
Pesce’s personal experiences as a student at MIT, then as a successful entrepreneur and author in Silicon Valley, inspired her to return to Brazil and help others achieve their dreams. Her self-published book, The Brazilian Girl from Silicon Valley, had been downloaded more than a million times and reached the top of Brazil’s best-seller list while she was still in the US.
“I had to use this momentum to do something great for my country,” Pesce explained in a recent interview, “so I came back to Brazil to set up a school.”