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Jorge Paulo Lemann: What I Learned at Harvard

This transcript has been translated from Portuguese and edited for clarity.

Jorge Paulo Lemann: Since today is Harvard Day, I was asked to talk a little bit about my experience at Harvard. I dont know if my experience serves as an example to anyone. I think everyone has to find their own way and do things their own way, but either way Ill tell you about my experience in the hope that more young people out there will learn from my mistakes and also from my tips.

Janeiro so this was what I was known for. I arrived at Harvard and the first year was horrible. I had never been to the U.S. before, I was freezing to death, I missed the beach, I was not used to studying, and I was not used to writing either. I had to write a lot so my grades were extremely poor. At the end of the first year, on the last day of the year, I decided to celebrate. I had some cabeas de negro -Brazilian fireworks -- and I decided to drop the fireworks in the Harvard Yard. It was a hit with the students, but I was caught throwing a firework out of the window, and when I went back to Brazil on holidays, there was a letter from the school, recommending that I take a year off to mature a bit; get a bit older. Well, at that time I was deciding if I should or should not continue college. I really didnt like it. I was willing to go to work, go out into the real world as I

saw things at the time. However, after looking at the letter, I saw that the letter recommended that I take time off, but did not demand that I take time off, so I said: Okay, Ill go back there, and Ill finish the next three years in two, Ill resolve the matter, and do my best. This was because there was tremendous pressure from my family for me to have a degree. I had to graduate, and it was an opportunity - that sort of thing. Well, I returned, and I really -it was obviously the wrong decision, as I will tell later on, but I concentrated entirely in finishing the next three years in two. And I developed a system where I chose courses after interviewing students who had done the courses and I found Columbus gold as well. I discovered that all the tests from the courses were archived in the library, all the previous exams, which is to say that it was something

At age 17, I was accepted at Harvard, which was much easier than today. In my day it was one or two [accepted] every two or three years. I can imagine that someone back then would have said: Wow, there are never any Brazilians here; lets be friends with this one. Who knows, he might improve our tennis team. My academic record was nothing special. I studied, but very little, and I played a lot of tennis and surfed. I was one of the best surfers in Rio de

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available to everyone. So, I developed a system to search all previous exams, interview students who had done the courses and some teachers, choose those courses, and have in detail what the focus of the course was -- the main objectives. I also quickly discovered that teachers generally repeated the questions. I was actually one of the worst students, and I took six or seven courses per semester instead of four or five which was the norm, but I went from one of the worst students to one of the best. I was on the Deans List which is more or less the top students and I graduated in over two years -- I graduated at age 20. Back then I did not give much value to anything I had learned in Harvard and I really could have learned more. Harvard is an experience that you absorb, not necessarily learn specific things, and I, as I wanted to leave, I didnt have a lot of time for all the relationships that you can have at Harvard - access to teachers. In my time Kissinger was a professor there. Samuelson, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, had been a teacher there, too. So I did not benefit from it the way I could have benefited. The focus was to do my best and leave, and I had no idea how all that I had seen there would transform my life and would affect all the principles that after, moved me in business as well as in life. Im going to mention to you some of these principles and these things in which Harvard actually had a significant effect and that changed my life. Well, the first thing, I was a surfer, a tennis player, had never really left Rio de Janeiro. Suddenly I went to this place that was full of great ideas, I had to take a philosophy course in

the first year -- I started reading Plato, Socrates, things I had never thought about or even seen before. So my view of the world transformed from that of a surfer to someone who actually saw the world and had a greater sense of history. My dreams were to win the tennis championship, or catch some bigger waves - ones much bigger than before. And most people who know me and know of my businesses, know that I always say to have a big dream is the same amount of work as having a little dream. So, I started to have big dreams, meaning, I always thought about things, and doing bigger and better. The other thing I learned at Harvard that is part of [my work now] was choosing people. There I was at Harvard in the middle of, theoretically, the best people in the world. There was excellence all around, you know? I think excellence in people is something that you learn, too, and obviously when you live with all this human excellence you get to know which are the most excellent. Its like if you are involved with art and live with a lot art, you begin to have a taste for what is the best, and what is not so good and so on. So those three short years that I spent at Harvard, but that found me alongside the most excellent people in the world, I think had a great influence on my choice of people -- which was one of the main characteristics in my career and in business. This experience of choosing people is what made me choose partners like Beto, who is here; Marcel, Claudio Haddad, who now runs Insper; Carlos Brito who is the CEO of ABI today; Joo Castro Neves and many others, so its something that I dont think I obviously practiced

then, but I started to learn right there. The other thing I learned at Harvard was the power of ideas and culture. I was limited to making short-term decisions and at Harvard I saw how good and important ideas had a much greater effect than any temporary fact or the like. And because of that experience at Harvard, I also developed with my partners the basic principles that have guided us in our business, both in the bank and later in Brahma, and at Lojas Americanas. These basic principles that today are part of the larger companies we began 30 years ago, in Banco Garantia, when my partners and I designed the basic ideas that would guide us in business, and that today are part -- are still part of the businesses we have today. These basic ideas as well as the power of ideas, was something I learned at Harvard. Besides this, Harvard gave me a much longer term vision. Meaning you are there and you have a vision that the things you do today will have an effect on a period far longer than I was used to as a surfer or tennis player. Today, I look back and see, I mean, some of my main partners are people with whom I have been working with for almost 40 years now. Some of the decisions we made to buy -- get out of the financial companies and buy commercial or industrial companies or whatever, were taken 30 years ago and today play an important part in what we do. So Harvard gave me a vision of a much longer term than I would have ever had, had I not attended Harvard. Moreover, Harvard is a place where everyone is willing to do better, everyone is looking to improve something or learn more or improve. This is Harvards environment, and

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this environment of wanting to improve, to always do better, it was something that affected me all these years after, and always affected the business we did and things that we tried to build. Harvard, as I also said, gave me a focus and method of obtaining results. To finish at Harvard in the time span I wanted to, I was forced to develop a system to focus a lot and everything I saw -- to see which are the four or five essential things -- that was part of my thinking. I always tried to reduce everything to what is essential. This helped us a lot then, also in the formation of our business, and most of our companies have five goals, and each person has five goals. This was another thing that started at Harvard as well. Other things that affected me: I discovered at Harvard that simple is always better than complicated. When you see a lot of theory, you end up discovering that everything good is generally simpler than the more complicated things, and this also affected me for the rest of my life. Ethically speaking at Harvard, Harvard is an extremely ethical place. Everyone is looking to improve. It is basically a spirit of building and ethical issues are considered part of the system. Later, when I entered the capital markets, the ethics of the capital markets were not necessarily that of Harvard, and you often were stimulated to, or tempted to do things that were not totally ethical. But that experience of Harvard always kept me in line to try and be as ethical as possible -- and companies as well. And in the long run this always works out better than being crafty, or a trickster, or the like. So I also thank Harvard for

having taught me that part of ethics and to maintain an ethical line. Other things that were part of my principle: meritocracy and the sense of ownership, of property or partnership. I didnt learn that only at Harvard, but the fact of being at Harvard gave me much more access to the U.S. financial markets, where I learned the importance of meritocracy, of Goldman Sachs, and the importance of a partnership system, of having partners with you, of having other people who are also owners. That was also instrumental in my career and with our businesses. Well, as you can see, Harvard was short but it was transforming in my life and gave me the basic principles that have guided my life and our business. Although when I graduated, I didnt give the necessary value to all this, today I give all of this tremendous value, and I am very grateful to Harvard. But Ill tell you another little story that has to do with the rest of my education and that I think is important for you to understand why I dont think only studying or only the Harvard experience was important. When I was on holidays at Harvard, during the American summer, I went to Brazil, and basically I was still thinking about surfing and playing tennis. I was a good surfer and I used to surf at the edge of Leblon and every time I would slightly increase the size of the waves. Any wave that was on the edge of Arpoador I wasnt afraid to face. So once every two or three years, there was a storm, and these colossal waves formed on Copacabana beach. I considered myself a good surfer and so did my group, and we decided that we would go surfing on these huge waves

in Copacabana beach. The waves we [usually] took on were 9 feet or so. These waves were 30 to 36 feet, and so we went there and to get to a place where we could ride the waves was difficult; they were so big that to swim beneath them was almost impossible. But I managed to get there and a big wave came and I decided Id ride it. There was another problem - these waves boxed up in the end, meaning, almost to the sand. Meaning, you had to catch the wave but get out before reaching to the end. I caught the wave, I felt like all my blood seemed to rush to the feet. It was much faster than anything I was used to, and the height was much higher, but I went and I managed to get out of the wave before it boxed in. l came out from one side and my friends said, Lets go again. I said, Im good, its okay. Honestly, my adrenaline had reached its maximum, and I liked to feel that danger, but I not want to repeat that again. I mention this story because I think one important thing in life is to take some risks as well, and something that I always thought college doesnt give is the ability to assess and take risks. It will teach you how to assess risks mathematically or theoretically, but hardly. And in general, it teaches you not to take risks, which is to say, to be careful. And I think in life, you have to take risks. Sometimes you have to take risks, and I think the only way you learn to take risks is practicing, practicing. So, I practiced on the waves, playing tennis tournaments, later in business, etc. I only mention this because I think a lot of people study hard and think that will solve everything, and I think in order to do more, or do exceptional, you have to take risks.

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Often in my life, after I left Harvard and I started my business, in many situations that I had to face, I more often remembered that wave that I caught in Copacabana than in reality what I had learned in college, but it gave me a certain confidence to take some risks as well. I mention this to say that Harvard was transforming. It was essential for me, but I think that my story in having taken some risks, especially in sport, also contributed later to my being able to do everything I tried to do. I also mention the history of surfing because I think in my career, I think in any career, a person needs to know themselves well -- what are their special characteristics to do something well. Everyone is different, and only when you know how you are, and what you do well, and what you can do well, can you succeed and achieve excellence. I think for those who are there studying, studying, studying is extremely important. Now the practice of life, taking some risks, and doing things that you really have the ability and skill to do are also important things in order to later have excellence. I think Harvard was a spectacle, and my way of acknowledging that today is trying to help as many people as

possible to go to Harvard. I have supported many students studying there today. In fact, any person accepted into Harvard I am ready to lend a hand in some way or another, so anyone out there who is willing to go or has been accepted, you can count on the support of my familys foundation, and for applicants of Harvard College this year, I wish much luck. I hope that some of these 90 are here and are accepted because Harvard is a truly significant and transforming experience. Thank you.