Silicon Valley may be the technology capital of the world, but Brazilian cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are giving the Bay Area a run for its money. A booming economy and an increasingly connected middle class that grew by 50 percent from 2003 to 2009 have made Brazil a logical new hub for the next information technology boom, if only Brazilian companies could better connect with new markets and investors, especially in the United States.
Enter Bedy Yang, 35, a Chinese-Brazilian tech whiz and native of São Paulo, who has trailblazed a professional network designed to do exactly that. Yang founded a start-up called “Brazil Innovators” in 2009 to connect entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders in the Brazilian tech field with Silicon Valley. In cities across Brazil, Yang and her two colleagues network with potential investors, technology-focused universities, the media, and large companies through events like BR New Tech, a monthly conference organized in São Paulo that brings together 300 industry leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Yang knows firsthand the value of connecting young entrepreneurs across Brazil; she was one herself. After getting her MA from the University of Pennsylvania, she moved to the Bay Area and opened a retail store called Bazaar Brazil in 2006 that sold fair-trade handicrafts produced by women in the Brazilian Amazon. Bay Area investors and microfinance institutions quickly caught wind of Yang’s successful socially inclusive business, and began inviting her to networking events.
Her whirlwind tour of these networking events led her to an important realization. Not only were Brazilian entrepreneurs not making the same connections in Silicon Valley that she was, but Brazil’s entrepreneurial culture was not keeping pace with the growth of the economy. Yang founded Brazil Innovators to do both.
Two years later, Yang got her next big break when San Francisco Bay Area–based investor Dave McClure offered her a job with his business incubator, 500 Startups. The initiative, 500 Startups, provides the seed capital—up to $250,000—to get small businesses off the ground, a few steps ahead of what Yang had originally envisioned with Brazil Innovators.
In her position at 500 Startups as venture partner and “samba queen,” Yang manages a budget of $2 million and has free rein to invest the money however she wants. She looks for early-stage small- or medium-size enterprises (SMEs) with a clear business model that would genuinely benefit from the standard $50,000 upfront investment. Today, 500 Startups has investments in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile. But unsurprisingly, Yang’s focus is on her home country. “It was important to bring someone on who knows the local market well,” she says of her hiring at 500 Startups. “If you know the market, you know what to look for to make the right business decisions and investments.”
Rota de Concursos—a test preparation company for applicants of government jobs in Brazil—is a perfect example. The company became part of the Brazil Innovators network in 2011 and later received seed capital from 500 Startups. “The company works because it addresses niche demand in the native market,” says Yang. It provides test-prep courses similar to those given to SAT students in the U.S., a relatively new concept in testing and test preparation in Brazil.
The hardest part of being an entrepreneur can be having enough confidence in your innovation to take the plunge. Yang has one word for those with good ideas who are timidly looking over the edge at an uncertain future: “jump.”