Rio Trek: How to turn local culture into innovative businesses

Written by Flávia Milhorance
From a fashion brand pioneer in sustainable design to one of the biggest music festivals in the world, a three-day expedition unveiled the ecosystem of innovation in Rio de Janeiro through the voices of local change-makers.
The experience was part of the Rio Innovation Trek, a program that provides a rare opportunity for a talented and diverse group of 19 attendees to connect with well-known Brazilian entrepreneurs.
“As a Brazilian, I can say we usually don’t have this access [to these successful entrepreneurs], and here they are, openly sharing about their businesses,” service designer Pedro Alberto Andrade said during the Trek. “It’s very interesting to have contact with people like Oskar [Metsavaht], founder of [Brazilian fashion brand] Osklen, expressing his mindset and revealing how he works.”
Treks by Bootcamps are immersive learning experiences that take students out of the classroom to address real-world challenges. Previous Treks have showcased the business of culture in Vienna, and sustainability issues at the Great Barrier Reef, in Queensland. The next MIT Innovation is Everywhere Trek will be back in Australia in February 2019.
In the latest program, held between July 25 and 27, the Rio Trek presented an overview beyond the postcards and stereotypes of the iconic Brazilian metropolis. Trekkers learned from leading experts about the city’s development and how various economic and political shifts and advances have shaped the local culture.
“The culture of Rio is about resistance; the Carioca [citizen of Rio] way of life is about thinking of how to reinvent ourselves, how to be reborn,” explained Suzane Queiroz, architect and program coordinator at Istituto Europeo di Design Rio, the headquarters of Trek Rio.
From this perspective, trekkers learned how the carioca attitude and environment inspire the creation of innovative businesses in fashion, music, urbanism, art, and sports.
Explore a few of trekkers’ experiences below.
‘Technology has no soul’
The temperature was 75F on that sunny late-July day in Rio de Janeiro. Slightly distracted by joggers, passersby, and nearby handicraft, trekkers convened on the promenade at the most iconic stretch of beach in Ipanema. Near Arpoador Rock, the birthplace of carioca surfing in the 1960s, marketing manager Marcelo Borges met the group to introduce them to the history of the surfboard company WetWorks.
Influenced by the North American surfing culture, Rio de Janeiro quickly embraced the sport that represented the expression of an easygoing lifestyle, Borges explained. Since importing a surfboard was very expensive in the 1960s, pioneering surfers started making their own using plywood or Styrofoam.
It didn’t take long before international brands dominated the surfboard market. But there was one problem: “mass production,” Borges said. “Passionate surfers said technology didn’t have a soul.” The early stage of making surfboards by hand may have shaped the surfing culture in Rio, which the “big American brands were not aware of.”
Understanding Rio’s unique culture gave WetWorks a business advantage. The opportunity was in customization. “We started [in the 1980s] to design a surfboard specifically to each customer,” Borges said. Compiled data on clients’ physical parameters served to shape personalized surfboards, and the surfer has the final word to this day. “Sometimes we lose money and time, but the product has to be perfect,” he said.
Sustainable design
Dressed in a black sweater and jeans with jute fiber espadrilles, Oskar Metsavaht sat on a cardboard bench outside his newly opened art gallery, and trekkers gathered around him. Metsavaht’s stylish, clean look is from Osklen, the famous fashion brand he founded more than two decades ago inspired by the “Carioca spirit” — a design interpretation that balanced the aesthetics of nature with the dynamism of the urban life in Rio.
“Look at this light, the rocks, the sea, the forests. We have parties, theaters, beaches, we have Cariocas,” Metsavaht said. “I realized this could be codified into lines, into branding, to sell our culture.”
Osklen’s founder and current artistic director developed the brand concept in the 1990s when North American culture had great influence over Brazilians, while the Latin country attracted little international attention. “I could envision this [boom in] Brazil at that time. I believed in it,” he said.
Sustainability and originality are also at the core of Osklen’s strategy, Metsavaht explained. The company, valued at more than US$120 million, has innovated with sustainable materials, including fabrics made of fish scales and shoe soles made from discarded plastic. “We are considered pioneers in sustainable design,” he added.
For over an hour, Metsavaht addressed trekkers about his shift from medicine to fashion, the influence of the sustainable development movement in his work, the internationalization of the brand, and his pursuit of originality and exclusivity. “If you do something original, this is the beginning of success. If you start by copying others, you have already failed,” Metsavaht said.
‘The best day of the year’
Music entrepreneurship projects occupied most of the last Trek Rio day. At the headquarters of the Rock in Rio music festival, in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, trekkers were wrapped up in intense debate and case study videos, while also enjoying Brazilian cheese bread.
“This is a brand for experience, not only a music festival,” marketing coordinator Mariana Lellis said, adding that the idea behind the business is a blueprint for music festivals today. “We want people to go to the venue and have the happiest day of their year; we want that they go no matter who’s playing.”
Three decades ago, Rock in Rio emerged as an innovative strategy to advertise a new brand of beer, but it soon became part of Rio de Janeiro’s culture and helped to shape its ability to host major events. More than a million people attended the first festival in 1985, which took place after a long period of dictatorship in Brazil, as well as during an economic recession.
Rock in Rio has taken place not only in Rio but in Lisbon, Madrid, and Las Vegas. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the brand primarily targeted the international market. But in 2011, it returned to Rio. The latest festival generated US$340 million in economic activity for the city, and the next one expects to launch the Favela Space, a colorful area emulating one of Rio’s crowded hillside neighborhoods.
The Rio Innovation Trek inspired the innovators to think of how the carioca’s resilient, adaptive spirit influences entrepreneurship in Rio. But more than that, it showed how innovation blossoms from local cultures and how innovative businesses can also transform the same environment. As a final piece of advice, Lellis told trekkers: “Work with a purpose; go back to what you really are.” And that’s what it really should be all about: discovering your purpose and create impact.
The next MIT Innovation is Everywhere Trek will be back in Australia in February 2019.

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