Meet Afonso Mendonça Reis, a successful Nova SBE alumnus, in an exclusive interview where he shared some of the most impactful moments of his academic and professional path. In this interview, Afonso also addressed his nomination as Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum in 2012 and Social Entrepreneur in 2019, in Portugal, and how having worked and traveled in over 70 countries played a fundamental role when deciding to found Mentes Empreendedoras, a Lisbon-based social enterprise that fosters a generation of impact citizens.
What are you currently doing? And what is the most rewarding characteristic of your career?
Mentes Empreendedoras will have impacted approximately 5000 young people this academic year. Also, under Global Teacher Prize Portugal and Inspire your Teacher, we are working to increase the stature of the teaching profession. We are living unique times in Education and the world, and we are very inspired by the resilience and commitment of our teachers to make a difference for young people.
The most rewarding aspect of my job is the opportunity to shape an organization little by little, which matters to our team and our beneficiaries. I enjoy the clarity of purpose that, for good or bad, it is really up to us. Moreover, going on for ten years now, I take great pleasure in seeing how much people professionally and personally grow by working at and with Mentes Empreendedoras. Actually, I feel the same thing I felt when I see my students from Nova SBE progressing in their careers. It is an amazing feeling to have had the chance to contribute, even if just a little bit, to their path.
Did you always feel fascinated by the entrepreneurship world? Why did you decide to start Mentes Empreendedoras?
I don't think I decided to become an entrepreneur. It was something that actually happened to me. When I was living in Zurich in 2010, Portugal was going through a financial crisis. Like many people living abroad, we were complaining about the wrong things Portugal had. At a given moment, I realized that if I kept complaining, I would be part of the problem. I remember listening to the song "Movimento Perpétuo Associativo" from Deolinda, and I was impressed by how well this song had captured our collective challenge, apathy, or how we were waiting for someone to do something. So, I decided that I wanted to be part of the change and contribute towards a solution. With the 18 Erasmus+ youth exchanges (and perspectives from many different European countries), some experience working at the OECD and the UN in Education and vocational training, I felt impelled to start working in schools where I could find 400,000 high school students. They could learn while making an impact have their impact and their say in society. After a couple of years of piloting, I had to decide if I should set up an association or not. I remember having coffee with Eric Charas, and his advice was, "try it for one year. If it works, go on. If it does not do something else," and I remember thinking, "that makes sense." One thing led to the other, and it has been ten years now.
Who or what experiences had an impact on your career path?
Dean Professor José Neves Adelino, today a trustee at Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, gave us a memorable welcoming speech when I first joined Nova SBE. He mentioned that “first, students from the best business schools in the world do 3,6 internships until they graduate; Second, society is paying for your studies so you should give back; and third, many of the people around you will be your friends, working colleagues, and partners in crime for adventures and ventures.” It was all true and also set the tone.
Erasmus+ youth exchanges showed me how young people in Eastern Europe could pull off such amazing projects with fewer resources than in Portugal. From there, I chose to do an Erasmus year at HEC Lausanne. Lausanne was very close to the UN in Geneva, and it really instilled a great deal of curiosity for global development. Both the work experience and exchange with my colleagues at the OECD and UN raised my awareness of global challenges and helped me see the world from different angles. Being nominated a “Global Shaper” by the World Economic Forum in Zurich, in 2012, was definitely a motivation to be more daring and pursue Mentes Empreendedoras. Being challenged by Daniel Traça to launch Managing Impactful Projects in 2014 made my return to Portugal possible and created the perfect storm to grow Mentes Empreendedoras gradually.
What do you know now that you would have liked to know when you were graduating?
I believe I would not change much. Still, I am now more aware of several Foundations and programs that want to help young people learn, connect, and engage. Maybe I would have taken a musical gap year.
Why this area of expertise? What did you bring with you that helped you on this path?
The 18 youth exchanges with Erasmus+ gave me a very rich and diverse youth perspective from Europe. The Aga Khan Foundation Portugal and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) inspire me to work in education, namely by exposing me to the importance and impact potential of Early Childhood Education. The OECD and UN deepened my strategic view of the world and education and training challenges.
Swisscontact, the Swiss Foreign Cooperation and Development Agency, taught me how to bring projects to life. Implementing projects in such diverse and challenging contexts such as Honduras, Benin, Tanzania, Bangladesh, or Indonesia taught me many lessons. Firstly, we are all humans, a lot of the challenges my colleagues faced in behavioral change in developing countries are very similar to the ones I saw and see in Portugal. Secondly, social impact comes from behavioral change, resulting from longer rather than shorter processes. Thirdly, unless we have a strong experience that makes us change, usually we are inspired to change by people we relate with and who are usually closer to us.
Which skills have you acquired with your academic experience, and what skills have been vital for your career?
Economic intuition, finance and accounting, marketing, policy analysis, econometrics, and quantitative methods.
How did you land your first job after graduating? What steps did you take, and what advice would you give to those starting out?
I was almost a freelancer for the first three to four years. My first “job” was with the Aga Khan Foundation. I heard about an agreement between the Portuguese government and the AKDN, and when I contacted them to get more information, I was told there was an opportunity. Be proactive during your studies and always reach out to people and engage in the discussion on the topics you are interested in. When meeting someone, always do your homework.
What memories from your time as a Nova SBE student do you hold dear?
My colleagues, some discussions with faculty – often beyond class –and my Erasmus exchange year.
What advice can you give our current students?
Be curious and make many good and bad decisions. This will help you learn a lot about what you like to do, what you can or can't do, and it will create a beacon that will help you make more enlightened decisions and therefore live peacefully with your successes and lessons learned. In this world of so many possibilities and permanent change, you will be like a Portuguese navigator in the 16th century. You will set sail with a goal in mind, but the journey will take you left and right depending on the winds and many other unforeseeable factors. Finally, enjoy the ride and trust the process and the journey you set yourself to do.