The power of cross-cultural collaboration

Sloan Fellow Henrique Drumond SLN2022 initiated the democratisation of solar energy in Brazil. Now he’s considering his next step


Henrique Drumond suffered a crisis of confidence in his early 20s. His father, Antonio, had just died – the man he looked up to, an engineer whose mind churned out many an ingenious idea – at the age of 65. He left his son a rather unusual watch: it was powered by the sun.

At the time, Henrique was working at his first job aside from family businesses, having gained a degree in business administration from Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. He’d spent an intense two years with Brasil Brokers, a real-estate public company headquartered in Rio – the vibrant city where Henrique was born and grew up, between the expensive apartments overlooking Copacabana beach and the economically deprived favelas.

The informal settlements, home to more than a million people, sprang up when people from the northeast of Brazil moved to the southeast. They came looking for work and ended up creating these “unique urban environments”, Henrique says. “They’re spaces that are very creative, very hands-on, very entrepreneurial – people have to make money to survive.”

Something missing

The future entrepreneur couldn’t shake the feeling he was on the wrong path, but there was one problem: “I realised that I was missing something in this environment, but I wasn’t sure what. I had a couple of ideas in mind, but didn’t know what I wanted to do.” 

He looked to his family – his father, the inspired engineer, always solving problems; his mother, a professor of literature; his grandfather, a “very successful” businessman; his grandmother, a teacher known for her “good heart”. He felt “lost somewhere in between” – a young man with both a business mindset and a strong social conscience. “I wouldn’t say it’s an easy place to be,” he says today. “When you build your personality and career in the intersection of the business world and the social world, it can be challenging, as they’re often in conflict.”

He took a sabbatical to assess his future as part of a healing process after his father’s death. He thought of doing an MBA but didn’t have an end goal. “I just knew I lacked entrepreneurship experience and I didn’t feel I knew enough about myself to start a new chapter.” 

Gradually, the connections came together in his mind and a promising career path became clear: “Being born in a city like Rio shaped my future as a social entrepreneur. When you live in an environment where social division creates mistrust, it’s not healthy. But it also motivated me to ask, ‘What can I do to inspire others who’ve not had the access to education or resources – how can we empower them to be the best version of themselves?”

Clue to the future

That was when he realised there had been a clue to his future all along: the solar-powered watch his father had left him. The result was Insolar, a start-up company dedicated to empowering people in Brazil by bringing solar power to low-income communities.

“With Insolar, we promoted a high-end technology to the bottom of the pyramid – people in favelas who have no access, not even to bank accounts. They hardly have credit and live with challenging electrical infrastructure in a dynamic urban landscape,” he says. 

Everything in the favelas is a challenge. For example, Henrique might install solar panels on one community building one day and the next, a neighbour would build up another floor, so the panels would be in the shade. “It’s the most challenging scenario ever”, he admits, “but also the most collaborative once you gain the trust of the community.”

Solar is an abundant source of energy that anyone can harness – especially across Brazil, which has 2,000 hours of annual sunshine – yet there were fewer than 100 solar power installations across the whole country when Insolar was launched. Now, thanks to the collaboration between diverse stakeholders and Insolar’s pioneering approach, it has grown to account for 8% of the country’s energy mix.

“For me, Insolar is more about empowering people. The solar panel itself is not very sexy,” Henrique laughs. “I wanted to offer people more than solar – knowledge, technology, opportunities, connections – all the things that people with talent or potential need to succeed. When everyone is able to be their best version, the whole city benefits.”

For Henrique, the democratisation of solar-energy generation is essential – anyone should be able to afford it. By listening to favela residents, he discovered that energy prices were the third biggest expense for a family – and that energy is not only expensive, but also unreliable, with frequent blackouts. “Every time I went to the favela, people would ask, ‘How much will it cost me?’ I replied: ‘Let’s say you spend BRL100 (£17) a month on energy. If instead you pay BRL20 to the energy company and BRL50 for the panel on your roof, that will save you money.’ We knew that the savings had to be bigger than the monthly cost.” 

Life proceeds on a day-to-day basis in the favelas and inhabitants tend to have a short-term view, so encouraging sustainability and solar energy is challenging. “‘Why would I put it on my roof?’ they ask. ‘Is it going to save me enough energy tomorrow to justify it?’ You can be long term in views, perspectives, philosophies, dreams, ambitions, but you need to be very pragmatic in promoting impact in the short term as that’s what’s needed most urgently.”

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights from LBS

‘Transcultural collaboration is the secret sauce that solves local and global challenges’

National movement

Henrique’s pioneering endeavour became a national transectoral movement, leading to new laws, regulations, similar initiatives and innovative business models aiming to provide solar energy to low-income urban favelas in a financially sustainable way. 

He says, “I know that we have contributed significantly to create momentum and inspire the necessary stakeholders to collaborate and act, but Brazil still has far to go. Our main contribution is to have planted the seed.”

A big step forward for Insolar was taking part in Shell’s #makethefuture Accelerator, with 100 entrepreneurs and The Founders Forum consultancy helping to perfect Insolar’s business plan. “It was an incredible opportunity,” Henrique says. “Finding a way to collaborate is a good strategy. Transcultural collaboration is the secret sauce that solves local and global challenges.”

Scaling up impact

The pandemic gave him time to reflect and he realised that, in order to scale up positive impact, he would need to improve his business skills. He decided to apply for the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy, for which he was awarded the Excellence in Leadership Award, which aims to inspire better futures for people in the real world through business education.

“I was honoured to receive the award,” he says, “but I see it as a responsibility for what I have to do after it, not as a compliment for what I did before.” For Henrique, that means doing the right thing, making good decisions and playing a constructive role in society.

He has benefited greatly from the experience of several incubators and accelerators in Brazil, and attending the LBS Entrepreneurship Summer School; meeting mentors and peers at the School and beyond. “As an entrepreneur, you learn a lot from your peers,” he says. “Sometimes the people who’ve faced similar challenges can understand you better and can help to address your problems quicker.” 

Now he is thinking about the next step. “I’ve learnt so much about myself,” he reflects. “As a social entrepreneur, I tend to be very solution- and action-orientated. And when you go to a place where there are huge challenges, sometimes it can be overwhelming. I’ve come to realise I can’t do everything. Having to say no to what isn’t your vision is painful, but being focused is more important.”

“As a young man, I was always trying to help everyone,” he reveals. “But I felt like I was running out of energy. Several times in my life, I’ve burnt out as I was super-committed to what I was doing. There was a part of me that wanted to help people have access to an endless source of energy, which solar represented.” 

He is confident that he is now on the right track, saying, “I believe that if we have access to the right people, the right tools, the right information, the right advice, at the right time, we can all move forward in micro-steps towards our goals.”

20033_Sustainability_Tom Gosling_Website thumbnail_896x504_V2

Think at London Business School

Lessons for a low-carbon life

Two years ago Tom Gosling set out to reduce his family’s carbon footprint by half over 10 years. Here’s what he has learned

By Tom Gosling

Find out more