In this edition of Real World Meets Girl, small-business owner Sam DeMello recounts how he opened his own English school in one of the world’s travel hot spots: Sao Paulo, Brazil. You go boy! Enter Sam …
I woke up the other day and realized that I am the owner of my own company, doing business in a language that I didn’t speak a year ago, and teaching English in a country that I used to dream about. What a revelation! I moved to Brazil with no connections and very little Portuguese, and after six months I had better friends here than I had in my life back home. It’s the most receptive, warm, happy place I’ve ever been; I feel at home here.
Brazilians can’t understand why a kid from the United States, let alone from California, would want to leave paradise behind to live in the Third World. But I guess there are really two questions here that have very different answers: why did I leave the States in the first place, and why did I decide to stay here?
The first question is easy to answer. I wanted to do something different, to see the world. I continued to travel as much as I could through high school and college, but every time I traveled I felt rushed, as if I had to do as much as possible every day, as if I were always missing out on something, always on the outside looking in. I wanted to really experience a place, spend some time there, get to know the culture, the people, the language, and immerse myself completely. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I decided to teach English — it seemed like a good way to get my foot in the door and, being on a tight budget, it would let me pay my own way. I took a four-week TEFL course at UC Santa Barbara after I completed my undergrad there, and two months later I found myself stepping off a plane into the chaotic traffic of Sao Paulo. Population wise, Sao Paulo Brazil is the seventh largest city in the world behind top three leaders Tokyo, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; and Mexico City, Mexico.
To be honest, I have no idea how I ended up living in Brazil. Moving to South America seemed cool, I love soccer and Brazilian music, and I figured it was cheap enough that I could live for a while in Sao Paulo on the meager $1,000 in my bank account. There were, of course, a couple small things that I had overlooked in my eagerness to be on my way. I didn’t know anyone in Brazil, my basic Portuguese language skills were apt enough to help me find the bathroom or ask for a check, but not much more than that. Above all of this, I found myself in a city of over 18 million people with neither a place to live nor a job; as the saying goes: God protects fools and drunks. My first week in Brazil, I was definitely both of those.
I got incredibly lucky when I found a blog online by an American guy teaching English in the same city. I managed to track him down during my first week here, and he helped me a ton. He introduced me not only to his boss at a local school, which is where I got my first job teaching English, but also to his landlord, which is how I got my first “apartment” (well, really it was a closet with a mattress on the ground, but it was a start). The first couple of weeks were rough. I didn’t have any friends, I couldn’t communicate with people, I got lost everywhere, and I was working way too much. It was pretty lonely, but at the same time it was the freest I ever felt.
So, how did I end up running my own English school? I wish I could say that I always wanted to be a businessman or that I had some super complex plan with what I was going to do with my life, but the truth is I had no idea what I was doing; in fact, I still have no idea what I’m doing. I just found myself rolling with the punches, and trying to make the best of my situation. As an American citizen, a visa is necessary just to visit Brazil, and work visas are almost impossible to come by. Originally, I entered the country on a tourist visa, which allowed me to stay there legally for six months (as a tourist you can stay three months, and then extend for another three months. At that point, you have to leave the country for six months without return before applying for a new visa). By the end of that term, I could speak Portuguese, had lots of friends, and really didn’t want to leave. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who was a lawyer he suggested we open a company in his name where he would hire me as an employee and therefore I would be granted the necessary work visa. So, we decided to start an English school — not that either of us had any experience operating a company.
We figured it would just be a joke allowing me to continue teaching and living in Brazil legally and for him to put something good on his resume. Hence, Pinnacle English School was born. We opened the company on paper in October 2009, and legal council told me that I would have my visa by Christmas.
Overtime I developed a roll call of employees, albeit they happened to be friends of mine: one from college who had been fired and wanted to travel; one who was teaching In South Korea, but decided Brazil would be a better fit; his girlfriend; and another friend from back home. Even though the business was growing, things did not always go smoothly, and there were a lot of times when I thought the entire project would fail. My visa, for example, ended up being delayed until May. This rendered me illegal, and therefore meant that I couldn’t rent an apartment, open a bank account, or do lots of other things that I took for granted living in the US. Getting new students was also a slow process.
All of us working at Pinnacle English School lived on about two dollars a day for a couple of months, feeling sometimes like a bunch of poor immigrants eating rice and beans every day, but obviously compared to people living in the Sao Paulo slums we were nowhere close to real poverty. To my teammates’ credit, they stuck with it through the hard times, and now we have a successful company. Currently, we have 85 students.
Moving to Brazil has ended up creating tremendous opportunity for me. I honestly don’t know what I would be doing in the United States if I were still there. Now, I love everything about Brazil: the food, the music, the culture. Everything. I love that you can walk down the street at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday and there are guaranteed to be people out on the sidewalks drinking and laughing. I love that almost every single bar, no matter how small or run-down, in a residential neighborhood has live music almost every night of the week. I love going to the beach where the water is warm, the women are beautiful, and you don’t have to worry about great white sharks. I love the trash in the streets, the favelas, the kids on the sidewalk (not that these things are signs of prosperity and wealth, but they feel like the real world. You’re not in a bubble; you see the other side of life). But most of all I love the people.
I still have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, or what I’m going to be doing tomorrow, but for now I’m enjoying work, enjoying life, and most importantly, I’m learning something new every day.
If I had one piece of advice it would be this: a lot of times we focus on the big picture way too much; we try to plan and organize and get everything ready before we take the first step. Sometimes the best thing to do is take the first step on your own, start your journey, and most of the time you’ll find that things tend to fall into place. It hasn’t always been fun, it for sure hasn’t been easy, but without a doubt it has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I’ve learned so much about myself, what I need to be happy, what’s important to me, and what I want out of life just from being in Brazil. I still have no idea what the future holds, but I think that everyday I’m much better prepared to face it.
To contact Sam, please see the information below; he is currently accepting applications for teaching positions.