An American Woman in São Paulo
I met Cassandra through an online São Paulo expat network, I asked if she would be willing to share some local tips about São Paulo from the perspective of an American living in Brazil. She kindly agreed to meet for coffee at a local breakfast diner. I navigated a few kilometers on foot to our appointment (with the help of Google Maps), and our conversation was worth every step.
Cassandra is genuinely pleasant company, the kind of person you would be relieved to meet while attending an event where you didn’t know anybody. In addition to having an engaging and comforting way of communicating, Cassandra has a strong resume and a fascinating personal story. A graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and a fluent speaker of Portuguese, Cassandra is well-qualified to manage her agricultural consultancy’s presence in Brazil as a one-woman operation. She and her husband, Dax, moved to Brazil last year, they have both been adjusting to living in São Paulo.
Cassandra and Dax are both from small agricultural towns, far away from any major cities. Yet while Cassandra grew up on a corn farm in northern Iowa, her husband Dax grew up in Brazil’s Tocantins region on the outer edge of the Amazon rainforest where his family farmed cassava and pineapple. The two met in Goiana when they were students at the Federal University of Goias, Cassandra was there on a study abroad from Northern Iowa University. When Cassandra returned to the US, Dax later followed. They married and settled in Chicago where they both found jobs, and Cassandra pursued her MBA in the evenings, graduating in 2017 from one of the top business schools in the country.
Cassandra and Dax recently moved back to Brazil, having spent six years together in the US. Cassandra’s employer had a need for a representative to work with clients in Brazil, and she was a perfect fit for the position.
I was intrigued by every part of Cassandra’s story. Her upbringing on an Iowa farm amongst a family of seven was comforting to hear. Her story about how she met Dax and how he’s transitioned from a guitar-playing college student to a working professional (complete with before and after photos) was a relatable anecdote. Her completion of an MBA from a top-tier school and her exploratory expat position were both inspiring and motivating. Individually, each of these stories kept me as a captivated audience of one; combined as a single narrative I felt that I was listening to an intriguing biography that has me excited for the next chapter. Yet despite this being a unique and engaging personal background, Cassandra shared her story in the most humble, personable, and genuine way.
Shifting gears, I was interested to hear Cassandra’s perspectives about working as an expat in São Paulo, about Brazilian workplace culture, and about the challenges of bridging business operations across international borders.
Cassandra told me about the dual factors of being a woman in a Brazilian business environment that is largely male, while also being American, a factor that gives her some flexibility to define her own position in business interactions. She has experienced some challenges, such as clients having addressed questions to her male colleagues rather than directly to her, but she fortunately seems to have personally avoided some of the observed male office behavior in Brazil that would be considered inappropriate in the US workplace.
I also learned that the threshold for what are off-limits questions in Brazil is considerably different from what we expect in the US. For example, women interviewing for jobs can be questioned directly about children, plans to start a family, and even pregnancy. Yet while parenting responsibilities are considered a challenge for professional women, men with children can be considered more stable employees, and professional men who share that they are fathers are well received.
One geographic challenge I was surprised to hear about for the first time was the dual daylight saving time shifts across hemispheres. When the US “springs forward,” Brazil’s southern region “falls back,” and vice-versa. The practical workplace impact is that in June, a 9:00 AM teleconference in Chicago will start at 11:00 AM in São Paulo; the same 9:00 AM Chicago meeting in January won’t start until 1:00 PM due to the dual time shifts. This requires a lot of schedule flexibility on Cassandra’s part, which she has to accommodate on her own as the sole participant from Brazil on most of these calls.
These insights, in addition to some perspectives about the ongoing Brazilian economic challenges and their effect on the labor market, were informative to hear in context. Cassandra clearly draws from all of her experience and education to navigate the challenges of being a satellite employee and of acclimating to a new work environment.
As one of the first interviews of my trip, I was lucky to have met someone with a unique story, and also to have zero language barrier. I’m thankful for having met Cassandra, and also for her willingness to share her experiences. I hope to meet more such people while abroad, but I would be surprised to find anyone who is equally insightful and delightful.