Donor Profile: Jorge Paulo Lemann

As anyone who's made the journey will know, it's a very long way from the land of the Amazon to the Illinois prairie.

Yet no earthly distance is so vast that it cannot be elegantly spanned by knowledge and good will, as financier Jorge Paulo Lemann has shown. Over the past two years, the Brazilian entrepreneur has created a singular opportunity for graduate students from his country to pursue the Ph.D. program in economics at Illinois. In 1998, he presented CBA with a $100,000 gift to establish the Lemann Scholars program, which provides awards to first-year Brazilian doctoral students in economics. Then, last winter, Lemann surprised and delighted the College of Commerce with the announcement that he was doubling the fund.


 "I see Illinois as an educational leader in terms of having a relationship with Brazil and Brazilian students, and I look forward to developing other projects with the university."

The Lemann Scholars Program is open both to Brazilian students who have been admitted to the Ph.D. program in economics, and have no other outside support, as well as ongoing Ph.D. students who are in good standing and who, likewise, have no other support. Each fall, the Department of Economics sends announcements of the opportunity to leading economics departments in Brazilian universities. After awards are made, the department sends Lemann a report with the names and hometowns of the recipients, and the students themselves are also asked to write him a letter of thanks. So far eight scholars have received one-year awards. (Typically recipients become teaching assistants by the second year of the program.) The fund, now in excess of $200,000, provides the students with tuition and fees, as well as stipends of up to $11,000 — courtesy of a financier who has no other immediate ties to University of Illinois and is not, for that matter, a U.S. citizen.

Why such generosity? The story that answers this question begins with Werner Baer, a Commerce professor of economics who is internationally esteemed for his research and teaching in South America. Baer has long made a special cause of recruiting Latin American students to Illinois — such is his commitment to this effort, in fact, that, in the mid-'90s, he gave a personal donation of $30,000 to build financial resources for these students. At the time the professor suggested that Commerce administration find additional support through alumni and friends in South America — among them Jorge Paulo Lemann, whom Baer met while they were both studying at Harvard. "Out of the blue," Baer recalled, "the college received a fax from Jorge saying he'd like to make a contribution of $100,000 to benefit Brazilian students." Equally out of the blue, another fax came on January 7, 1999, with the offer of $100,000 more.

These extraordinary faxes came from someone whose life has been equally extraordinary. Born in Brazil to Swiss parents, Lemann attended Harvard, graduating in 1961. Having spent the next two years on the international tennis circuit, when he won the Swiss nationals and played at Wimbledon, he eventually headed back to Brazil and a career in finance, and in 1971 he and three partners launched the investment banking firm Banco Garantia. Undaunted by a horrific market crash that came only weeks later, Lemann was eventually able to build Garantia into the country's most prestigious and innovative investment bank, described in Forbes as "a Brazilian version of Goldman, Sachs." By 1976, he had bought out his other partners.

He has credited Wall Street with some of his success, having told Forbes that "one of the advantages of being in a backward country is that you can go outside and look at how people are doing things and copy the things you think are good." Today he is a controlling shareholder of Cia. Cervejaria Brahma, Brazil's largest brewery; Lojas Americanas, a discount store chain; and GP Investimentos, a buyout and restructuring private equity vehicle currently invested in railways in Brazil and Argentina, amusement parks, telecommunications, real estate, and Internet ventures. 

As well as Baer, Lemann has another link to Commerce — his son. Paulo Lemann, who now lives and works in New York, spent seven months here as an exchange student in the late '80s. "I had a very positive experience at Illinois," said Paulo, who was an economics major from Faculdage Candido Mendes in Rio de Janiero. "Universities in Brazil are very different than those in the United States. American universities have a lot of resources we don't have. And there's a much greater feeling of community." Such perceptions have contributed to Jorge Paulo Lemann's esteem for value of higher education, and for the special role that Commerce has played over the past twenty-five years, in educating outstanding Brazilian students. Lemann has also established Fundacao Estudar, an educational foundation that provides support to Brazilians studying abroad, particularly in MBA programs. His philanthropy is making a crucial difference to business students in his country, particularly as the Brazilian government has considerably retrenched on support for higher education owing to hard economic times.

Lemann regards education as the biggest issue facing his country. "Inflation, fiscal deficits, debt problems can all be worked out and fixed," he told InSight. "Education has a much more lasting effect and takes longer to fix." Concerned that Brazil will not be competitive — and will not be able to solve its social problems — if it lags in education, Lemann has funded approximately four hundred scholarships for Brazilians to study abroad. "The reputation of the University of Illinois in the business and academic communities of Brazil is becoming more and more significant," he said. "Everywhere one goes in business and academia there are now Illinois graduates or people who spent time there. I see Illinois as an educational leader in terms of having a relationship with Brazil and Brazilian students, and I look forward to developing other projects with the university."