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Erica Butow: Improving Educational Outcomes through Leadership and Community

Erica Butow: Improving Educational Outcomes through Leadership and Community

Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs. 

Hi friends, it’s Spiffy, back again on Planet Earth with an eye on changemaking leaders making the world a more equitable place! Today I’m excited to cruise around with Erica Butow, co-founder and CEO of Ensina Brasil (Teach for Brazil). Are you ready to be inspired?

Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Erica! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through your division?

Erica: Thanks for inviting me, Spiffy! In Brazil, millions of children do not reach their potential because they lack educational opportunities, reinforcing the cycle of inequality. At Ensina Brasil (Teach for Brazil), we are devoted to working on that challenge by developing a network of leaders who are diverse, capable, and obsessed with solving this problem. We start at the level of public schools, acting from day one, together with the communities, in order to expand the opportunities of the students who are there today. Based on this experience, our fellows develop the commitment, skills, and mindsets needed to lead transformations in depth and at scale, until all children attain a quality education.

Spiffy: Amazing! What motivates you to do it?

Erica: From a very early age, I understood that many children's educational opportunities are limited by the circumstances of their birth. My own mother was born into poverty, never got to sit in a classroom, grew up illiterate, and worked as a maid for most of her life. However, together with my dad, they were able to provide me with a good education. I managed to study in top universities in Brazil and later in the U.S. I studied business and education, because I wanted to empower people who, like my mother, had lots of potential but few opportunities. 

Spiffy: That’s a very touching and inspiring journey! Can you further elaborate on the impact of your work?

Erica: What started as a dream, considered an impossibility in Brazil, is today a diverse network of 800 fellows. Currently, our activities extend to schools in 19 different cities, impacting more than 100,000 students. We have seen up close the positive effects in the communities of the public schools we work with: there has been a significant increase in the number of students accepted to the highly-selective Federal Institutes and Universities and students have been challenging the probabilities and going beyond what is usually expected of them. We have also watched the power of our alumni network grow: about 80% of them continue to work in education, reaching even more students through their work on various fronts of the educational system and beyond.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent milestone or initiative by you or the organization. What impact does that make on your community?

Erica: In the Brazilian town of Petrolina, many students from Mãe Vitória school were unaware of the opportunities available to pursue high quality education at the renowned Federal Institute. However, campaigns by Ensina Brasil fellows Camila and Jaque to showcase the institution's programs and assist with applications led to a remarkable increase in enrollment: 20 out of 40 students enrolled. Despite facing financial constraints, Camila and Jaque secured donor support to cover the cost of daily travel for the all students, making their educational dreams a reality. The mission to inspire and empower students to pursue their academic aspirations grows stronger, one step at a time, in this community and in the ones of the other 800 fellows.

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Erica: Approximately five years ago, we had our first fellows entering classrooms. I can vividly remember one of the first classes I attended. The students, stimulated by the proposed dynamics, were discussing their dreams. Some talked about finding a job that “pays the bills” and others reproduced what they heard or saw around them. However, what caught my attention the most were those who did not participate. While talking to the fellow in charge, she told me that one of these students pulled her aside and asked in a shy voice, “Teacher, can you teach me how to dream?” Since then, here at Ensina Brasil, we are all learning to dream a little more and working so that all children can dream. I hope that this is what you keep doing wherever you are too!

Spiffy: Yes! Let’s continue to dream and inspire others. Thanks for speaking with me today, Erica—it’s been an honor!

Erica is the CEO and co-founder of Ensina Brasil (Teach for Brazil) and was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2021 by XP Inc. From a very early age, she has seen the challenges of the lack of opportunities in her own family which drove her to work to improve educational outcomes. She holds an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and is a fellow of the Lemann Foundation, Education Pioneers, Instituto Ling, and Person of the Year Fellow by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce. (Nominated by Cristina Londoño at VélezReyes+. First published on the Ladderworks website on March 24, 2023.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Lindsey Brannon. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.