Smart moves: Flávio Canto’s organisation widens the horizons of favela children © Rodrigo Oliveira

I started judo when I was about to turn 14. Seven years later, I competed in my first Olympics for Brazil. My highlights included winning seven Pan-American Judo Championships, an Olympic bronze in Athens in 2004, and being ranked world number one from 2006 to 2007.

It was during these years that I started seeing the invisible walls they have in Rio de Janeiro. I started giving judo classes in Rocinha, one of the biggest slums in Latin America. A few years later, I got together with a group of friends and founded Instituto Reação, to help children living in the favelas connect through sports and education and gain, as we say, black belts on and off the mat.

It was touching to see that what we were doing was having a larger impact than I’d expected. I hadn’t realised just how important sports could be when it came to changing lives. We didn’t talk much about soft skills back then, but you can develop a lot of them by doing sports. We lost one of our students, aged 16, who was murdered; he was buried in a T-shirt of our institution. At that moment, I realised that we were doing something really powerful.

This year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our foundation, Instituto Reação, of which I am the director. All of us on the board are volunteers, and we have 120 employees working in 13 favelas in five states in Brazil. We have had about 20,000 students.

The idea is to help these kids believe they can be whoever they want to be — we’ve had lawyers, doctors, engineers and Olympic champions come out of our programmes.

Because we grew so much, I suddenly had to manage a much larger team of more than 100 employees and about 4,000 students. I felt it was time to go back to the classroom, inspired by my friends from the board.

I chose Brazil’s Fundação Dom Cabral and have taken three programmes that have helped me in many ways: advanced management, in partnership with Insead; transformative leadership; and board development.

The advanced management programme was the one I liked the most. I was with about 30 chief executives, some of them from very big companies in Brazil. Because part of the course took place at Insead in France, the group became closely connected. When it was over, we all visited the company of each participant — they also came here to our institution, which was really valuable to me.

Flávio Canto’ © Rodrigo Oliveira

All of the programmes we run at Reação have the same drive that a company would have, in terms of measuring impact. The programme helped me to develop skills such as understanding culture and people — and the storytelling behind a company’s strategy.

It was not a long programme: with classes, it lasted for about a month and a half. We also had a lot of books to read and studying to do. I can’t spend much time abroad, as my life here is extremely busy, so I prefer to do the courses where you have a couple of weeks’ intense study.

One of the main takeaways for me has been the importance of building the right team. Before I went on the courses, I was anxious to be good at every part of the organisation. The courses helped me to understand each part — from marketing to finance — a bit better. But they also helped me understand what I need to select the right people for each job.

I also developed a better awareness of my best and worst characteristics as a leader and I am able to understand what kind of people I need the most in my team to complement my flaws.

Our institution needs about R$10mn ($1.98mn) each year, so we’re used to asking for money. The best achievement from the courses was developing another mechanism of acquiring funds. We have a start-up as well now, Cicclo, which offers after-school private lessons in sports, but also other fields such as robotics, English and Spanish. Not only do we raise funds this way for the institution, but we also take kids from the favelas and kids from the after-school courses — who are from some of the most expensive schools in Brazil — and create teams so they can play football together.

One of the major problems in my country starts at school. Poor kids don’t get to know rich kids, and vice versa. When kids in expensive schools talk about doing something nice for the kids in the favelas, it’s about donating old toys or phones, and they grow up seeing the poor as people who are lesser than them. When you play sports and put them in the same team, you get them to have a different perspective on the differences they have.

The goal is for the Cicclo start-up to get so big that it can fully finance the institution and, hopefully, others.

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