Denis Mizne, CEO of the Lemann Foundation joins Alberto Lidji to discuss quality education in Brazil




This episode is of particular interest to anyone who cares about driving forward quality education at scale in a global context. While the Lemann Foundation is based in Brazil, its work is of interest to philanthropists, NGOs and social entrepreneurs across the globe.


Denis sheds light on the Foundation’s work, ranging from operations to grant-making, and provides a solid overview of the current state of affairs in Brazil’s education system and the opportunities for improvement.


The Lemann Foundation was launched in 2002 by self-made Brazilian entrepreneur Jorge Paulo Lemann, who is one the world’s most prolific private investors and philanthropists.  Lemann’s private equity firm, 3G Capital, boasts a portfolio that includes the likes of Anheuser-Busch, Burger King, Heinz, Kraft, SABMiller, and Tim Hortons.






About Denis Mizne


Since 2011, Denis Mizne has served as CEO of the Lemann Foundation, a nonprofit that’s dedicated to ensuring that all Brazilian children have access to quality public education. Under Denis’ leadership, the foundation has helped to construct Brazil’s National Learning Standards, scaled the foundation’s “management for learning” program to over 1,000 schools and built out the Lemann Fellowship Program, creating a network of young changemakers dedicated to solving social problems in Brazil. Prior to the Lemann Foundation, Denis founded the Sou da Paz (I Am for Peace) program to reduce Brazil’s gun violence. During his 12 years as its executive director, the program contributed to an 80-percent reduction in homicides in São Paulo, as well as to the introduction of crime prevention initiatives at the national level. Denis is an Ashoka Social Entrepreneur, a Yale World Fellow and sits on the board of several nonprofits. He attended the University of São Paulo Law School and continued his education as a visiting scholar at Columbia University and at Harvard Business School’s OPM program.



Episode Transcript


This is a transcript of the conversation between Alberto Lidji, host of The Do One Better! Podcast, and Denis Mizne, CEO of the Lemann Foundation.


Alberto Lidji

Welcome on to The Do One Better! Podcast.


Denis Mizne

Thank you. Pleasure to be here.


Alberto Lidji

Great. Well, you're out there in Brazil, I'm here in the UK, we're going to have a great conversation, I'd love to find out a little bit more about the Lemann Foundation. I know you and I had the pleasure of meeting a few years back now remind me a little bit more about the foundation of the work you're doing out there in Brazil.


Denis Mizne

So the Lemann Foundation is a is a family foundation. And basically, what we're trying to do is to help Brazil become a more developed and fair country. And the way we look at it, Brazil hasn't achieved that goal of being developed and fair, because we are wasting our most important resource, which is basically people. Right. And, we see that we are wasting our people we're wasting talent in Brazil for many, many decades now. Basically, because of two things that we think the foundation can help with. One is our public education system, over 85% of the kids in Brazil are enrolled in our public education system. 100% of the kids have a place in school of free public school with a certified teacher and textbooks and everything starting on age six. But the problem is, even though they are in school, when you go fast forward and they... when you look at who are the 18 year olds in Brazil, people finishing high school, and you're going to figure out that, you know, 40% of them abandon school before finishing, which is a terrible statistic. But the worst statistic is that out of those who actually finish only about 10%, learn what was expected of them. And so we are really under utilizing our potential. Out of the almost 3 million babies that are born, when you look at when they are graduating, you only have about 200,000, which are now ready to go to university is ready to use their full potential to transform and to help our country and to collaborate with our country. So the first thing that we're trying to do is to change that to make sure that our public education system is delivering great education for every single kid, then we can increase from those 200,000 to 500,000 to a million to you know, the full 3 million who actually go through it. So this is the number one thing that we're trying to do. And the second thing we tried to do and where we see that talent could be better managed. I think it's not only a question for Brazil, I think it's kind of a universal question is that as a society, we're not allocating our most talented people to tackling our hardest social problems. A lot of our talented people are going to banking and consultancy companies and law firms and it's all good. I mean, you need people on the private sector for sure. But when you think about what we're living this year, with a pandemic, when we think about, you know, refugee crisis, when we think about climate change, when we think about, you know, the challenges in education and public health, in public safety, terrorism, these are super hard problems. And in order to solve them, it's not about only putting money, we really need our best brains, our most prepared people, people who are ready to make a difference. So the second thing we're trying to do is to kind of push some of the most talented Brazilians to go into the public sector, the social sector academia to really dedicate their lives to tackling some of these problems, and we hope to create a critical mass of these talented people and that they can have a disproportionate difference in the way our country is moving. So if everything goes well, we have a public education system that is delivering for all kids and those kids are reaching their full potential and transforming the country and at the same time, we are creating these generations of leaders who are going to be in the key positions in the country with diverse points of view, diverse ologies and everything but they are going to be helping Brazil accelerate this path towards development and justice.


Alberto Lidji

Fascinating. And tell me how long has the foundation been around. Tell me a little bit about its founder and what the organization looks like today.


Denis Mizne

So the foundation was established in 2002 by Jorge Paulo Lemann. Jorge Paulo is a global entrapreneur, he's a Brazilian of Swiss origin. He is self made billionaire who basically built, basically a strategy on how to surround himself with excellent people and help to use their talent to do big things in business that was his trajectory. So today, he is the major... the controlling shareholder of companies like Anheuser Busch InBev, which is the largest beer producer in the world, Kraft Heinz, which is one of the largest food companies in the world, Burger King, and other companies like that. So he controls very, very big, global brands and companies, and with this management style that was known by betting on people, and really seeing the potential of these people change these companies and change their sectors. And he started the foundation, trying to think 'is it possible to replicate that' in a way for the public, right, for the public good. Can we create a philanthropy that is focused on people that is going to, you know, help Brazil achieve its potential, basically, by helping each Brazilian to achieve their potential. So I think it connects really well, with the strategy that I described to you. So that's where we come from, the first 10 years it was a very, very small organization, there were only kind of just starting and testing and had one program training school principals. And then in 2012, we started to kind of think about the future, I joined the foundation around this time to kind of help the board really build an organization that could be transformative for Brazil and could really build an impact here. And today, the organization... we are, we are about 70 people we tried to keep rather small, we have been investing mostly in Brazil, but with a global focus. So we partner with organizations all around the globe, to learn from the best and help Brazil become... accelerate the path towards what we think the country deserves to be. And that's us. And we used to be a very operational foundation. And now we are more and more a strategic grant maker, I would say, with a... very committed to the impact that those grants are going to generate on the ground,


Alberto Lidji

Your work has been described truly as transformational by quite a few education experts that I know, in terms of the realities in Brazil, the sort of change that's happening. 70 staff members is not a small organization. But it's also possibly not a huge number, bearing in mind, the number of students and young people that you're impacting on a day to day basis. Give us a little bit of a feel for where you're operating in Brazil, what sort of scale we're looking at in Brazil, because I know, it's truly significant.


Denis Mizne

So Brazil is a large country -- 200 million people, we have about 40 million kids in schools, in K through 12, which is our focus, the foundation works at national scale, we really want to help Brazil move the needle, we have been growing over the past 10 years to make sure that we could find strategies that could scale up significantly. And we're basically betting on a combination of three things. In our education pillar that I described, we think that one way to have impact at scale is to really work around key structural policy changes, and so help Brazil gain consensus, generate consensus around some of the structural changes that need to happen. And I talk about structural change, because there are so many policy things that you can dedicate yourself to. We try to focus on the ones that could kind of help the country leapfrog or organize the system around a change that is meaningful, and the reason why we work with public policy is because, you can do this with with few people, you can leverage a lot your investment, and also because in a democracy, you know, the public policies... and we believe kind of that's how it should be in the legitimate process of bringing change, right... we want the government to succeed in running the vast majority of education system. And I think that's where the debate is, so a few examples there. We were really involved, for example, in helping Brazil build its national learning standards. So define very clearly what kids need to learn at every grade level, right, and this is important, you know, because every successful school system around the world, it could be as different in terms of perspective of education, like Finland and South Korea, but they all have standards, right? You are in the UK, the UK has standards. The US created a common core a few years ago, but if you look to like France, and whatever, Japan, Singapore, everybody starts from the basics, which is what our schools should deliver to our kids, right. How our kids should finish school ready to do what with what skills and what competencies. So in Brazil this was not the case. So we helped organize a movement around that, and to really generate consensus around a very fragmented political reality that I think unfortunately, people outside Brazil know more and more about. It's a complex country in terms of, you know, reaching consensus but we thought we could serve as an independent organization. As a, you know, an organization that is independent from political parties, from ideological views, we could serve as this kind of hub to help generate consensus around the need for standards first, then could have access to some of the top experts on standards around the world, and then connect that to the classroom level here how teachers are seeing it, and help kind of achieve this as a movement with many other organizations. But Brazil... we started mobilizing around that in 2014, by 2018 standards were approved. And they started to get to enter into force in 2020... that was the first school year. So that's an example of how you can... that's mandatory for every public and private school in Brazil. So that's a process where in five years, you can really support something that will be transformational, and we think not because standards are going to change learning, but because standards kind of then mandate, what textbooks are going to look like. And they reorganize assessment around that. And they reorganize teacher preparation, and training around that. And that's important because it brings a more coherent education system to the classroom level, right. And once you can get there, you're going to get better results... there is plenty of evidence around that. So this is one way that we operate. The second is direct support to the school districts, so that we can make sure that these policies and other policies that are very effective are actually reaching the classroom level. Learning is going to change, you know, you can have the best policies in the world, but at the end of the day, you need a great teacher teaching their kids and making sure they are learning. So we will also kind of work at scale with directly with districts all over the country. And the last part of what we do in education is try to foster an environment where technology can help education. So that's around school connectivity. And using technology to kind of accelerate both the transformation at the district level, but also kind of help the implementation of other policies that are going to come. So these are examples on our education pillar of how we we have been trying to make a difference at scale in a large country.


Alberto Lidji

And when you're talking about working with school districts and school systems, is that at the state level, dfare you dealing with the the Ministry of Education at a given state? Or is it literally in different towns? Because if that's the case, a country with your geographic footprint, might be very difficult to do. Tell me a little bit about how you're engaging with those with those school authorities.


Denis Mizne

That's that's a good question there because we struggled a lot to really find the model to make... how we could work in a country, as you said, as diverse and as big as Brazil. And I think we explored many ways to do teacher training at scale. And we measured all of them. We literally tested 100 different ways of trying to do this. And, we use a common rubric to all of them, and after a couple of years, kind of putting them out there, we realized that what seemed to be most effective was to work with school districts. So in Brazil, we have both state districts and municipal districts. So and, once you work at the district level, that helps because you can bring coherence to the whole district. Because you can have... you can leverage the district resources that are already been used anyway. And you can make this in a more scalable way. And then thinking about how to do this in a scalable way, we tried to design a program to support school districts that could one day reach 10% of the kids in the country. And this number 10% is not that we think 10% are going to be enough. We really strive to help 100% -- we want Brazil 100% of Brazilian kids to succeed, but we think if we could impact 10% that were like a mini Brazil, we call it, like a good version of the whole country, a good representation of the whole country, that if it could work with 10% of the kids, this would be a good kind of we are at the right size, right. If you're discussing 10% you can discuss 20% and 50%. It's not that further away, whereas a lot of times we see great work being done by NGOs in education that are working with like 50 schools or 100 schools, and then they say now the job of the government is only to replicate, right? Civil society should be innovators, and the government should scale up. And we think the hard part is really scaling up. Right. And so that's why we thought, okay, if we if we have to do it 10%, we will necessarily need to think about scale since day one. And last year, we achieved this milestone of reaching 10% of the kids in the country, we are at 52 school districts. So although we have over 5,000 school districts, because of the geographical concentration, and working with states, which are way larger school districts, we could reach this 10% with... working with these 50 school districts, which are a good representation, we are in the middle of the Amazon, we are in the southeast, and the large urban areas, we are in the northeast of the country. And so you know, countryside and and larger urban areas and things like that. And the interesting part is that now we can measure it. And Brazil has national assessments every two years, which every student needs to take. And we are seeing that these 10% they are outperforming the country three to five times, so they are... learning is growing, they're three to five times faster than they are in the rest of the country. So we... it's still not fast enough. The results in education in Brazil needs you know, it needs a boost...


Alberto Lidji

Sorry, when you're saying they're growing, you mean that the actual performance, the the outcomes are of a higher standard, or that you're getting more people involved in education?


Denis Mizne

No, it means that the students in the districts that we are supporting, are performing better in the national assessment. So it's actually the end of the game. Student learning... so it's exciting. I mean, it's encouraging. But there's a long way to go to first make sure that this is sust ainable over the long run. We've been doing this for about four years now. And now to see what's the next strategy like the next level, to deepen the impact, to make sure that it's growing even faster, potentially, and then think how we can translate that to the rest. But this is... that's an example of trying to figure out I think, like, you know, not... we shouldn't shy away because of the size of the country, we need to kind of grow and be able to make a difference there. Because otherwise, the needle is not going to move. And if the needle doesn't move is more kids are not becoming literate at the right level, if they are not, you know, really moving forward to high school, if they are not... if they don't stop dropping out. If they don't finish school, having acquired the necessary skills, this century will never be more developed and fair, we'll see more and more what we call here in Brazil 'lost decades', decades, where you know, the GDP is not growing, where we're seeing inequality rise. And we think public education should be, right, must be the great kind of solver of inequality. And and it's not. So I think the reason why we're so motivated by that is that we really think inequality... Brazil one of the most unequal societies in the world, and our public education should be helping to change that. And hopefully, this will be the case, if the country prioritizes education, and if these strategies are being taken forward and they can sustain those results in the long run.


Alberto Lidji

With that... by the way, congratulations. I think that's huge scale, really impressive. What's the secret formula? If there is a secret formula? Or maybe even if it's not a 'secret' formula as such... what's the thrust of the of the sort of engagement that you're driving forward that is leading to these increased performance outcomes?


Denis Mizne

I think the best way to describe it is we built an operational system, kind of like you have in your phones or on your, you know, computers, it's kind of the operational system for learning management. Right? So a big part of it is we we've built with the districts and with experts from around the world kind of these roadmap on, OK, these are the six pillars of achieving learning excellence, right? You need great curriculum, you need great teacher preparation, you need pedagogical management, right for following up with the schools and knowing what's going on. So you need great school leadership and things like that. So we organized that around six pillars, and on each pillar, we created a series of kind of predictors, we call them of great learning, so that describe... like, okay, which... and districts when they joined the program, the first thing that happened is an assessment on every school in the district, where they are self assessing kind of where we are, right, how good we are in curriculum or in teacher preparation or, you know, the quality of our assessments, and textbooks and things like that, right. And once you do that you have kind of... then it's up for every district to figure out their priorities where they want to start how they're going to organize things, but everybody gets the same kind of set of indicators. And then we put a team of... it's a combination of consultants, our consultants, right, and... which are people normally very experienced people who were former heads of districts, former teachers, former school principals, like with really on the ground knowledge and legitimacy paired with people who could be a McKinsey or you know, BCG consultant. So they have the analytical and the kind of the, you know, drive in terms of organizing, so it's normally a pair of people or several pairs of people who are going to work with the district to kind of help them set the pace and work around their priorities. So this is kind of putting the operational system in, and then we bring a few programs, that if this district has a problem in school management, then we support them to train all their school leaders, right, and then to train the people at the district level, who are going to go to the schools and make sure that they are working with the school principals in every area to make sure that they are focused on learning, right. So together with this more consultancy, and kind of more analytical... and the database and the indicators, there is this concrete support in areas like how to teach Portuguese, how to teach math, and how to run a classroom and how to run the school. So we bring this to the district and through this combination, we are seeing these results. And I think the last part of the secret sauce, which is really important, we work with districts that are willing to work with us. So we don't select based on the best or the worst, we want to make sure, as I said before, it's a good representation of the country, geographically, economically and everything. But we we prioritize those districts who say, actually, I want to change, I want to make a difference here, and I need help. We don't try to convert people, right, then we hope the results of those groups who are already wanting to change but can't achieve change alone, that the results will make more people willing to try maybe if they were not, but we don't try to work with people who are resistant who you know... because otherwise, it's a lot of energy just to start. So I think that's another relevant component. And so far to reach this 10% we were able to find enough leaders who want to change, and we hope these first results will help find more people in the future.


Alberto Lidji

Really remarkable insight. How did you develop this whole approach, because it's not something that you just pencil in the back of a napkin.... it must have taken a lot of time to to tweak and develop this sort of approach and also possibly exchanging notes with experts from other organizations and other countries.


Denis Mizne

Yeah, for sure, we started... it's interesting, because we started in 2016, inside the foundation, and we put together this, you know, large group of experts from Brazil and from outside, and we studied all the kind of the school transformation programs and district transformation programs around the world and kind of you know, do a review of the literature. And we came up with this beautiful plan, right? That was academically sound. And we felt, OK, now we're ready. And then, you know, after six months on the ground, we went back and said, OK, we need to rewrite everything. Right. It's kind of... so there was a lot of learning from.... you know, I don't think it was a waste of time to do the the first phase. But I think it's definitely you shouldn't wait very long to go to the ground and test it. And I think the other thing is, even though we started with six school districts, with about 100,000 students, which is a small number for Brazil, we always designed it to be able to be used by millions of kids. And that's relevant because you think about the cost, right, per student.... it needs to be a certain cost. If you start with the super high cost and try to to reduce it later, our experience is it doesn't work, you're not going to be able to reduce it later. And there's also the capacity at the same time, as we were doing in the beginning, the foundation staff was implementing this, right. And then we looked, OK, if we're going to reach the scale that we want, we will not be able to do this with our team. So, we started to build capacity outside the foundation, working with organizations who could then lead the program, right, and then basically, today, we have two organizations, one that spun off from the foundation. So the team who was doing this now, they are a separate organization, which is, you know, operational, they are looking into this, they only think about this the whole day. So they are taking the program to about half of the of the kids and the other half, we partner with a former mayor and the former Minister of Education of a city in Brazil, which is the most successful education example -- a very poor city in the northeast with exceptional results. And we work with them to kind of build a kind of their version of the program. And now they operate the other half. So with that, we have two very, very good organizations who are actually leading the program, the foundation can sit and be a grant maker and a strategic grant maker. So we are there we are, on the boards... we are working with them on the decisions, but we are not the ones implementing the program. And that allowed us to do the next level of scaling up, right, because these... and if need that we can, you know, bring another organization or these organizations can grow more, and they can go taking... and then it's all about making sure that they are talking to each other. Right? We have every year, we have a meeting of all the districts, so they exchange best practices. And of course, the teams working on the different districts, they are all the time exchanging notes and learning from each other in the two different organizations; inside and amongst them. So I think that's really important to kind of keep updating the program, we focused 100% on pedagogy in the beginning. And now we're seeing that if we don't tackle the financial and administrative side of school districts, it's going to be hard to sustain the growth, right. So now you need to bring expertise to do this. So there are a lot of things that change and keep changing through the years


Alberto Lidji

Really, really incredible. In terms of exchanging notes with folks in other countries... these are not small test beds, I mean, when you're dealing at this sort of scale in a country like Brazil, and you're having these results and you having the experience that you're developing, what do you do with all of this knowledge? How do you share it with other like minded organizations in major places like India and vice versa? And how do you share this insight so that others could benefit from it, irrespective of where they might be?


Denis Mizne

On one hand, we are a very learning focused organization. So we spend time visiting and talking and participating like the conference where we met and tried to, you know, be... keep our heads up, and learn from what's coming from other places. But I think on... so in a way we are talking to people. But on the other hand, I think in the past few years, we have been very, very like looking like working on the ground and making sure you know, these national learning standards were approved or that this program got rolled out. And then the whole leadership pillar that we didn't have a chance to talk about. So I think we didn't do enough of that kind of... especially at the international level. I think in Brazil, there is a great relationship between the largest foundations and districts and I think this collaboration has been going well. But I think it's something certainly that we need to do more. And I hope to... now that you know, we are a little bit more, you know, we have more information around what's going on, that we can share more and discuss more and spread the word and keep learning from others. And if we can help somehow happy to help.


Alberto Lidji

I'm sure there's a huge volume of information there for people to benefit from. How did you get into all of this, by the way? How did you end up where you are today, and what was it a bit of your trajectory?


Denis Mizne

I went to law school in Brazil and I was always kind of motivated to do public good things. I was never really motivated to go out there and make money or to be a traditional lawyer or something like that. I went into law school with this kind of naive vision that you know, lawyers bring justice, which... it's very fast that you learn you know in the first semester of law school, you realize that's not the case. And then I got involved with a lot of the kind of politics in student associations and things like that. And at law school, we launched... a group of students, we launched a large campaign to reduce violence in Brazil. It was the first disarmament campaign... gun control movement in Brazil, at the end of the 90s. And that's where when homicides were, like, peaking in Sao Paulo, and young people, our age at the time, were the ones both killing and being killed. And in 90% of the cases, there was a gun. So we decided to focus on guns, and we decided to focus on a collective way to kind of solve crime, which was normally... more of the social society movements were more for vengeance right... was like, we need to get, you know, death penalty, or we need to do something like radical and that started as a kind of university project, but became a large campaign in Brazil. And it actually kind of shaped my life because I ended up... we transform with a few colleagues, this campaign into an NGO, I ran this NGO that still is around... is a relevant organization in Brazil working with crime prevention. And so I work... I ran this organization for about 10 years. And then 10 years ago, Jorge Paulo Lemann, the founder of the Lemann Foundation, he was looking for someone to kind of push this, the foundation forward, you know, build this capacity that we talked about, and I decided to come and he decided to have me here, which it was great. And so it's kind of education took me away from crime. Right. That's, that's how it should be. And now I've been working with education for the past 10 years.


Alberto Lidji

Good for you. Now, you given me a little bit of an overview. You just mentioned the past 10 years. What about the next 10 years as we come up to the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030... when you're thinking about success for the next 10 years, what does that look like?


Denis Mizne

I think for us, what we really want to see is, I think... my feeling is that these past 10 years at the foundation, we were getting ready, in the sense that we were figuring out our strategy, we were putting together these things that could scale, we were learning how to do the advocacy work, we were learning how to do these operations at scale without becoming a large foundation, being able to keep a strategic foundation large in the sense of staff. Right? So my sense is that now we have a... we are way better positioned than we were 10 years ago, to really commit to moving the needle... really in the spirit of the SDGs. We want to make sure that for me success in the end of those 10 years is that, you know, we are seeing that Brazil really made progress at scale in literacy in, you know, in the results in terms of what kids learn when they finish high school and things like that. So I want to make sure that this is working, and we want to make sure that these leaders that we support... that is now in 10 years, it's a normal thing to find like people with you know, high caliber, very talented, occupying key positions in government and politics in the NGO sector and things like that. And I hope that we have learned how to do this in a way that we are collaborating with some of the best foundations around the world. So this is... that would be a good ride. Like if we can see this, you know, really, really millions and millions of Brazilians have now a better education for sure. And this is this is a reality. And we have these great leaders in key positions in Brazil, I think the country would be 'ah we have contributed to the country to give a step in the right direction'.


Alberto Lidji

Well, here's to your success and, indeed, I think it would be a good ride, as you say. And before we wrap up, a key takeaway for our listeners, what's that one thing you'd love for them to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?


Denis Mizne

I think in the end of the day, you have to be extremely committed to the end goal. You shouldn't, you know, dwell too much on the details, you should like, you know, in the end of the day, I think the main difference, at least for us here is like don't focus on your projects. Don't be too you know, in love with the projects or the initiatives that you're funding or operating. You should be really in love with the problem you're trying to solve. And then you should do whatever it takes to ge t there. And I think this focus on solving the problem is what I think can make a difference between having great projects or great initiatives, but still seeing the same persistent problems that we're trying to tackle to keep there. So I think we have to really kind of put the focus on solving the problem for good.


Alberto Lidji

Excellent. I love it. Denis Mizne, CEO of the Lemann Foundation, thank you very much for joining us today on The Do One Better! Podcast and to our listeners. as always, thank you for tuning in. Please subscribe if you haven't already. Please share widely with others as well. Denis, thank you ever so much really great speaking with you again and and learning from you as well.


Denis Mizne

Thank you so much. Thank you, Alberto. great conversation.