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Despite massive growth throughout the years and big companies testing the waters for market opportunities, Latin America still faces historically high unemployment rates and a dismal GDP. For working-class Brazilians, the default means for finding employment — newspaper ads and word-of-mouth — are slow and ad hoc. However, finding work is now becoming as simple as responding to a text message, thanks to entrepreneur Jacob Rosenbloom, founder of Emprego Ligado.
Backed by high-profile investors including 500 Startups, Qualcomm and a new round of Series A funding to increase geographic expansion, Emprego Ligado is successfully taking over São Paulo as a virtual staffing firm that’s connecting blue-collar workers to millions of job opportunities each month.
Launched in 2011, Emprego Ligado serves as a job marketplace for working-class Brazilians with limited access to the Internet. Job applicants simply upload their resumes and filter job opportunities to the system via text message. The process takes as little as 2 minutes to complete, and accepted candidates are able to arrange interviews with potential employers all through the convenience of their mobile device.
I sat down with Rosenbloom via Skype to discuss his venture, the growth opportunities that exist in Brazil, and how he’s charting a new path for economic empowerment that affects on the ground environmental and quality of life issues for the country’s most vulnerable workers.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
Triple Pundit: Tell me about yourself and your background.
Jacob Rosenbloom: I’ve been in Latin America for 10 years. I’m an engineer by training and graduated from Stanford in 2003. I’ve always been interested in Latin America. I grew up in a rural part of Oregon that was also a very highly populated Mexican community.
After I graduated from college, I worked for Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. At the time, no one was having luck on Wall Street investing in Latin America. I lived in Mexico City for 2 years and then moved to São Paulo from 2004 to 2009 to continue working as an investor.
From an outsider’s perspective, when you look at Latin America, there is always frustration with limited growth potential compared to other markets. Typically, you’ll see 5 to 8 percent jumps in GDP in places like China, but it is not expected to see GDP growth in Latin America.
I went back to the U.S. in 2009 and worked for Endeavor — an NGO focused on stimulating entrepreneurship in emerging markets. During my time there I developed business models to serve middle- and lower-class people in emerging markets.
Emprego Ligado got started shortly thereafter with my two cofounders who are my best friends from Stanford. We all moved down to São Paulo together and founded the company. Because of the democratization of [the] cell phone, you can put together a business that has social impact but it is not a traditional social enterprise. The business model is highly profitable and has clear environmental and social benefits.
São Paulo has 22 million people. Everyone has a car. People will spend over 3 hours a day in traffic to get to the downtown area for work. Our thought: If we place people close to home, people can spend more time with their families, be more productive at work and stay longer in their jobs. There’s also little to no transparency about the labor market. Through Emprego Ligado we’re building a productive workforce, creating transparency around available salaries and enhancing people’s quality of life.
3p: What is it about the economic climate that has been cumbersome for businesses and entrepreneurs to expand within that market?
JR: It’s clear that there is a huge productivity problem in the workforce. At the base of the pyramid are the operational workers. It’s very rare that a management team coming into this market is focused on real-world problems. Most companies try to replicate traditional commerce models — to their peril.
3p: Why SMS over any other platform?
JR: Our approach through SMS is merely a matter of market standard. The cell phone market is an oligopoly. There are a total of four telecom operators. As a result, Brazilians pay more for services. No one has data plans. Only 20 million people have data plans (out of a total of 300 million cell phones).
Through our service we’re learning how people interact day-to day with technology and their habits with how they interact. We also understand their demographic profiles and their physical locations, which helps us target our job distributions to those that will have the easiest access to that particular job.
3p: Does Emprego share data and insights with the local government?
JR: Yes. Mostly municipal governments are interested in reducing traffic and helping local companies expand.
3p: Where do you plan to expand your technology next?
JR: For now, we have our eyes set on the next step being neighboring countries (Mexico and Columbia). I’ve lived in both of them and have built strong support systems.
We’ll also be expanding the team. We’re up to 40 people — a talented team of smart executives. We’re a 100 percent Brazilian company where everyone speaks Portuguese.
Our support network in Brazil has really made an investment. Those that previously were dubious about foreign entrepreneurs are starting to invest in our model. The exciting part is the top tier executives we get to work with and shaping best world practices for an emerging market.
3p: It may sound a bit cliché to ask, but do you feel that Sao Paulo could be the next Silicon Valley?
JR: First, let me give you a brief history: In late 2011, big waves of startups were getting funded in Brazil. Everyone kind of knew that 2014 to 2015 would present significant minority stakes and exit opportunities. There have been four exits announced in the past two months. There’s certainly insecurity in the market. Things happen slower here, but it’s been a great few months.
3p: Speaking of exit strategy, is this something that you and your team are preparing for in the future?
JR: My two cofounders and I are completely committed to the business. No plans to exit. There is a very clear need for our geo-technology market. We’ve only got excitement.
Image credit: Kenji Nakamura, Flickr cc
Sherrell Dorsey is a writer, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. When she’s not obsessively learning how to decrease her carbon footprint, Sherrell contributes frequently on green design, sustainable architecture and environmental policy at Inhabitat.com. Follow Sherrell on twitter @sherrell_dorsey.