by Mark Schapiro
Dressed in suits and ties in the sweltering Amazon heat, a group of Brazilian businessmen gathered in February 1998 in front of the Presidential Palace. These marchers, worth millions of dollars in investments, held banners as they marched, demanding that the government take steps to stop the exploitation of children in Brazil's manufacturing and agricultural industries. The organizer of this unusual rally, Oded Grajew, denounced child labor from an improvised podium on the sidewalk, noting with horror that 16 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17 are employed.
Within hours, Grajew and three other protesters were invited into the palace to meet with Fernando Henrique Cardozo, the president of Brazil. And within three months, Grajew joined the entire Brazilian Cabinet to announce the government's agreement to provide financial subsidies to parents who take their children out of work and send them to school.
Who is this man who has become a pioneer in mobilizing the support of the economic elite to deal with Brazil's many social problems? A childhood immigrant from Israel, Grajew came of age in the 1960s, when Brazil was experiencing social and political turbulence. The culture of that era still informs his approach to both business and philanthropy.
In 1972, Grajew and four friends started the country's first educational toy company, called GROW. By the end of the 1980s, GROW was one of the largest toy companies in Brazil, with 450 employees and sales of $40 million a year. A rising star in the toy industry, Grajew was elected president of the Brazilian Toy Manufacturers Association in 1986. He immediately threw the weight of the organization behind the growing movement advocating human rights and opposing the military regime in power at the time.
The following year he founded an association of progressive business leaders--whose name translates, roughly, as Businessmen from the Grassroots. As a leader of the first business organization to oppose the regime, Grajew found himself at the forefront of the reform movement that finally led to democratic elections in 1989.
Grajew became most famous, however, when he sold his piece of the company to his partners in 1991, and started the Abrinq Foundation for Children's Rights. "With my colleagues in the toy industry," Grajew comments, "we always used to speak about how to create more social justice. I realized that it's just a fantasy if we don't take care of our children."
Grajew came to this conclusion after reading an annual UNICEF report with a country-by-country comparison on the status of the world's children. To his dismay, Brazil was at the bottom of the list. "The distance between rich and poor in Brazil is one of the largest in the world. People who work from a young age and don't go to school have no opportunities in life, no chance to become good citizens. And that only increases the distance," says Grajew. "We want to reverse that cycle."
The foundation's programs are many. In the coastal city of Salvador, Abrinq counselors provide job training and health education to street children. Around the country, scores of dentists recruited by Abrinq give free care to poor children through a project called Dr. Smile. Some 10,000 teachers have been trained through a program of Abrinq's that introduces curriculum tailored to life in the favelas. Abrinq has also started an organization, called Journalists for Children, to provide assistance to journalists investigating the social conditions of children.
At the center of this activity is Grajew initiatives, the foundation provides Brazilian companies with a logo seal of approval as a "Child Friendly Company" if they agree to help children by providing education to their employees' children, financing the construction of schools or extracurricular programs, or sponsoring child health programs. The bright yellow seal now appears on the products of 900 companies, from oranges to cosmetics to auto parts. In turn, Abrinq--using the pro bono services of the local office of McAnn Ericson--has launched its own public education campaign to encourage consumers to purchase products with the Child Friendly seal. By utilizing competitive pressures, Grajew says, "Our idea is to energize entrepreneurs to mobilize their efforts on behalf of children."
One measure of Grajew's success is that some of the businessmen he used to sit around drinking with have played a significant role in Abrinq. Today 2,500 companies support the foundation's work financially. Many of Grajew's old colleagues were also with him in Miami last year at the founding forum of a new socially responsible Latin American business association that Grajew is helping to organize. As Grajew puts it, "they have come to understand that a man who dies with his money is a man without imagination."
Adapted with permission from an article published in the Spring 1998 issue of The American Benefactor.
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved