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In Brazil, knocking down language barriers

When Jami, a personnel risk manager in Chicago, saw that São Paulo–based HR administrator Rafael was preparing to eat his freshly made lasagna with a heaping pile of French fries and rice... she was surprised.

“I told him that in the United States, we usually eat our lasagna with salad or vegetables,” says Jami. “And he laughed and told me that was very odd, because lasagna was definitely best served with a side of rice and fries.”

These conversations, filled with both shared and divergent experiences, happen often between Jami and Rafael, who met in a McKinsey Black Network –founded English skills coaching program.

As the Brazilian office began expanding its recruiting efforts to talented candidates who didn’t necessarily speak fluent English, a need emerged—to improve the new colleagues’ competency in English. The program paired dozens of McKinsey Black Network colleagues in Brazil with McKinsey Black Network mentors in the U.S. Over a period of almost four months, each pair met weekly to engage in conversations intended to expand our Brazilian colleagues’ vocabulary, fluency, and confidence in English speaking.

While Rafael’s English skills strengthened, so did the bond that he and Jami had created. In a year filled with uncertainty, the two supported one another, celebrating each other’s triumphs and successes and mourning an unimaginable loss. Read about their experience below.

The following interview, which is also available in Portuguese, has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your first conversation—what was that like?

Rafael: I was very nervous, because I had only been studying English for a little while.

Jami: I just remember we were laughing. It did not feel like the first time that we’d met. And even though there was a little bit of a language barrier, and we were often using Google Translate to make sure we were using the right words to understand each other, it felt like an easy conversation.

Rafael: To get to know each other, we talked about our families.

Jami: That’s right! I have two sons, and Rafael has one son. We also talked about his future plans to visit Chicago.

Rafael: And we talked about basketball because I love the Golden State Warriors. Since we both enjoy basketball, we may be able to meet in-person one day for a Bulls vs. Golden State game with our families.

What have you learned about each other?

Jami: We’ve had many moments over the last several months where we’ve talked about food, sports, career transitions, and even our favorite music. One day we were talking, and I noticed some instruments hanging on Rafael’s wall. So, he took one down and started playing it.

Rafael: It was a Brazilian instrument called the cavaquinho. It’s a little guitar used for samba. And I’m teaching myself to play it by watching YouTube.

Jami: He was really good! We often go around our homes and share what each of us are experiencing. I know what it feels like to work from home in Chicago, but what does it feel like in Brazil? There are times when I’m sitting here freezing in a snowstorm, and he will show me the beautiful sunshine and warm weather outside of his window.

Rafael: It’s a great way to get to know colleagues in other parts of the world. I usually only talk with other colleagues from Brazil. But now thanks to this program, I know you, Jami, and your kids.

Jami: It’s the same for me. This experience has definitely broadened my network, since Rafael and I did not previously know each other. After buddying up with Rafael, I’ve learned so many different words in Portuguese. And sometimes, I’ll try to surprise him with what I’ve learned.

It’s a great way to get to know colleagues in other parts of the world.

Rafael, HR Administrator

What has been one of the most difficult English rules to teach/learn?

Jami: I think the hardest part is thinking back to past participles.

Rafael: There is no past participle in Portuguese. So, it’s hard. But it's important to learn because in English, it’s necessary. I have an Excel document with some words we’re talking about. And the pronunciation is difficult, but Jami has helped me so much.

What conversations did you have around some of the social justice issues and pandemic-related circumstances the world has been facing?

Jami: There were many topics that we covered last year. We were going through the presidential election in the U.S., so we were talking about the why behind some of what he would hear or read about, you know, things that were being seen on the news or even the opinion of the U.S. in Brazil. We also talked about the challenge of what we’re living through right now with the pandemic. Despite being in different countries, the experience was very similar.

Rafael: In Brazil, it is difficult because many people are dying every day because of COVID-19. Last December, my wife's sister died from COVID, and it was very difficult for my whole family.

Jami: We talked a lot about the loss that they were experiencing in his family. I was very concerned about him and just wanted to make sure his family was okay. I was working in HR at the time as well, though I’ve recently transitioned roles, so I was able to remind him of the support that we as HR tell our colleagues about. And I was able to just listen and be there for him.

How have your English skills evolved over the course of this program?

Rafael: Before this program, I had never participated in a meeting in English. I only joined as a listener, but after working with Jami, I was able to deliver my first presentation in English and participate more in meetings speaking English. I am a member of the McKinsey Access affinity group for colleagues with disabilities, and I had to present to a group of Access colleagues across South America. I practiced my presentation with Jami for two weeks. She listened and helped me refine some of the words, and it was great.

Jami: We had a great Slack conversation afterwards to celebrate his first time presenting in English. It was very exciting! And it has been amazing to see the progress and confidence Rafael has developed. We are both in the People function together, and there are times where I’ll see Rafael respond in Slack to one of the functional group Slacks in English. And I’ll ping him and say, “Well done.” So, I can see the progress and the confidence in how he is now speaking more in English and taking the opportunity to respond or send emails in English even when he could use Portuguese.

What is your biggest takeaway from being a part of this program?

Jami: Shared learning is a powerful experience. I came into this thinking that I would be helping with English. I wanted to add some value from an McKinsey Black Network standpoint and get involved. But I've received so much more. I’ve been able to meet an amazing colleague. And I have learned more about Brazil, and gotten a shared understanding of career development, interests, and the differences between the way we think about HR in our different countries. Overall, it’s fun. We laugh more than anything else.

Rafael: This McKinsey Black Network program has helped me a lot. I am the first in my family to go to college and the first in my family to learn English. When I was young, I didn’t know how important this was for my future because my parents didn’t encourage me. They didn’t know how important it was. In the future, when my son gets older, I will include him in an English school and encourage him to attend college as well. I realize how important this is for the future. And the McKinsey Black Network program is helping me a lot in this, to transform my future.

Shared learning is a powerful experience.

Jami, Personnel Risk Manager

The first phase of the program ended in December but Jami and I continue to have our weekly conversations. She is more than a buddy to me. She’s become my mentor, and a lifelong friend. And I’m hopeful that other participants will have a similar experience and foster the same kind of relationship through the program.

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