Almost every word that comes out of Bel Pesce’s mouth sounds like she cribbed it off of a motivational poster. She talks about the lessons she’s learned in her 25 years of life: Take control, show up prepared, be the best version of yourself. Rolling your eyes yet? You shouldn’t be. To a cynic, Bel Pesce’s words could sound naïve and obnoxious — if she weren’t so damn inspiring.
Pesce refers to herself as a “passionate entrepreneur” in terms others might use to describe themselves as Catholic, and boy, is she devout. Born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Pesce graduated from MIT, and then migrated to Silicon Valley. In 2012 she published a Portuguese e-book titled The Girl From Silicon Valley: How Entrepreneurship Can Change Lives, in which she shares lessons learned about becoming an entrepreneur and networking.
Most see her as a hero within their reach.
“I started thinking that if entrepreneurship is about touching lives and if those stories touched my life, maybe I can launch these stories to a broader audience,” she says. It quickly topped Brazil’s bestselling list, downloaded more than 2 million times and selling more than 50,000 hard copies.
“She’s a very big deal in Brazil,” says close friend and tech entrepreneur Amit Garg. He and Pesce published a videocast featuring fellow Brazilians living in Silicon Valley and encouraging people in Brazil to think about entrepreneurship. He says she’s “a very good leader” with a “ridiculous amount of energy,” who has built up a strong community with her compelling lessons. Yuri Gitahy, an angel investor and founder of Brazilian startup Aceleradora, is one of Pesce’s mentors. High school kids and college students stop her on the street to take pictures, he says. “Most see her as a hero within their reach, and we lack heroes around here.”
As “Founder and Chief Magic Officer” of FazINOVA, Pesce dispenses advice with her quick, left-dimpled smile. She teaches:
- You have much more control on things in your life than you imagined.
- Be caring and think of others while you’re doing something for yourself.
- Be thoughtful, be self-aware, be productive.
- Find what you are good at and be better at it.
- Find a superhero in yourself.
The attention seems well-deserved. At MIT Pesce majored in management science, electrical engineering and computer science, with a double minor in economics and mathematics. While in college she worked at Microsoft, Deutsche Bank and Google, not to mention many side projects, including developing an inexpensive peer-to-peer mobile phone for developing countries.
She was named a TED fellow in 2012 and cited as one of the top 100 influential people in Brazil by widely read magazine Epoca. Her peers describe her as genuine, hard-working and euphoric, complimenting her ability to come up with creative solutions to challenges. Her latest project, a brick and mortar innovation institute called FazINOVA, teaches real-life entrepreneurial skills like negotiation, self-promotion and business development. In a few weeks Pesce plans to take the classes online and hopes to make the institute global.
How did she come so far so young? Bel grew up in a humble family in Sao Paulo, and as a child she would ask Brazilian tech companies for spare computer parts so she could break computers down and put them back together again. “I needed to understand how things worked,” she says, in her earnest and animated voice. As a teen she developed a plan to become an aeronautical engineer. A high school teacher pulled her aside and asked if she’d thought about applying to MIT.
“In my mind you had to be American to go to a school in the U.S.,” she says. “That blew my mind.” It was just weeks before the application deadline, and the optional interview with an alumni had already passed. With characteristic determination, Pesce found the MIT alumnus in her area and went straight to his house, begging for an interview. He initially turned her down since it was past the deadline, but eventually he submitted to her persistence and they spoke for hours. The drama continued when she showed up at the last SAT test unregistered, having missed that deadline, too. Told to leave, Pesce insisted she be allowed to wait and see if there were any no-shows. She got the spot of the one person who didn’t show up.
She has built a network like nobody I’ve ever seen. She is very passionate about helping people succeed.
The MIT price tag was dauntingly unaffordable for Pesce’s family, but she still went. She worked through her senior year of high school to pay for the first semester and continued to work at college, paying every cent of her tuition that wasn’t covered by her partial scholarship. She took summer jobs in Seattle, New York City and Mountain View, and tackled MIT case competitions. During the school year she took full advantage of her time at MIT, taking 13 classes in her last semester, she says, while the average MIT student takes four.
She was drawn to the energy of Silicon Valley, and after graduation she worked at video company Ooyala, then at electronic wallet app, Lemon, where she was on the founding team. A Lemon co-worker, Cole Mercer, says Pesce is one of the most ambitious people he knows. “She has built a network like nobody I’ve ever seen. She is very passionate about helping people succeed.” While at Lemon, Pesce started collecting all of the advice she had written down in various notebooks, and assembled them into a book as a “distraction.” In May 2012, she put it online in order to make it accessible to people in Brazil, and when she saw she’d reached more than 100,000 downloads in the first four days without spending any money on marketing, she thought the counter was broken.
“This book was supposed to be a small thing,” she says. Then the emails from people began pouring in. “There was an almost 90-year-old woman who decided to apply to college after reading the book. Another lady who decided to start a chocolate shop. I get addicted to these messages.” She kept the book free online, but also sells hard copies.
Pesce knew she wanted to keep motivating people, so she made the difficult decision to leave her job and move back to Brazil. She published a second book and opened FazINOVA, which currently has more than 500 students in 13 cities. Her students have started companies, recorded songs, published a book and gone on TV shows. Of course, it’s also a business: The students must pay for the classes, but she also offers scholarships sponsored by companies. Her online classes will be free, thanks to similar sponsors.
There was an almost 90-year-old woman who decided to apply to college after reading the book. I get addicted to these messages.
“I’m ready to scale,” she says. “This was fully boot-strapped and it is already profitable.” Pesce is also expanding into a recruiting service that she’ll launch next month in Brazil. She is coy about the project, but says she thinks it will disrupt the recruiting world and how people search for co-founders and co-workers. “My big vision is to find, develop and connect talented people to create a more entrepreneurial country and a more entrepreneurial world.”
Pesce has jumped from tech to business to education, although arguably her last project will be a mix of all three. Does she worry about juggling so many dreams and aspirations? No, but she acknowledges she needs to work on learning that “it’s not possible to do everything.”
So how does she do it? Does she ever sleep? We asked her this and she was hesitant to answer, constantly aware of her position as a role model. She says she does not like telling people details like that because they will think it is a recipe for success. “People work in different ways, you can’t go against what you are. You need to find your best. Nobody will be better at being you than you.”
Look out, Steven Covey — Bel Pesce is ready to start a movement.
Why you should care
Need a good dose of motivation today? Brazilian phenom Bel Pesce is only 25 years old and she’s already done more than you.