Gazzal Kesar is an MBA ’23 candidate who went to Portugal as part of the MBA International Study Trip. The study trip is an optional component of the Ivey MBA Program that gives students on-the-ground exposure to some of the world’s most dynamic and exciting economic regions.
Lisbon, one of the oldest cities in Europe, is at the heart of a rather young democracy. It is a city of beautiful contrasts: black-and-white tiled pavements with colourful yellow-blue-pink buildings, a constant connection with the ocean while being known as the city of seven hills, and a modern entrepreneurial economy with its centuries-old rich heritage.
I learned a lot about the culture and business landscape of Portugal’s capital city during the MBA International Study Trip and there were some memorable moments, such as the chance to watch the 2022 FIFA World Cup with local fans. After witnessing that historical football world cup match – the final game between Argentina and France – amidst a power-packed downtown, I sat with a cup of coffee by the Lisbon waterfront and reflected on the learnings and memories created in the last seven amazing days. Here are some of my takeaways.
A bottom-up approach accelerates startup growth
On the first day of our trip, we visited the Bank of Portugal where we learned about the history of the economy and an overview of monetary policy in Portugal. It was interesting to learn that Portugal has constantly been under economic stress since the 1960s. Some examples include trade liberalization, a national debt crisis resulting from the 1973 oil crisis, a revolution for democracy, joining the EU monetary union, trade competition from China causing a current account deficit, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the hit to tourism during COVID-19. One of the key issues I discovered was that even though the economy has absorbed these shocks, low gross domestic product (GDP) growth, an aging population, and low Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) are now the big challenges.
Having gained perspective on where Portugal stands as an economy, we covered several startups (and some large businesses) across several industries over the next few days. Faced with stagnant and low wages for several decades, Startup Portugal, a non-profit organization that promotes entrepreneurship and innovation, was launched in 2016 to promote various initiatives such as Startup Visa and Tech Visa. This government initiative has been supported by the Web Summit, an annual technology conference, which moved permanently to Lisbon in the same year. Programs like these, coupled with the amazing quality of life, will make Portugal a magnet for talented digital nomads.
A common theme I took away from all of these meetings was that it was not just a top-down phenomenon, but also a bottom-up approach that was really accelerating the growth of startups. Initiatives like Startup Lisboa and Fintech House are non-profits that support the end-to-end needs of entrepreneurs in incubating, innovating, financing, and scaling up. Meeting these humble organizations that have helped hundreds of businesses to make a difference in the economy was an extraordinary experience. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I learned a lot from these meetings. My peers were equally enthusiastic throughout the trip as each session was filled with enriching questions and discussions from our side. A quiet little observation I made was that six out of the eight business meetings we had were led by women and that made me really happy.
Sustainability should be top of mind
Sustainability was the underlying theme at every company we visited, be it Portugal’s largest agricultural and forestry company or a ceramics company with a handful of employees. I was amazed to find that every business is doing its part towards Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) goals. In essence, Portugal can be considered a developing economy and even though focusing on sustainability is a “first world problem,” something not often on the table for developing economies, Portugal seems to be leading the way. While most countries have sustainability as a goal, Portugal is, interestingly, beginning its growth with sustainability in mind from the bottom up.
Take the time to really experience life
Much like Canadians, the Portuguese are warm and kind people. At every place, we were treated with a smile and the greeting, “Bon Dia” (good day). On the other hand, the Portuguese are much more at ease in their daily lives. On our city tour on “tuk-tuk,” an auto-rickshaw that is a vehicle (quite literally) of economic growth in a city that’s driven by tourism, I observed how people weren’t speed walking with coffee cups in their hands, like I’ve seen in other cities. Rather, there are several coffee and bar kiosks with comfortable seats, which speaks to the Portuguese people’s leisurely lifestyle. On our trip to Cascais, a quaint neighbouring town, we were told that no part of the waterfront that is closely connected to the ocean has been commercialized, even though the real estate prices would be through the roof there. It says something about how the Portuguese value nature and its gifts over any monetary rewards.
I remember thinking then that perhaps they have cracked the code to life: live it fully because you live it once. Everything is at a good speed but there’s no hurry.
“Obrigada” (thank you) Portugal, for giving me many beautiful sceneries to behold, and stories to tell. I am forever grateful!
View some more photos from the trip below.
Group photo on the beach in Cascais
Gazzal in front of some colourful buildings in Portugal
Iconic rooftops in Lisbon
Watching the World Cup Finals in Portugal: Argentina vs. France
Experiencing monster waves
Group photo at Sagres Brewery
Christ the King
Factory Lisboa building