Brazil is a diverse country of over 212 million people. Over 50% of the population identifies as Black or Brown, and yet only 4% hold director or higher-level positions in corporations.
As one of the only Black leaders at the head of a large health care company in Brazil, Edvaldo Vieira understands first-hand the importance diversity and inclusion can play in a health care system, in order to better reflect the people they serve.
In this Q&A, Edvaldo explores his own journey and how those experiences have helped him become a better leader — and, in turn, helped Amil grow into a stronger company.
What were the difficulties or prejudices you faced throughout your life and career?
I am the oldest of four siblings and I was 15 years old when my father passed away. At his funeral, I remember someone asking my mother: “What will become of these boys? Four bandits?”
I knew I would have to help her support our family. That's when I started working in a bank. I enrolled, and was accepted into, the internal development program. Afterwards, I changed companies and I always tried to prepare myself so that, when opportunities appeared, I would be able to take advantage of them. In addition, of course, I was always looking to create my own opportunities.
Issues related to racism, in life and career, have always been a constant. For example, I once had a boss who purposely delayed meetings with me, or simply did not show up. Or when a potential vendor would not speak to me, he only spoke to the other man (in the room), who was white — until he was surprised to hear me called “boss.” And, finally, when I kindly greeted a candidate I was interviewing for a job and she did not believe I was the director.
And similar situations continue to occur in personal life. I was recently held at gunpoint by a police officer, who asked me if the car I was driving was really mine. I could continue with more situations, because I know that structural racism is real and there is unconscious bias, too.
What are the challenges of being a Black leader of a top company in a country like Brazil?
I believe that executives must play, in addition to their functions, a social role in companies. The way they act, with the support of the organizations they lead, and the corporate policies they value, end up spreading to other hierarchical levels. If each one seeks to change the company they work for, from top to bottom, we will impact society.
I thought being a role model might make me seem arrogant. Recently, however, I realized that young Black people need role models who look like them to inspire them. And that I could help in that regard by sharing my story.
How should companies accelerate the development of Black professionals?
The first step is to identify and admit that the problem exists and get real information about its size. At United Health Group Brazil, we have a chart that demonstrates monthly the internal diversity scenario in all positions in the organization. We are working to improve the accuracy of the data.
The second step is to take the relevant actions based on the situation. If you don't know how to do it, seek support from specialized consultants. One action we are taking is to provide growth opportunities for Black professionals who already work at the company.
We have invested in the talent acquisition, recruitment and selection team, promoting sessions focused on inclusive leadership for 100% of team leaders. And there is also the work of our internal Melanina dialogue group, an employee resource group which voluntarily connects more than 100 employees for conversations about the fight against racism.
What are your main challenges as Amil’s CEO and how are you addressing them?
We are on a journey to reflect the Brazilian society at all hierarchical levels. This work has been building for three years – to have more diverse people and in 2021 we set targets on the topic that will impact performance and pay reviews for managers.
We must intentionally move the inclusion needle. We are also engaged in external affirmative action. At the end of May, the first group graduated from the Afronegócios Virando a Onda (Afro-Businesses Turning the Tide) program. [This program is] a partnership between the Rede Brasil Afro-entrepreneur (Brazil Afro-Entrepreneur Network) and UnitedHealth Group Brasil. About 160 students from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo received training through courses and mentorships over a five-month period to boost their employment potential.
Another initiative was a pilot talent selection project with exclusive vacancies for people who fit into our six pillars of diversity (ethnic-racial, disability, LGBTQIA+, gender, different generations and multicultural). We started in 2020 and have hired more than 170 people through this program.
Is it enough to increase the hiring of Black people in companies? How does one improve the internal mindset regarding diversity so that it doesn’t become just a marketing slogan?
I think increasing hiring is just one of many necessary measures. Diversity is not just “marketing.” Society is demanding more from companies. My kids have told me they don't want to go to a company to earn money. They are concerned about the purpose of the place where they will work.
Another point is that if I have to make products to serve different groups, having diversity within the company helps me understand how these groups think and feel.
We must understand, as a society, the existence of this structure and work to change it. That's why we need all the anti-racists to get engaged. It's no use just being anti-racist and being silent or inert. We all need to act together, and increasingly understand that this is a societal problem, and that addressing it in search of a fairer and more equitable society will help everyone evolve and grow.
Edvaldo Vieira is the Chief Executive Officer at Amil, UnitedHealthcare Global’s Insurance and Care Delivery business in Brazil.