Written by: Arielle Brousse 

Edited by: Ariel Schwartz & Ashton Yount

CSIS photography by: Eva Cruz & Michael Marfione

Additional photos provided by Andreas Ufer

Andreas Ufer is making an impact in Brazil—by helping others make an impact.

Last year, Andreas founded Sense-Lab, a social impact consultancy offering trainings and workshops, research on best practices and active initiatives, and project-based consulting for social innovation.

It’s an exciting time to be innovating in Brazil. The country’s infrastructure isn’t set up for nonprofits, so entrepreneurs are taking it on themselves to address the nation’s most systemic problems through creative business practice, tapping into the newly bustling economy to do well while doing good.

Andreas wasn’t always in the social impact space. He has an MBA and is a managing partner in an engineering firm.

But a few years ago, he had an experience that showed him how valuable his skills could be in the social impact world. He decided to leave behind the security of his job, dig deep into the possibilities for innovation, and build this new company to be a driver of change.

Originally, his plan had been to spend time in the private sector after graduating engineering school. When he was older and had money, then he would “do the good stuff.”

A few years ago, Andreas realized that if he always told himself he could do it later, later would never come. The time was now.

He started by getting involved with Instituto Elos, a design-based impact organization. Elos introduced him to Oasis, a community mobilization tool that brings volunteers into a local neighborhood and teaches them to source collective solutions from the people who live there.

Oasis volunteers work alongside residents to build projects—like community gardens and bike racks—that enrich the neighborhood. Andreas came in as an outsider, but was surprised at how quickly he was accepted in the favela where he was working.

One of the residents, Tonia, had a profound influence on Andreas. Tonia had lost her housekeeping job, and was resigned to living in a tiny shack in the slum.

She didn’t, however, give up hope for the possibility of a better world for her children. Each day, she prepared lunch for Andreas and the other volunteers before showing up to participate, driven and determined to help improve the area for her neighbors.

Building playgrounds and community centers alongside people like Tonia was a turning point for Andreas. Though he could make things marginally easier for her, and hopefully improve the outlook for her children, he realized that he couldn’t reverse the systemic issues that landed her in the slum to begin with.

To do that, he would need to help facilitate a change in the way people think about their communities—and about the broad impact that business practice can have.

Andreas realized that he could apply his management and engineering background in creative ways to encourage a new generation of entrepreneurs to incorporate social impact into their bottom line.

“That was when I realized this is really it,” he remembers. “This is what I know how to do, and this is what I can bring to the social impact world.”

In the months leading up to Sense-Lab’s launch, Andreas dove deep into the world of social entrepreneurship, hungry to learn best practices. He started by taking CSIS’s free online course in Social Entrepreneurship; then, in an effort to dive deeper, he applied to the Executive Education Program in Social Impact Strategy.

The Executive Program came along at a serendipitous time. In the first few weeks of the course, Sense-Lab got its first client. The client owned a furniture business and was looking for a way to re-engage ex-convicts into society by employing them in his supply chain. Sense-Lab’s job was to help him think through the best way to structure the program for maximum social benefit and minimum disruption to profitability.

Andreas, newly refreshed in his expertise, walked him through the options: they considered one-for-one cost structuring and subsidy models, among others.

Though he was somewhat familiar with these structures, the Executive Program tied the concepts together and presented them in an easily digestible way. “It was very well structured, and easy to access the different tools.”

And while his MBA courses had taught him about marketing to traditional investors, the Executive Program’s marketing course expanded his understanding of the different stakeholders—donors, customers, community members—that are involved in a social venture.

Andreas’s broadened awareness of social impact market segments is paying off. It’s allowed him to reach clients with varying aims, scopes, and areas of interest, and to craft distinct communications strategies that show them the value that he can bring to each of their firms. Sense-Lab has already worked with retailers, universities, energy companies, and even perfumeries—and they’re attracting new clients all the time.

Andreas has done his share of virtual education, but he found the Executive Program different and exciting—because it introduced him to a global community of changemakers.

The Executive Program allowed Andreas to connect on a real level with fellow students—social innovators in places like Ghana, Sri Lanka, and India. He could have discussions with them on message boards and in chat rooms; but he also had the opportunity to meet them in person.

“It’s a whole new experience,” he says. “You are doing this online course, and then suddenly you are there in Philadelphia with all these people.”

Discussing the particular challenges in each of their native countries helped Andreas to understand the unique climate of the Brazilian social entrepreneurship space—and to see how he could differentiate and market what he was offering.

“If you are in the nonprofit sector, you are an outsider here in Brazil,” he says. He now sees how hard it is to structure an organization with a donation-reliant model in a political context where charitable giving is not the norm.

That’s why he thinks Sense-Lab is succeeding; his team are not charity workers. They’re helping to bring social impact to the business world. “We are from corporations,” he says. “We speak the language of these people, and I think we can get a message through.”

Now, Andreas is phasing out of his firm, transitioning into managing Sense-Lab full-time.

After nearly a decade of managerial work in the industrial sector, he’ll be using his skills to train and support a new generation of innovators who are working from within their own industries.

There’s nothing wrong, he thinks, with working for profit. But he believes that the private sector could be more aware of the wider impact it has on Brazilian citizens. “Our economic system is creating a lot of externalities that we are not coping with,” he says. “It’s good if you are aware of the problems, and you are trying to work the system to become different and solve them.”

That’s why Sense-Lab trains Brazilian professionals to recognize and respond to the real needs of their community, simply by refocusing the aim of their existing work.

Recently, Sense-Lab has been working with utility company Energias de Portugal (EDP), conducting workshops to help them develop an innovation lab. EDP has found the workshops so edifying, they want Andreas to replicate them in other cities.

And a few months ago, Sense-Lab was invited to conduct an immersion training at the School of Design Thinking in São Paulo. Andreas modeled the training on his own experience working in the favelas with Oasis.

He finds it rewarding to bring his students into the field where their work will be making an impact, to show them how collective work indelibly changes lives.

“Once you get in touch with these realities, in my opinion there is no coming back,” Andreas says. “I can’t drive by a slum anymore and say, ‘Okay, this is not my reality.'”

There’s a lot for Andreas to look forward to where Sense-Lab is concerned.

Andreas’ ultimate goal is to change the way people in Brazil think about social impact. He wants to see more large companies engaged in and focused on impact activities; he wants them to fundamentally rethink their core values.

“We have to find a way to get our best minds, our best skills, and to solve the actual, huge problems that our society is facing,” he says. “We have to bring these thought lines into our mainstream.”

He’s well on his way already. Sense-Lab’s network has been built up, their mission and programs honed, and they’re prepared to scale.

“We have a lot of prospective clients and a lot of entrepreneurs contacting us,” Andreas says. “It seems 2016 will be a good year.”