In One of Rio’s Poorest Neighborhoods, Making a House a Home

WeWork’s Eli de Souza is passionate about helping people in his city

by Jonathan Zalman


Eli de Souza grew up in Niterói, a community just a few miles from Rio de Janeiro. Crossing the bridge over Guanabara Bay and into Brazil’s sprawling coastal city, he discovered a “magical” place. “I have always been in love with Rio,” says de Souza, a marketing lead at WeWork Brazil. “The mixture of people of all colors and backgrounds, the ever-present nature, and the cariocaway of life make this place very unique.”

Carioca, he explains, is a Portuguese word that refers to anything related to Rio de Janeiro, including its people. Helping the people in his city—especially those struggling with poverty—has become his passion.

While earning a bachelor’s degree from Imbec Rio de Janeiro, a private university for business and economics, De Souza joined a student-run nonprofit focusing on sustainable development. He and his classmates helped bring business courses to residents living in favelas, the city’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

The two-day sessions, overseen by Imbec professors, taught more than 100 residents how to structure, launch, and maintain a business in their own neighborhoods. In the process, each participant received a certificate from a prestigious college that would otherwise be out of reach for them financially. “It’s something almost impossible to get,” says de Souza. “Especially if you live in a favela.”

After graduating, de Souza worked for the Brazilian Sailing Federation, where he got to work on media for the national team competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. “It showed me the power of a group of people passionate about the same mission,” he says. But he always knew he wanted to work more closely with the community.

Since joining WeWork almost two years ago, de Souza has put into practice what he learned both in college and in the workplace. Last fall he coordinated a partnership with Techo, a nonprofit that builds homes for families living in Rio’s poorest neighborhoods. He and seven of his WeWork colleagues traveled to a favela called Jardim Gramacho—once one of the largest operating landfills in the world—just a 36-minute drive from WeWork.

WeWork employees working on a house.

“It’s hard to believe people live there,” says de Souza. “The conditions are terrible.”

The WeWork crew spent nine hours building a prefabricated home—putting it together was “like a puzzle,” de Souza says—for a family whose previous shelter flooded whenever it rained. Often all their belongings would be ruined and they would have to start over.

As the team assembled the house, de Souza says they couldn’t help but notice the sad state of the rest of the neighborhood. “We saw a lot of sick people, drugs being used in front of kids, garbage all around,” he says. “We didn’t see a single source of water. It’s hard to leave the place knowing the hard truth those people live every day.”

The family, says de Souza, seemed astonished that a group of people they didn’t know was building them a home without expecting anything in return. “They just couldn’t believe that some people really care about their situation and would actually take action to change it,” he says.

The most moving moment for de Souza happened when the team was packing up its equipment at the end of the day. “When we finished the house,” he says, “the entire family gathered around us and said, ‘Thank you for saving us.’”

De Souza and his team are planning work on three other houses with the same organization.

“I always dreamed I’d be a volunteer for Techo,” says de Souza. “Now WeWork gave me this opportunity.”

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