During the pandemic and the disruption in business worldwide, the HBS Career & Professional Development team made an appeal to alumni and recruiting partners that resulted in nearly 1,000 new full-time and internship opportunities for students in a few short months. Additionally, our alumni continued to engage with HBS students and drive career opportunities across the globe – including the connection between Eric Westphal (MBA 2021) and Diego Dzodan (MBA 1999).

Westphal grew up helping out in his family’s small retail business in Brazil; decades later, he joined a Brazilian, alumni-founded e-commerce startup for his HBS internship. Yet what might seem like a direct entrepreneurial path was anything but. Westphal’s life and career have crossed country lines, cultures, and industries, and continue to lead him down new and exciting paths.

From Brazil to Boston

Westphal’s earliest years were spent in Brazil where his parents owned and operated a grocery store that they started from a garage and built into a successful small business. After twenty years, the business was forced to close and Westphal’s parents had to make a difficult decision about their next steps. “They tried to make it work in Brazil, but they only had a middle-school level education and ultimately decided to start over and immigrate to Boston where my uncle had lived,” said Westphal. “I stayed behind in Brazil with my older sisters for some time, but I was by far the youngest and eventually my parents said I needed to come live with them.”

At 11 years old, Westphal moved to Massachusetts to be with his parents where he learned English and attended public schools in the Greater Boston area. As Westphal neared the end of high school , his parents decided it was time to move back to Brazil to rejoin their family after years spent working in house cleaning and other physically demanding jobs . He decided to stay in the U.S. “I loved it here, this was home now,” he explained. So Westphal stayed on his own with a big year ahead – graduating high school, getting married, and attending Harvard College.

At Harvard College, Westphal felt overwhelmed and underprepared at first, and knew he would need to put his head down to keep up. He studied Economics, based on his interest in business and entrepreneurship, and when a lot of smart people around him started talking about going into finance, his curiosity was peaked. “I didn’t really know anything about finance, but I wanted to learn,” he shared. “I went to an event where people were speaking a lot of jargon and I had no idea what was going on, but it put a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I said, ‘I’m going to figure this thing out.’”

Figure it out he did, and sophomore year Westphal secured an internship in banking and equity research and junior year he did a banking internship at Credit Suisse.

From Wall Street to Harvard Way

After graduation, Westphal joined JPMorgan full time for two years and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “When I started college, I didn't even know anyone who worked in an office so (at JPMorgan) I learned how to work in a very competitive and demanding environment from people who taught me a lot,” Westphal said.

Two years into his career in investment banking, Westphal returned to the Boston area and joined the private equity sector. Westphal took on a role with Providence Equity Partners, founded by HBS alum, Johnathan Nelson (MBA 1983).

“The firm covers technology, media, telecom, and education, and I spent my time as a generalist within those verticals,” Westphal said. “It was awesome seeing lots of different businesses and I learned more than I ever had. It was a formative experience for me professionally.” Deeply enjoying his work, Westphal didn’t consider an MBA originally and planned to continue on in investing. However, as he reflected on his college experience, business school became very appealing.

“I have always been extremely curious. I have found some success in finance and investing, but to get to where I was from where I started, I had to neglect a lot of other interests,” he shared. “I was also looking forward to a second chance at having a fuller experience at school. At Harvard College I often felt like I had my head down. I don’t regret that – I ultimately succeeded academically, winning the Harris Prize for best thesis in Economics and graduating Summa, and got into finance -- but with some savings and more confidence, I was able to come to HBS with a different perspective and able to give myself a chance to explore.”

The Journey Back to Brazil

Westphal knew he enjoyed his work in private equity and would consider returning, but as he thought about how he wanted to spend his time at HBS, he decided to do something different. First, he considered public markets and venture capital, but ultimately was drawn back to his interest in working with a startup in some capacity.

To break into the startup ecosystem, Westphal worked on some small projects for startups during the semester. Then he became involved in the Brazil Conference, and specifically the Hack Brazil program, organized by Harvard and MIT.

“I co-founded the Brazilian Association while at Harvard College and since graduating, the Association had become involved in the conference, so I was familiar with it before HBS,” Westphal said. “At HBS the opportunity came up to participate and I was excited to focus on the Hack Brazil program that centered on supporting very early-stage entrepreneurs.” This experience helped Westphal solidify his interest in working directly with a founder over the summer.

Westphal then focused his internship search on Boston-based startups that would keep him close to home, but a classmate pushed him to consider expanding his search. “He asked, ‘Why don’t you take this summer to go somewhere different?’ and that stuck with me,” Westphal recalled. “I realized it would be really fun to not only work with a startup, but to go live somewhere else, perhaps back to Brazil with my partner for the summer after I had been away for almost 20 years.”

Making the Alumni Connection

Broadening his location scope, Westphal changed his filter to fast growing early-stage tech companies where he could work closely with a founder. In outreach to his existing network and HBS alumni, Westphal came across two organizations that fit what he was looking for and he decided to move forward with two summer internships.

The first was a seven-week internship with a healthcare technology startup, Cuidas, co-founded by two of Westphal’s classmates from Harvard College. “I had been following their business for a while and knew they were brilliant. I also liked the idea of working in healthcare, particularly a business focused on primary care, during COVID-19,” he shared. Working with this organization was also an ideal fit because Westphal could craft a position in business operations where he didn’t have prior experience. His cross-functional role included standing up processes for the Cuidas customer success team, breaking down the customer journey with the product and interacting directly with clients, which was quite different from his investment banking and private equity roles.

Westphal then found his second seven-week internship by reaching out to VC firms in Brazil. One VC connection was an HBS alum from his state in Brazil who had invited him to sit in on an HBS class years earlier. Another connection was formed through a section mate who introduced Westphal to a friend in VC in Brazil. During this conversation Westphal was able to share what he hoped to do over the summer and how he could add value. Immediately, the VC partner knew the right person to introduce him to, Diego Dzodan (MBA 1999) founder of Facily.

Finding a Fit and Making an Impact at Facily

Dzodan co-founded Facily in 2018 after a successful career in technology, serving in senior leadership roles in Latin America at SAP and Facebook. While at Facebook, he traveled to China, saw how social e-commerce operated there, and identified an opportunity to bring a similar model to Latin America. “In Latin America, only 6% of the population buys online and as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of benefits,” Dzodan shared. “The model for Facily is that we let people get together so they can place bulk orders directly to producers and manufacturers. We cover a wide category of items including grocery, clothing, and small ticket electronics.”

Westphal was inspired by the business model Dzodan and his team had developed and how it could benefit people in Brazil. “Facily often serves lower income people who had never used e-commerce before,” Westphal said. “It reminded me a lot of the business my parents had, and the neighborhood store I had worked at throughout high school, but leveraging technology, which was part of the appeal. I felt a connection to the customers they serve.”

In his internship at Facily (remote due to COVID-19), Westphal utilized his experience from investing to help the company gear up to raise a Series A. “When I spoke with Diego, he shared five problems they were thinking about and gave me the option of what I wanted to work on,” Westphal explained. “The project I chose allowed me to spend 90% of my time working with Diego. I did a bunch of financial analysis and modeling. I also helped to put together the investor presentation and figure out how we were going to tell our story so that people could grasp the power of what Facily was trying to do. And ultimately, we got to put this in action in a number of meetings.”

While Westphal is modest about the financial modeling he did, the work he accomplished in a short time was exceptional. “Eric did exhaustive research and talked to every single person on the team,” said Dzodan. “The financial model he created was exactly accurate for 9 months (until business growth skyrocketed in February 2020) and proved the business could work. This was core to getting the funding that we did ($360M in funding as of their latest round).”

Advice for Students and Alumni

The connection Westphal and Diego formed was clearly a win-win. Westphal got the experience he was after and Dzodan received the help his company needed to reach a milestone – a valuation of $1B.

For students and alumni interested in the startup world, Westphal encourages others to seek out these situations where you can add value. “Be prepared for startups not to have a scope (for an internship). Propose something based on what you have learned about their business through conversations, the experiences and skills you are bringing in, but perhaps most importantly what you want to get out of the role. I would pay special attention to what kind of exposure you will be getting – it is more rewarding to work directly with the founders and with teams day-to-day to solve problems than to be more siloed and emerge with a project at the end. At the same time be prepared to be flexible. Startups change a lot, even in a matter of a few months the problems they are facing could be completely different.”

Dzodan added that he encourages other alumni and entrepreneurs to spend the time necessary to bring on interns, even when there are dozens of other tasks on your list. “It can be scary to think about using your time to build an internship program as time is our most valuable resource, but it’s definitely worth it. We have the evidence. We got a $1B valuation with the model Eric built in his internship so the impact is very clear.”

Fast forward to today, and Westphal is taking what he has learned at HBS, Cuidas, and Facily back to Providence Equity Partners to continue his career in private equity investing with new energy and some fresh perspectives. Meanwhile, Dzodan and his team are in the process of structuring a formal internship program based on the success of summer 2020. Dzodan and his team are also ready and waiting to have Westphal join the team again should a move to Brazil be in his future. Dzodan said with a hopeful grin, “Eric is an amazing professional, and we’d love to have him full-time.”