University of Virginia graduate Elliot Rosenberg has been lucky enough to attend two soccer matches in Brazil since the 2014 FIFA World Cup began. But while soccer fans from every corner of the globe fill hotels and hostels across a dozen cities, Rosenberg is working around the clock on an ambitious entrepreneurial endeavor, pairing visitors with hosts in areas like Rocinha, the largest slum in the country.
Rosenberg graduated from UVA with a degree from the McIntire School of Commerce and another in Latin American studies last spring. A Beverly Hills native, he expected he’d take the same route as most of his family members and peers: graduate from business school, work a six-figure job for a couple decades, and donate a chunk of his earnings to charities in retirement to satisfy his desire to help others. But the year he spent working with at-risk youth in Chile and a summer internship in Brazil instilled in him a desire to have a more direct, concrete impact on the less fortunate.
His big idea? Favela Experience, a homestay business that brings an influx of income to some of Brazil’s poorest, most marginalized people by connecting travelers with residents in favelas, the densely populated urban Brazilian slums. The hosts bring in some much-needed extra cash, and the guests get homey, more intimate accommodations for a fraction of the cost of a hotel.
“There’s a misconception that favelas are dangerous for foreigners, and that people here are just extremely indigent and can’t provide for themselves,” said Rosenberg, who lives in Rocinha, a hillside favela with an estimated population of about 150,000. “But people here are very welcoming and respectful of foreigners. I feel safer here than I do outside in other areas of the city.”
Hotels in Rio run upwards of $500 for a single room during the World Cup. Favela Experience prices are around $25-60 per person, and Rosenberg said about 75 percent of that money goes directly to the hosts. A small staff conduct regular home visits to ensure the properties meet basic western accommodation standards: a bed, a working bathroom, and wi-fi. But aside from that, Rosenberg said what’s most important is a genuine desire on the part of the hosts to share their own culture and learn about their guests.
Fellow UVA grad Caelan Urquhart, whose Portuguese is limited to basics like “hello,” “thank you,” and “soccer,” spent two weeks in Rocinha during the World cup. The woman he stayed with speaks minimal English, but they still managed to understand each other.
“Mostly we communicate through laughter,” Urquhart said. “It’s obviously very different from what I’m used to, but we’ve been just laughing about it when I mess up words, joking around.”
It’s been a year and a half since Rosenberg launched Favela Experience from his college dorm room, and the business has brought visitors from dozens of countries to the slums that changed the way he views travel and culture.
“The concept of more meaningful, immersive travel that is more beneficial for particularly low income communities is a vision that I want to support and spread to other places,” Rosenberg said.