SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It was a casual conversation that led Luiza Trajano, one of Brazil’s wealthiest women, to ponder her country’s racism, to recognize her part in it — and to do something about it.
A few years back, she said, she had heard a young, accomplished Black businesswoman mention that she never attended happy hours with colleagues unless her boss explicitly asked her to join. Years of feeling the rejection that many Black Brazilians experience in predominantly white settings had taught her to seek clear invitations, the woman explained.
Ms. Trajano, who is white, felt a pang of sadness. Then an uncomfortable thought crossed her mind.
“At my birthday parties, there aren’t any Black women,” Ms. Trajano remembered thinking. “That’s structural racism that, in my case, is not born out of rejection, but out of failing to seek them out.”
That moment of introspection for Ms. Trajano, who had turned a small family business into a retail behemoth, helped plant the seeds for a bold corporate affirmative action initiative, which has drawn praise, outrage and plenty of soul searching in Brazil.
For the past two years, the public company, called Magazine Luiza, or Magalu, has limited its executive trainee program for recent college graduates — a pipeline to well-paying, senior roles — to Black applicants.
The announcement, in September 2020, generated a deluge of news coverage and commentary. Much of it was critical.
The hashtag #MagaluRacista — which means racist Magalu — trended on Twitter for days. A lawmaker close to Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s conservative president, urged federal prosecutors to open an investigation into the company, arguing that the program violated constitutional protections.
But Magazine Luiza called it a necessary and overdue step to diversify its senior ranks and to atone for the brutal legacy of racism in Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888.
Ms. Trajano emerged as the most visible and vocal defender of her company’s policy.
“Beyond the economic and social aspects, slavery left a very strong emotional mark, which is a society of colonizers and the colonized,” Ms. Trajano, 70, said. “Many people have never felt that this is their country.”
Ms. Trajano has made waves far beyond corporate spheres by speaking bluntly about issues like race, inequality, domestic violence and the failings of the political system. Parties across the political spectrum have begged her to run for office — seeing in her a rare blend of pragmatism, charisma and smarts.
“In a world where billionaires burn their fortunes on space adventures and yachts, Luiza is dedicated to a different kind of odyssey,” former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote last September in Time magazine, which selected Ms. Trajano as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. “She has taken on the challenge of building a commercial giant while constructing a better Brazil.”
Ms. Trajano was born an only child in Franca, a midsize city in the highlands of São Paulo state, where an aunt who shares her name opened a small gift store in 1957.
As the business was expanding into a small cluster of retail shops, Ms. Trajano took a job as a salesperson at one of the stores as a teenager. The experience made her passionate about customer service and workplace culture.
“When I was 17 or 18 I came up with small revolutions to make more of an investment in employees,” she said. “I began bringing in a psychologist to the store.”
Ever since then, she said has been fascinated by the factors that make employees motivated and dedicated — and those that did the opposite.
She took the helm of the business in 1991 and oversaw a huge nationwide expansion driven by the corporate mantra: “Make available to many what has been a privilege for a few.”
As Magazine Luiza — which sells a bit of everything, including household goods, electronics, clothing and beauty products — grew into a behemoth with 1,400 stores, Ms. Trajano said she worked hard to build a culture in which workers were committed to the brand’s success.
On Monday mornings, employees at all Magazine Luiza sites gather in the morning to sing the national anthem, replicating a school tradition that Ms. Trajano cherished as a child.
“You need rituals to maintain a strong culture,” Ms. Trajano said during an interview in her glass-encased office in the company’s headquarters in São Paulo.
As retail sales started to shift online, Ms. Trajano invested heavily in creating a digital marketplace and a distribution system as she groomed her son Frederico Trajano to take over day-to-day management of the business in 2016 as chief executive. She remains president of the board and its most visible figure.
Mr. Trajano, 45, said he learned from his mother to be a risk taker and to trust his intuition.
“She likes to say, ‘play in the band,’ don’t just watch it march on,” he said. “That means learning to become the protagonist of my own story.”
Ms. Trajano credited her son with coming up with the Blacks-only trainee program in 2020, but noted that it followed years of her pointing out that trainee classes were overwhelmingly white. The program has drawn neither lawsuits nor any government action.
Ana Paula Pessoa, a Brazilian business executive who served as the chief financial officer of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, said the controversy sparked by the program led to uncomfortable conversations among her peers.
“Every single company talked about it and everyone had an opinion on it,” she said. “Opening this discussion is essential because in Brazil we tend to throw things under the table and keep these huge elephants in the room that no one talks about.”
The company doubled down on the initiative by releasing a 23-minute documentary about the selection process that feels more reality show than corporate promotion. It features applicants talking about the barriers they faced in getting their careers off the ground and shows some breaking down in tears when they learn they were accepted into the program.
Raíssa Aryadne de Andrade Lima, 31, a sustainability analyst from the state of Alagoas who was admitted to the inaugural trainee class for Black professionals, said the job was transformational for her personally and professionally.
“The best thing about the program was it opened my eyes to the number of opportunities that were possible for me,” she said.
Ms. Trajano’s profile rose in 2019 after Forbes magazine first included her in its list of billionaires. She took to the label uncomfortably, Ms. Trajano said, noting that fortunes like hers can rise and fall based on stock performance.
“I enjoy making business deals and when you do that you win and you lose sometimes,” she said.
Ms. Trajano has said emphatically that she does not intend to run for office. But she has become increasingly active in shifting political debates through a group for women leaders she founded in 2013 with the aim of advancing gender parity in all spheres of power. Today, the group has more than 101,000 members.
Group leaders are drafting long-term policy plans to address chronic problems in health care, education, housing and the labor market. They also advocate gender parity in electoral politics, which Ms. Trajano says would transform Brazil’s dysfunctional and polarized system.
In early 2021, as Brazil’s government was struggling to acquire Covid-19 vaccines and Mr. Bolsonaro sowed doubts about their efficacy, Ms. Trajano became a relentless champion for inoculations, mobilizing her network of women leaders to pressure the government to act quickly and to dispel misinformation about the shots.
There has been fervent speculation online that Ms. Trajano could be a wild card in this year’s presidential elections, perhaps as a running mate of Mr. da Silva, the front-runner in the race. While she has categorically ruled out playing such a role, it’s clear Mr. Bolsonaro has come to see her as a threat to his re-election prospects.
In November, he seemed to relish that the company’s stock price had fallen in recent months amid speculation of a political partnership between Mr. da Silva and Ms. Trajano, whom the president referred to as a “socialist.”
Later that day, when Ms. Trajano was asked about the president’s remark, she said she didn’t find the label offensive.
“I think social inequality must be confronted,” she said. “If that’s being a socialist, then I’m a socialist.”