Rodrigo Tostes’ fast-track career found him overseeing the biggest private industrial project in his native Brazil at age 29. By his late thirties, he was managing 300,000 people — including more than 11,000 athletes and the expectations and aspirations of his country — as chief operating officer of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
But a major health scare just before his 42nd birthday in 2018 convinced Tostes to reevaluate this life trajectory and refocus on his wife, two sons, and opportunities to help his country and its people. He decided to quit his job as CEO of VLT Carioca, one of Brazil’s largest transportation companies, five days after that health scare. He since has become an investor and founder of a sustainable startup named YVY, which focuses on disrupting the household cleaning market by developing an innovative natural product and sustainable system to minimize plastic waste.
He also decided to deepen his education and sharpen his skills, which brought him to the Stanford Executive Program last June.
You quit your CEO job at VLT Carioca shortly after being diagnosed with a heart obstruction. Was that difficult?
I had been postponing it a long, long time. After the Olympics, my wife and kids made me promise to stop for a while. But five days after I quit the Olympics, I was offered the position as CEO of VLT, going from one challenge to another. After the heart incident I heard a very strong call: “This is your last chance.” I wanted to use this second part of my life in a better way. It was not an easy decision. A lot of people think it was a strange one. But I’m one of those people that says if you don’t do something radical in terms of changing completely, you don’t get there.
You’d faced some pretty hairy public relations challenges, both at the 2016 Summer Games because of substandard housing problems, and later at VLT because of a transportation accident. Can you tell us about those?
The Olympics situation was complex. The company building the village stopped paying its workers, and our team that was supposed to check hadn’t done the proper assessment. Eighty percent of the athletes’ rooms had problems, and half had severe problems. Twelve days before the Games were to start, Australia went public and refused to move its athletes into the village. We almost had to cancel everything. It was one of the biggest crises ever to happen in the Olympic Games.
How did you respond?
We did not blame anyone. We put about 3,000 new workers in there to fix the problems, and in some cases they had to work around people who were already in the buildings. We had to find them hotels and other housing, which was difficult because the city was full. We had trained for other crises, not for that one. Training is very important, but I learned that having a system in place and the right people is crucial.
Tell us about the high-profile accident that happened while you were at VLT.
We had a kid who got hit by a tram that was going 25 miles per hour and luckily only broke his arm. The biggest lesson of that accident was that we’d educated the public about how hard we had worked to make the system safe and reliable. Our company had credibility when the accident happened. No one hit us too hard because they knew how hard we were working to avoid that kind of thing. Dealing with media is critical during situations like that.
You decided to be transparent with the public during both of those crises. Why?
The first impulse in the corporate world is to have someone go out and give an excuse. But being transparent and telling the truth and explaining what you’re going to do to solve the issue creates the trust that’s needed to move forward from the critical situation. Excuses don’t work most of the time. Being transparent is the most efficient way to come out the other side of the tunnel. Your job is to assume responsibility if you make a mistake. Companies usually are evaluated by how they respond to a crisis, not by the crisis itself.
You’ve said the things you’ve enjoyed most during your career have been “critical challenges and difficult times.” Why are those experiences so valuable?
I’m the guy that takes jobs that others do not want. In standard situations, everybody can perform. But those critical times are when you really see who can perform and not perform, and you can differentiate the levels of professionals. I believe those complex situations make you grow faster and shape a better leadership style.
Other than the health scare, what was happening in your life and career at the time you left VLT?
I started my career with C-level positions very early, and I learned a lot of things from brilliant people that I worked with during that journey. But I somehow had missed learning how to organize my thoughts and think in a more structured way. I wanted to translate my experiences into insights. I also realized how much things had changed during my career. I started my high management positions when I was 27, and my mentors at that time were 60. That’s a big gap in terms of what’s happening today. You’re always preparing for something where you can put your experience into action, but the world is changing at the same time. So you have to catch up from time to time, not only in your industry, but more broadly.
How did the switch to the YVY startup enable you to downshift into what you call “Life Part 2”?
Now I can create my own priorities. That was the biggest gain in terms of managing my life. I want to do something better — change lives, change organizations, and change the world, as they say at Stanford GSB. YVY is attempting to make the way consumers clean their homes more sustainable with super-concentrated capsules that use natural ingredients and less water.
Why do you want this phase of your career to be less about personal advancement and more about helping others and your country?
There’s a big gap between what’s going on in my country and what’s going on here in Silicon Valley, and I feel it’s important to explain to people in Brazil what’s going on elsewhere. Right now, I’m supporting a great initiative by some Stanford students to bring the top 300 executives from my country to Stanford for two days to show them what’s going on here in terms of fintech, healthtech, and edutech. That’s a very important piece of what I want to do. When you share experiences with others, people will find a way to do things better. The biggest question is how to transform the knowledge we have here into action there.
Which people or experiences during your time in the Stanford Executive Program have proved to be particularly useful?
[Sports Management Initiative Director] George Foster taught me a lot about applying sports concepts to the business world. He helped me understand the mindset of how to build a strong team around you and how to work with the same purpose. Another is Steven Callander, my mentor in crisis management and someone with a deep understanding of crisis communication. Baba Shiv was also a great. He studies the mental side of how we make decisions and how to persuade people. I also enjoyed studying all the cases of unicorn companies that moved from something that no one believed in into something that changed the world. Last but not least was learning how to keep a sense of innovation in a corporation once it becomes huge. I left there with a lot of insight into how to find ways to keep that spirit going and inspire people so they still feel like they’re working at a startup.
Photos by Kiefer Hickman