University of Southern California

Climbing Out of Poverty
Asa Firestone MBA '12 Blends Business and Social Entrepreneurship in BeyondGear
July 12, 2012 • by News at Marshall

Rocinha, Brazil, is the last place you'd expect a rock-climbing expedition. One of Rio de Janeiro's largest—and most dangerous—"favelas" or slums, Rocinha is home to an impressive 200,000 people, ruled by drug lords and gangs as much as by the police or government. A casual observer will see a mix of precariously built shelters next to military compounds with armor-clad tanks and intimidating-looking men with bulletproof vests and guns. But when the casual observer looks up above the settlements of Rocinha, he or she sees something else.

A sheer rock face, jutting hundreds of feet in the air directly from the edge of Rocinha, beckons even the most experienced rock climber. And that rock face made Asa Firestone MBA '12 see something else: a way to get Rocinha's children away from gangs, drugs and guns, and into a whole different kind of adventure.

Firestone, an avid rock climber, is the founder of Centro de Escaladas Urbanas (CEU), or Center for Urban Climbing ("ceu" means "sky" in Portuguese). The center is dedicated to teaching rock climbing and other adventure sports to young children in poor, crime-plagued communities like Rocinha.

The CEU organization has attracted worldwide attention since its founding. It received grants from the American Alpine Club as well as Kiehl's (a high end cosmetics company); major climbing companies have donated gear, including ropes, harnesses and helmets. And recently, Firestone successfully negotiated a partnership with a government sports complex in Rocinha that will feature a permanent indoor climbing wall. Today, even the temporary climbing wall is enjoying popularity.

"About 200 kids climbed the wall in November," said Firestone. "There's great support and excitement among the potential students." The rock above Rocinha has seen mountain climbers before. In fact, when Firestone and his teammates first climbed the rock, they discovered rusted-out climbing bolts that had been installed in the 1970s. Eyeing an old climbing route called "Patrick White", Firestone noted "the line up has not seen an ascent in possibly more than ten years, due to the serious threat from drug dealers." However, recent increased police presence has made climbing not only safer, but possible.

When Firestone first started visiting Rocinha, he was startled to meet a young teen, grinning ear to ear and slinging a large machine gun over his shoulder. Now, climbing up to "Patrick White" and the Rocinha wall, he was equally—but this time pleasantly—startled to find children, some wearing no shoes, climbing on the rock faces at the base of the very steep wall.

Firestone is also helping to train children to climb in Peru, and is delighted with how enthusiastic the youthful Brazilians are toward the sport. "You're replacing one kind of risk—of joining a gang, becoming a drug dealer, with another risk. This adventure risk is more positive," he said. By getting kids more enthusiastic about adventure sports like climbing, they can be ambitious about things that can take them out of the favela culture, if not physically out of the favela. "Climbing also is considered upper-class; unattainable. We're breaking those cultural barriers," Firestone said.

Firestone has also founded a for-profit company, BeyondGear. Every purchase of climbing gear from BeyondGear is used to send at-risk youth on a day of climbing education. BeyondGear provides fair-wage products produced by local communities and sales fund adventure schools. Current products include chalk bags (used to keep hands dry), climbing hardware, zipper pulls, and sports pants, as well as offers on travel and gyms. By 2014, Firestone hopes to expand BeyondGear product lines to include equipment for surfing, skiing and cycling.

Firestone says his experience as a Marshall MBA was vital to his development of CEU and BeyondGear. As a Fellow at the Society and Business Lab and with a focus in entrepreneurship at the Greif Center, Firestone was able to blend business with social impact in a way not offered at other institutions. "My experience at Marshall was unique, and pivotal in giving me the tools and confidence to pursue such a non-traditional path in social entrepreneurship," he said.

But Firestone knows that he faces obstacles—re-incursions by gangs, government red tape remain issues—but to him, the risks are worth it. Even as Firestone has suffered a few bloody scrapes from the "cheese grater" granite of Rocinha's rock face, he remembers the beaming smiles of Rocinha's youth, looking up to the ceu and down at the favela.

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