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Billionaire Luiza Trajano, the businesswoman shaking up Brazil

·4-min read

Brazilian businesswoman Luiza Trajano has made it onto a lot of lists: TIME's most influential people, Forbes' billionaires, the biggest fortunes in Brazil...

But although she has been touted as a potential contender in Brazil's presidential elections this year, there is one list she says she is determined to stay off: the ballot.

With the country deeply polarized ahead of October's polls, "I want to unite Brazil," not divide it further, says the 73-year-old entrepreneur, who made her fortune building her family store, Magazine Luiza, into one of Latin America's biggest online retailers.

Not that Trajano, a household name in Brazil, is shying from the spotlight as the race heats up between far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his nemesis, leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Known for her trailblazing work promoting women's equality, fighting racial discrimination and pushing to speed up Brazil's vaccination campaign against Covid-19, Trajano says she remains engaged as ever in this clutch election year.

"I want to take Brazil where I think it should be, where I think it deserves to be," she told AFP in an interview.

"I want to end these deep divisions that are causing the country a lot of harm," said the elegantly dressed businesswoman, a forceful speaker with an imposing personality offset by her contagious laugh and bright red lipstick.

- 'Different' odyssey -

Plenty of Brazilians would like to see Trajano get into politics.

With the business sector and political middle desperately seeking centrist alternatives to Lula and Bolsonaro, her name was floated as a potential "third-way" candidate.

There was also talk Lula could ask her to be his running mate.

"I've been invited plenty of times (to run), including for president," Trajano said.

But she added she doesn't want labels, beyond the ones she already has: chair of the board at Magalu, as her company is popularly known, and president of Women of Brazil, her 100,000-member empowerment initiative.

"I'm nonpartisan, but political," she said.

That has not stopped Bolsonaro from attacking her as a "socialist businesswoman."

Lula has meanwhile sung her praises.

When TIME named Trajano to its list of 100 most influential people last year, the ex-president (2003-2010) wrote the magazine's blurb on her.

"In a world where billionaires burn their fortunes on space adventures and yachts, Luiza is dedicated to a different kind of odyssey... building a commercial giant while constructing a better Brazil," waxed the Workers' Party (PT) founder.

But Trajano wants to be clear: The PT has "never" asked her to run for office, she said.

- Salesgirl to chairwoman -

Trajano grew up the only child of a modest family in the city of Franca, in southeastern Brazil.

She started working at 12 during school vacation, helping out at the household goods store founded in 1957 by her aunt, also named Luiza.

"I had the fortune to come from a family of women entrepreneurs, who believed in the power of women at a time when most women didn't work outside the home," said Trajano.

She took the helm in 1991, and soon turned the business into one of the biggest retail chains in Brazil, with nearly 1,500 stores, and an e-commerce pioneer.

"I've broken a lot of beliefs that limited me," said Trajano.

"I love doing that."

- No slowing down -

Trajano rejects Bolsonaro's label of "socialist." But paradoxically, the fifth-richest woman in Brazil, whose fortune is estimated at $1.4 billion, says she is no fan of capitalism either, calling it "savage."

She prefers to focus on ways to better society.

When Covid-19 hit Brazil hard and Bolsonaro flouted expert advice on containing it, Trajano mobilized a campaign called "United for the Vaccine" that rallied private-sector support for the public-health system.

Seeking to fight structural racism in Brazil, she launched a trainee program at Magazine Luiza in 2020 to recruit promising black employees -- drawing both applause and criticism.

Now she is setting her sights on including more women in politics.

Women currently hold just 15 percent of seats in Brazil's Congress. Trajano wants them to hold half.

She won't run herself -- but she's not slowing down, either.

"I change cycles, but I'll never retire," she said.


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