Our guest speaker in Midwest Entrepreneurs class yesterday was Dr. Thomas S. Davis. After earning a degree in Chemistry from Monmouth College in 1962, Davis went on to complete a Ph.D. from Case Western University (Cleveland, OH); making him our second consecutive guest speaker to have earned both an undergraduate degree here at Monmouth College and a doctoral degree from Case Western.
What are the odds of that?
Dr. Davis spoke to the class about his extensive knowledge of doing business on a truly global scale; knowledge gained as a result of 45 years of research and development, engineering management, and global supply chain management and logistics experience with three large transnational corporations (General Electric, Philips Lighting, and Becton Dickinson). His presentation featured “lessons learned” in countries including Brazil, Japan, China, and the Netherlands; although his international business odyssey took him to 18 different nations.
Central to Dr. Davis’ presentation was a wealth of advice for entrepreneurs related to opportunities to be found abroad (i.e., outside of the United States).
As I listened to this insightful advice, I could not help but think of a research paper I published back in 2001 with Dr. David Ackerman, my then-colleague at California State University-Northridge. The paper was entitled “The Extreme Ups and Downs of Teaching Abroad” and was based on my experience as a visiting professor in Mexico as well as Dr. Ackerman’s experience teaching in China. The gist of the paper was that teaching abroad—at least in the two lesser affluent, developing nations that our experiences were based in—was a proverbial double-edged sword.
On one edge was the extreme joy of helping students in these nations better their chances for success in life while at the same time having the students help teach us about their home cultures. The other edge was just as extreme, but in the opposite direction. While this matter is very complex, let me just say that political and socioeconomic factors within our host nations and socioeconomic differences between our host nations and the United States, coupled with very different systems of higher education than we were accustomed to, produced some rather unpleasant experiences (and still-lingering memories).
Yesterday in Midwest Entrepreneurs class, Dr. Tom Davis suggested that much the same double-edged sword situation exists for entrepreneurs abroad. This situation is described below within the context of opportunities to both succeed spectacularly and fail miserably.
Opportunities to Succeed Spectacularly
As Dr. Davis informed the class yesterday, there are great opportunities abroad for growth-seeking entrepreneurs based in the United States. Specifically, as he put it, “there is a lot of action outside the United States” with the largest current and future “growth markets” (i.e., nations where rates of individual and organizational purchasing power and consumption are increasing) being located outside of this country.
Indeed, large nations such as Brazil, China, India, and Mexico are growing—economically—at rates far higher than the United States. Thus, for entrepreneurs looking for spectacular growth opportunities, nations such as these are extraordinarily attractive. However, taking advantage of these opportunities does not come without significant risk.
Opportunities to Fail Miserably
The proverbial double-edged sword for U.S. entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of spectacular growth opportunities abroad manifests itself in the fact that if one is not careful, large investments—of time, effort, and money—made in foreign nations can wind up resulting in nothing more than looking ridiculous and/or offending the very persons you are trying to sell to abroad. Doing that, as you know, is very bad business (and a near-sure pathway to ultimate miserable failure for U.S. entrepreneurs venturing abroad).
Dr. Davis informed students and others in attendance yesterday that persons in many foreign nations have a negative perception of Americans. This perception, based on both distant historical events and more recent cross-cultural blunders by U.S. companies and citizens abroad, includes opinions that Americans are, as Dr. Davis put it, “uncultured, loud, and brash,” as well as monolingual, overly blunt, unnecessarily hurried/impatient, and overly concerned about religion in their political views and behavior.
When asked about the biggest cross-cultural blunders that he has personally observed abroad, Dr. Davis stated, without hesitation, that the miserable failures he has seen are rooted most commonly in U.S. businesspeople “thinking they know more than they really do” about their host cultures and the way that things should be done.
I—based on my own experience abroad and as an instructor of international marketing courses for many years—strongly second this notion. It is, for example, inherent in the related notions of self-reference criterion (i.e., the natural yet not necessarily dysfunctional tendency to interpret events from the perspective of your home cultural ways and beliefs), and ethnocentrism (i.e., the necessarily dysfunctional belief that your home culture is superior to other cultures; and that “we” are “better” than “them”).
You may have heard the saying “the ugly American.” This title is often given to Americans abroad who exhibit ethnocentrism as manifest in exhibition of the negative behaviors and character traits discussed above.
More often than not, when U.S. businesspeople act like “ugly Americans” abroad, they are destined for miserable failure (and the squandering of vast opportunities for spectacular success).
I would like to add to—and end—this “extreme opportunities for entrepreneurs abroad” dialogue with something based on an integration of the advice for entrepreneurs shared by Dr. Davis with key lessons learned from my own cross-cultural experiences (e.g., doing business in Australia and Latin America, living in Guadalajara [Mexico] for a year, living with Zimbabweans for several years, and being married to Mexican national for 17 years).
Turning Opportunities to Fail Miserably Into Opportunities to Succeed Spectacularly
Yes, it is very true that Americans—particularly U.S. businesspeople—are viewed in many other nations in a highly negative light.
They are seen, as Dr. Davis stated yesterday, as being, among other distasteful things, “uncultured, loud, and brash” and overly blunt and impatient, and overly concerned about religion in their political views and behavior. There is also widespread perception of U.S. businesspeople—which would potentially include the entrepreneur—as being greedy and ethnocentric.
This is of course a stereotype and, as with many other stereotypes, it is based on a relatively small bit of truth blown way out of proportion with rumor, innuendo, and, sometimes, absurd assumptions and theoretical extensions; even outright distortions and lies.
In other words: The vast majority of U.S. citizens and businesspeople living or doing business abroad are not truly “evil” or devious” persons. However, highly negative perceptions of U.S. citizens and businesspersons do exist and perceptions do matter.
This, I firmly believe, is one of those occassions where perception matters far more than reality.
Yes, this sounds horrible and it does present a significant obstacle to entrepreneurs and others venturing abroad. Yet, these perceptions are an obstacle that absolutely must be overcome to realize opportunities to succeed spectacularly abroad.
Luckily, as I teach at-first surprised students in my international business courses, overcoming this tall perceptual obstacle is relatively easy; at least on an individual/personal basis.
It involves a three-step process.
First, as suggested above, you need to understand that these perceptions do indeed exist and that they are very important.
Second, do not view the existence of these perceptions in a negative light; instead, view them as an opportunity to show persons you interact with in foreign nations that you, personally, are NOT like those that exemplify the negative stereotype of the “ugly American.”
Third, consistently behave in a manner which reinforces unequivocally the notion that you are NOT an “ugly American.” This means seeing the people you interact with abroad—including business partners and customers—and their cultures as simply different; not in terms of being “better” or “worse.” It means being patient and taking the time to listen to these people as well as exhibiting a strong desire to learn about the ways and beliefs of their cultures. Only then can you—as an entrepreneur and more broadly as a human being—take full advantage of the vast opportunities that exist for U.S. citizens—and entrepreneurs—abroad.
Finally, another way to turn opportunities to fail miserably into opportunities to succeed spectacularly, as both stated and exemplified by Dr. Tom Davis, is to get a liberal arts education with extensive study in a language other than English. As Dr. Davis proudly told the class yesterday: “Thank goodness I had a liberal arts education and took two years of German here at Monmouth College.”
You see, Dr. Davis’ first assignment abroad—to his surprise at the time—took him to a German-speaking nation. He also recounted that he would later come to fully realize that his liberal arts background, particularly the writing and speaking skills he honed here at Monmouth College, would be invaluable to him as a “scientist in business.” In short, when abroad-based opportunities came Dr. Davis’ way, he was prepared and his liberal arts background was instrumental in his being spectacularly successful over the course of a 45-year career in international business.
Thank you Dr. Davis for sharing your remarkable cross-cultural and international business insight with us yesterday!