Cultural Fluency for Global Lives

By Sharon L. Crenson

Cultural FluencyChristine Bourron Tchelikidi pauses, taking a moment to consider the question: What are some of the small daily details of living abroad that make the fabric of her life different than if she had simply settled in her native France? After a few seconds, Bourron, WG’95, G’95, begins to laugh. She’s an entrepreneur who has lived and worked in four countries, but the first thing that pops into her head has nothing to do with business.

Her first child, Chloe, was born in the United States while Christine and her Russian-born husband, Ilia Tchelikidi, WG’94, were living in New York City. One of her strongest memories of Chloe’s first days is the warning a nurse delivered as the new mom and daughter left the hospital. “No matter what,” the woman said, “if you don’t remember anything else, remember to keep the site of the umbilical cord dry. It must stay dry to heal.”

Less than two years later, that warning echoed in Bourron’s head as she left a hospital in France with daughter number two swaddled in her arms. The attending nurse commented mildly that Bourron wouldn’t need much advice since this was her second child. “Oh yes,” Bourron told her. “And what we remember most is to keep the belly-button dry! We remember that very well.” The French nurse was aghast. “You don’t know anything,” she exclaimed. “You must wash it every day to guard against infection!”

Bourron smiles as she recounts the story. The most important lesson she has learned living in France, Ukraine, the United States and now Moscow is to listen to everyone’s opinions, make her own decisions and be smart enough to sometimes keep them to herself.

“I think I know now that it is very important to adapt to a new place,” Bourron says. “Just to adapt and not try to compare.” She says that because of her extensive travel, she isn’t held back by the certainty of her own customs.

Indeed, talk to a dozen expatriates and a few patterns emerge. People who are able to make their lives work in foreign countries simply tick differently. They are braver. They are inherently more adaptable. Often they don’t question why people in different countries behave differently—they simply embrace the differences.

Flexibility and open-mindedness are traits shared by hundreds of Wharton graduates who live and/or work across cultures, says Sherrill Davis, managing director of the Lauder Institute at Wharton, the School’s pioneering program in management, international studies and language.

One graduate says the program teaches “a cultural toolkit of tolerance, patience, listening and interpretation skills.” Davis says Lauder tends to attract students who grew up with a parent or other family member who lived and worked abroad. Other applicants studied in foreign countries during their high school or undergraduate years. She calls them Wharton’s “global nomads.”

Like a passel of other Lauder alums, Bourron was first introduced to the program by its graduates. She met Nancy Nicholl-Hasson, WG’91, G’91, while the two worked for Procter & Gamble in France. Bourron had just finished her finance degree at Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris and wasn’t ready to return to the classroom. But Hasson’s praise of Wharton stuck with Bourron. Later, when Bourron met Steven Minsky, WG ’91, G’91, on a project in Ukraine, she realized she needed an MBA.

Minsky was directing CDV Apple Computer’s launch in the former Soviet satellite. “Whatever problem we were facing—and there were so many of them—nothing was impossible to him,” Bourron recalls. “It was really an attitude that ‘I can do it and if I can’t do it, I will find someone who can help me do it.'”

It was a vastly different mindset than she remembered from her business classes in France, and it was infectious. Today Bourron is the founder and CEO of PaintingsDIRECT.com, a New York-area company offering for sale over the Internet more than 10,000 paintings, photographs and limited editions prints from about 500 artists. Its website allows visitors to search for artwork by style, medium, price, size or subject.

Although the prospect of buying art without being able to put your nose next to the canvas and, as Bourron likes to say, “smell the oil,” may not be for every buyer, PaintingsDIRECT compensates by offering information not available at most galleries. The site includes artists’ biographies, their motivations, information about other works they have produced, even a nifty feature that allows shoppers to see their purchases in different frames before they buy.

Bourron launched the business while living in Boston in 1997, then moved to New York—where the money and artists are—the following year. She and her husband visited Moscow often, but felt it was too dangerous a place to live.

Then on September 11, 2001, they lost both Bourron’s office and their apartment. Bourron was nine months pregnant, unable to run from the chaos of Lower Manhattan. Instead she lumbered. Afterward, when they were allowed to return home and the business was relocated to new headquarters across the Hudson River, the couple was left with the sense that no place was really safe. The family relocated to Moscow where Tchelikidi works as an investment banker and Bourron settles herself in a section of their sprawling home each day to work on her art business. Her business partner, Pamela Ponce Johnson,WG’91, G’91, also a Wharton and Lauder alum, holds down the fort in the company’s New York-area office.

Every morning Bourron rises with CNN, then tunes in the Russian news, shifts to the Internet to see what’s happening in France, then moves on to The New York Times online.

“I am in Russia, but I could be anywhere as long as you give me an Internet connection,” she says, adding that she relishes the extra jolt that comes with living in a city where so much is happening in business. “There are so many needs to be fulfilled,” Bourron says. “It’s a dream place for entrepreneurs.”

Davin MacKenzie, Betting on the Yuan

Davin MacKenzie, WG’89, G’89, feels the same bubbling sense of possibility in Beijing as Bourron has found in Moscow.

“What I enjoy about it is that the place is so dynamic. There’s a tangible sense of growth and change and it’s just really exhilarating to be a part of,” MacKenzie says. “You feel like you are an actor—a very small actor—in this great human drama. When you look back at the 21st century, whatever happens to China is going to be an important part of it.”

Canadian-born MacKenzie and his Chinese-born wife, Leslie, considered moving to the states a few years ago when he was preparing to leave his Beijing-based job with the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group that promotes private sector investment in development countries.

The couple knew they could return to the picturesque Bethesda, MD, house on the leafy suburban street where they had lived after MacKenzie graduated from Wharton and the Lauder Institute. They knew it would be a very comfortable place to raise their two children.

Ultimately, however, they thought they would simply not be as happy as they are in the bustle of Beijing, where it sometimes seem a new skyscraper can rise almost as quickly as a foreigner can learn to correctly pronounce “ni hao” (hello).

They decided to stay put. MacKenzie partnered with fellow Wharton alum John Ying, WG’89, G’89, to launch a boutique merchant bank they called iVentures (recently renamed Peak Capital).

The family has since made their home in a large contemporary house in a gated community some distance from Beijing’s polluted, overcrowded center. MacKenzie says he believes his children, a daughter, 14, and son, 12, will benefit from the family’s cross-cultural lifestyle. They converse easily in English with their father and just as smoothly in Chinese with their mother. They attend one of Beijing’s international schools, spend summers in the states and enjoy the kind of vacations Indiana Jones might envy. A recent Friday morning, for example, found the family on the edge of the Gobi Desert poised to mount camels as they visited century’s old Buddhist grottos.

“I think they will be the better for it, for having grown up in this kind of culture,” MacKenzie says.

Both he and his wife know firsthand the joys and growth that come from living outside one’s own culture. Although MacKenzie was born in Canada, he moved to Princeton, NJ, at the age of 12, when his father was transferred there by Johnson & Johnson. He studied French in high school and college and spent a semester in France before taking up Chinese at Dartmouth College.

MacKenzie doesn’t seem to give his cross-cultural life a second thought. Even learning the language came relatively easily. Once a person has mastered the tones, he says, the grammar is very simple. “Go store,” for example, is a transliteration of perfect Chinese for the sentence: “I am going to the store.”

“I don’t think Chinese is as difficult a language as most people think,” MacKenzie says. “It’s certainly not as difficult as the Chinese like to think.”

Barb Coffin Spurling, WG’90, Mom on the Move

 Barb Coffin Spurling, WG’90, G’90, says there are a few simple things she misses about living in her native United States: The Today Show on NBC, Super Wal-Mart, wide parking spaces, and of course being closer to her extended family.

But when she married her British-born husband Martin, an international manager with HSBC who is part of a permanently mobile group of senior executives, the two decided his career would be their primary professional commitment. So far, that has meant pulling up stakes and moving to a new foreign city roughly every three years.

The couple met in Tokyo when Barb Coffin, as she was known then, was working for The Mac Group, a management consulting firm that has since morphed into Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. It was her second international position, the first being a short stint in London with Mac right after she graduated from Lauder’s Japanese program. Her position in Tokyo included projects in Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, India and Pakistan.

Then HSBC moved her husband to Hong Kong. Now known as Barb Coffin Spurling, she went with him, but continued to commute to Tokyo while managing an onsite project in the Philippines.

Not surprisingly, the international commute ultimately proved untenable. She took a position with Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong, working for the next four years as their business manager for Asia Pacific Corporate Finance, then as manager of training and recruiting for the Asia Pacific region. It was while living in Hong Kong that Spurling gave birth to Carter, her first son. With the family’s next move—this time to Karachi, Pakistan—Spurling decided the position of full-time CEO of the Spurling household was the job she wanted most.

“When I left Wharton, I was very career minded, and I found the jobs I was doing to be very rewarding. However, after we started a family I wanted to be able to give my best time to my children and to be available for them as my first priority. I sometimes miss the corporate world, but I also think I’m very lucky to have the opportunity that I have,” she says.

“Since we move on average every three years, I spend a great deal of time either closing down or setting up house,” she says. After two years in Karachi, it was off to Jersey, Channel Islands, for four years, then to Taipei, Taiwan, in January of 2004.

It all means learning about new communities and new cultures and making new friends on a regular basis. As soon as the Spurlings find out where they are slated to go next, they start researching it, which includes talking to as many people as they can find who have had experience in the country. The Internet, of course, makes such research much easier than it was 15 years ago.

Once they arrive, Spurling tries to get involved in the community as quickly as possible. In Karachi she immersed herself in the British Women’s Association, including chairing the Christmas Bazaar Committee, the association’s biggest annual fund-raiser. In Jersey, she served first as secretary, then chairperson of a local privately run mother and toddler group. And after less than a year in Taipei, she was elected to the school board for the British Section of the Taipei European School. She serves as the board’s treasurer, and also runs a Saturday soccer group for about 100 kids.

“I’m very happy with my choice to be a full-time mom, but I still like being able to do analysis and manage projects,” she says. “Community and volunteer roles are great because I can usually do them on my own time and feel like I’m making a real contribution.”

It’s not all fun and games, however. Spurling says she sometimes finds volunteering frustrating because of the lack of accountability among unpaid workers. There is really no recourse if someone in a critical role doesn’t pull his own weight or proves unqualified. And then there are the cultural challenges specific to each location. In Karachi, for example, she never knew from day to day whether she would have electricity, water or telephone service.

There were other challenges as well. Take the Christmas Bazaar in Karachi, for example. Among the many exacting tasks was to plan the stall layout down to the centimeter. There were tents and carpets to be arranged, all by 8 a.m. of opening day, then set up of tables and chairs.

But when Spurling arrived that morning, the slow-moving work crew was only about 25 percent finished tearing down the previous evening’s event.

She fetched the English-speaking hotel manager and convinced him to call in more workers. Somehow the stalls went up in time, but hardly according to the painstaking map. Now when she knows there is a language barrier, she takes precautions and builds in an extra time cushion. The bazaar in Karachi ultimately raised a record sum, but now Spurling says a little extra planning would have allowed her to manage with less anxiety.

In any case, Spurling says the skills of time management, problem solving and networking that Wharton taught her have turned out to be invaluable, as has Lauder’s focus on cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity. “We all have cultural biases,” she says. “The trick to assimilating in a foreign culture is to check your own cultural baggage at the door and try to understand what other people are carrying.”

Soo Han Magyar and Dominik Magyar, both WG’90, G’90, a Power Couple Changes It up

Soo Han and Dominik Magyar are like the Dynamic Duo of Wharton alumni. They graduated with MBAs from Wharton and MAs through the Lauder program together in 1990. They hopscotch around the globe taking turns holding fast-track jobs. They banter breezily about their careers, children and life philosophy with a quick-wittedness worthy of television’s “The West Wing.”

The Korean-born, American-raised mom and Swiss dad currently live in London, where they are re-writing the rules for their high-powered careers. Soo now heads a planning and research group she built from the ground up for the Diamond Trading Company. Dominik runs a small independent school on the grounds of an old Victorian vicarage which the couple purchased as a means for Dominik to downshift from the demanding Booz Allen Hamilton consulting job he held for a decade.

“We had certain aspirations about bringing up our children,” Dominik says. “Continuing on this Booz Allen partner track didn’t make sense.”

There was a time when their roles were much different.

Soo and Dominik met at Wharton and Lauder, moving to London after graduation. Dominik landed a plum offer from Booz Allen, and Soo took a position in brand management for Procter & Gamble. They were happy—and in a way, too comfortable. They always intended to travel the world and live in a variety of countries. They didn’t like the thought of getting so settled in London—or anywhere—that they would hesitate to leave. Dominik requested a transfer to shake things up.

It was off to Tokyo—Dominik with Booz Allen, Soo first with Cartier, then Kellogg’s. The change suited them well, even if Soo’s Japanese colleagues were a bit, well, perplexed when she became pregnant and continued to work.

“When a woman gets to be about seven months pregnant in Japan, she disappears into her family’s home. It is considered unsightly to see her in the street, and I worked until one week before delivery,” Soo says. She even suspects that coworkers might have been poking into her office more often than necessary just to see if she had delivered the baby at her desk.

They were even more surprised when she returned to work a few months after the child was born. That surprise bordered on shock after Soo had her second child and also returned to the office after a short maternity leave. She later stayed at home with the children for a few years, but was antsy to return to work afterward. In Japan, she says the support services available to expats made the decision to keep working relatively easy. There was even a nursery for the children with a ratio of one caregiver for every two babies.

“I think that if you are an expatriate in Japan or a foreigner, you have access to a very special community, a support network,” Dominik says.

Not so when the family moved to Chicago in August 1998. It was less than a year before Dominik asked to be transferred back to Europe. He was already beginning to think about buying a small business, and says now that he might have done so in the United States, but Soo is adamant that Chicago was too difficult a place for her to be a mom, a wife and an executive all at once.

A move back to London was soon in the works. Soo was itching to rejoin the corporate workforce after more than three years as her children’s primary caregiver, and Chicago just didn’t seem as accommodating as London.

Today she calls her current four-day-a-week job “fantastic” and revels in the challenge of growing the market for diamonds and diamond jewelry because the products have, as she puts it, “no practical use whatsoever … it’s just about people’s dreams.” She manages 10 employees in London and another 10 scattered across such far-flung locales as Hong Kong and India.

As a marketer, she likes to say that “everybody wants their shampoo to give them clean and nicely smelling hair, their toothpaste shiny white teeth, their breakfast cereal a healthy, filling start to the day. But how you communicate with people so that your product achieves this varies greatly across cultures.”

The idea has huge implications for market research and advertising, not to mention how to run a meeting, give a speech, or behave in a team while working in a foreign country, and the skills learned at Lauder have helped.

Dominik illustrates the point by recounting an ad campaign by HSBC Bank. Displayed in airports around the world, the ads feature a common item with a caption explaining its significance in different countries. One showing a grasshopper, for instance, says it is a pest in the United States, a lucky charm in Thailand, an appetizer in China.

Keeping these cultural differences in mind has helped Dominik succeed both in his former consulting job and now in running a nursery and pre-prep school in London. The transition seems huge, but Dominik believes it was a logical lifestyle choice.

He set out looking for a small business to buy, something that would allow him to be the boss and at the same time make it possible to be with his family more. Those two objectives would have been at odds with one another in many businesses. After all, the buck stops with the boss.

But the Herne Hill School presented a special opportunity. Because Dominik had worked in management consulting all over the world, he was well prepared to parachute into an unfamiliar business. And schools by their very nature wind down mid-afternoon, allowing a certain flexibility in work hours. The choice also offered an opportunity for Dominik to continue using his skills in finance, accounting, advertising and insurance management. He especially likes roaming the halls as 250 children, ages 3 to 7, call him by name.

“Now I’m a big fish in a small pond. I particularly like that aspect, I must say. I get to make all the decisions, and there are no politics.”

Soo likes to joke that there is no “exit plan.” They even bought a house for the first time in their lives, a quintessential semi-detached London home they have filled with antiques collected around the world. Asked if they plan to stay, the couple says they have made a five to 10 year commitment to themselves, but who knows?

“Our story is that we have made a pretty radical change in our 40s. I honestly don’t believe it was a mid-life crisis,” Dominik says. “It was the next logical progression into something more controllable in terms of how we spend our time, and that is to spend our time with our children.”

Robert Torretti, WG’00, G’00, Chasing his Childhood Dream

While Wharton parents raising children abroad all seem to believe strongly in the benefits of doing so, Robert Torretti, WG’00, G’00, says his parents’ decision to raise him in just one country, in just one city, likely contributed to his wanderlust.

His father, a medical professor, and mother, a social worker, were Chilean but had settled in Syracuse, NY, via Baltimore and New Haven, CT, by the time Torretti was born. His older siblings had the opportunity to live elsewhere — including in Chile. But Torretti grew up primarily in one house just outside Syracuse. Although the family spoke a lot of English at home, he still learned Spanish from his parents and visiting relatives while listening intently to his family’s stories of Chile.

“Since I’m the only one that never grew up abroad, I felt the pull,” he says. He majored in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, and spent a summer working at a family-related company in Santiago before his senior year.

After graduation, Torretti took a job with American International Group member ALICO. The position was based in Wilmington, DE, but included work in Switzerland and Uruguay before he headed to Wharton’s Lauder Institute in 1998.

After graduation, he worked as an investment banker advising on insurance mergers and acquisitions in the United States, Canada and Latin America, then returned to AIG in 2002 as the company’s regional investment officer for insurance operations in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

In the spring of 2004, Torretti got the phone call asking if he wanted to move to Europe. At first, it was supposed to be Spain, but when his superiors ssaw that his resume included Portuguese, a language he learned entirely thanks to Lauder, it gave them other ideas. While Spanish speakers are fairly easy to come by, not so for Portuguese. He moved to Portugal late last year. Torretti says that while living in London, Paris or other world capitals would likely have led him directly into the arms of fellow Wharton or Hopkins alumni, choosing a slightly less trafficked country made meeting people more difficult. He did make one social connection through the Wharton grapevine—a friend of a Lauder classmate working on a hotel project in Lisbon. He was gracious enough to introduce Torretti around town. So far, the friends he has made are mostly other expatriates, but the only Americans are ones with connections to the embassy. His Portuguese acquaintances tend to be through work or people who are romantically linked with other expats.

Still single, Torretti seems intensely focused on work, concentrating on AIG’s direct marketing business. He notes that the lifestyle in Portugal is different than New York. Never is this more evident that at lunchtime, when most everyone in the office still enjoys a full lunch hour, not like the quick bite at a desk in New York.

With less than a year in residence, he says he’s still working on his language skills, looking for more Portuguese friends, and adjusting to the things he can’t find in a society as homogeneous as the one where he’s working. Oddly, he says one of the things he misses most about the states isn’t American at all, but rather a byproduct of America’s status as the world’s melting pot. The thing that Torretti misses most, other than his friends, is dim sum.


20 Years of Leading International Business

During the 2005-2006 academic year, the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies will graduate its 20th class of joint-degree recipients prepared to take on the challenges of international business.

More than two decades ago, the Lauder Institute launched with only 50 students. Today the alumni base includes about a thousand graduates working around the world in fields from finance and consulting to consumer goods and nonprofit management. Leonard Lauder, W’54, and Ronald Lauder, W’65, established the Institute with a gift of $10 million in honor of their late father, Joseph H. Lauder, who with their mother, Estée Lauder, founded the Estée Lauder Companies. As an international concern, Estée Lauder needed talented business people with the skills to conduct negotiations in languages other than English and cultures other than the United States. The Lauders hoped the new academic program would help solve the company’s difficulty in finding qualified executives.

Dr. Richard Herring, Wharton professor and director of the Lauder Institute, agrees that “too many American MBAs were exclusively domestically focused, without an international perspective, lacked language skills, and were unable to deal with cultural differences.” The Lauder Institute offers a program that prepares leaders for the world of global business. Four past Lauder students now sit on the Institute’s Board of Governors: Janifer M. Burns, WG’86, G’86, managing director, Debt Capital Markets, BBVA Securities, Inc.; David Trachtenberg, WG’88, G’88, president and CEO of Glowpoint; Shiv Khemka, WG’90, G’90, director, Sun Group Companies (Russia); and Thomas Bendheim, WG’90, G’90, former CEO, Rheingold Beer.

Graduates of the Lauder program earn an MBA from Wharton and an MA in International Studies from the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. In addition to the full MBA curriculum, the program includes advanced applied language, coursework in international and regional studies, a master’s thesis, and a two-month, in-country immersion during the summer preceding the start of Wharton’s MBA program. To be considered by Lauder, a student must be admissable to Wharton and demonstrate non-native proficiency in one of languages offered by the Institute: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

After 20 years, the Lauder program is more relevant than ever. Lauder’s newest track is Arabic, begun in 2002 amid turmoil in the Middle East. The program has graduated four alumni who are all working in and with the Middle East, fostering business connections at a time when they are sorely needed.

New York-based writer Sharon Crenson is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.

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