Whether venturing abroad for an opportunity or returning home to help rebuild, alumni workers span the globe.

One day last summer, Weis Sherdel (MBA ’10) and his employees returned to their office after lunch and found their desks gone and their laptops on the floor. Someone had told another department it could move into the space, and it did so without warning. >>

In the United States, where he had spent the better part of a decade as an information technology manager, Sherdel probably would have headed straight to the higher-ups and complained. But in May 2011, he had taken a job in his native Afghanistan as the development adviser for the Afghan Ministry of Mines. There, being shuffled around a building, dealing with workers with no computer skills, and digging up institutional knowledge previously stored only in someone’s head is all in a day’s work.

So he took a walk around the ministry and found a training room with an unused back corner. He moved stacks of papers around and called three of his staff members to sit there. They resisted the makeshift workspace, but Sherdel implored them to be patient.

“You just try to be creative, and you try to make things work,” Sherdel says. “I knew there was very little anybody could do. We just don’t have enough space in the building.”

For Sherdel, such inconveniences are worth suffering because they come with the opportunity to help his homeland. Sherdel is one of a growing number of Georgetown University McDonough School of Business alumni who have headed abroad as the workforce becomes more global. In 2010, 8.3 percent of graduates hired right out of the Georgetown MBA program went to work overseas, and more than 53 graduates have done so over the past three years.

Some work on multiple continents and move seamlessly between cultures despite differences, both stark and subtle, in ways of doing business. Others, such as Sherdel, are trying to apply what they have learned in the United States to accepted ways of doing business in developing countries.

Sherdel, who landed his job through connections he made as the co-founder of the American Society of Afghan Professionals, is working to create a formal method for the Afghan government to collect revenue from companies that extract minerals from the country’s mines. Although the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are $1 trillion to $3 trillion in minerals to be mined in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Mines lacks a record-keeping database and an efficient central payment process. As a result of the difficult, inefficient process, Sherdel says, small domestic mining companies have found ways to circumvent the government, extract the minerals illegally, and pay off guards at semilegal checkpoints so they can move the lithium, gold, copper, and iron.

“We’re trying to create a more streamlined and more business-friendly process for the way that we collect revenue from these companies,” says Sherdel, whose family left Afghanistan for the United States when he was 12. “We have a lot of hope that if the mining industry is up and running in the proper way, then Afghanistan, for once, can actually stand up on its own feet.”

Sherdel always wanted to return to Afghanistan to help rebuild. The older generation, he says, views the country as a place of conflict and war, but people in his generation see hope and opportunity. Still, he was overwhelmed with the move and the environment at first, prompting second thoughts about his decision. As the weeks passed, and as he noticed he was making a difference, his outlook changed.

“I felt like I had value and worth,” he says, “something that I think is kind of hard to come by in the States, because everything is developed to a level where I feel like we are just maintaining things. In Afghanistan, things have to be built from scratch. So if you’re a part of that process, it’s an amazingly gratifying feeling.

“I keep telling my friends, I am exactly where I need to be. I’m in the right place, and this is what I want to be doing.”

 Making a Transcontinental Difference

Gabriel Rabinovici (BSBA ’96) finds international work rewarding partly because he has learned to move effortlessly from culture to culture, a valuable skill in an increasingly global market. He also appreciates that his cross-continental work as managing partner in WillowTree Impact Investors involves applying resources from wealthy countries to build businesses benefiting impoverished parts of the world. WillowTree is an early-stage private equity firm based in the Middle East that focuses on for-profit impact investments in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

The socially inclined firm uses investment dollars to fund social entrepreneurs and businesses that have a positive impact in the communities they serve. That includes microfinance projects in developing countries. A relatively small amount of capital can help promising small businesses. For instance, WillowTree has been working with a company that produces solar light bulbs and fixtures. The fixtures are charged outdoors during the day, then brought inside at night to provide light. In addition to the bulbs providing light in places that have no active grid for electricity from the government, they also may help prevent some of the thousands of deaths a year in Africa attributed to fires from kerosene lights.

Rabinovici and his Georgetown business partner, Pasha Bakhtiar (BA ’96, international relations), decided to locate in the Middle East not only because Bakhtiar spent considerable time working in Dubai, but also because its strategic location between the U.S. and Asia is within an eight-hour flight of two-thirds of the world’s population.

“We see that the Middle East is more and more acting as a major financial hub,” Rabinovici says.

Launched in 2010, WillowTree is still in the capital-raising process. One of the challenges, says Rabinovici, is getting
investors to support projects that have social impact outside their region.

“Some of the investors in the Middle East are not necessarily interested in investing in a microfinance project in, say, Colombia, because it doesn’t necessarily impact the environment around them,” he says. “When it comes to impact, people tend to be more interested in seeing what their money will achieve in their backyards.”

However, the fund must invest in projects where it can both achieve impact and make returns, a point Rabinovici drives home for potential investors. For instance, the solar lightbulb company has little to do with the Middle East, but both the impact and money-making opportunities are so clear, he calls it a “no-brainer,” even for investors far from the region.

The Call of Ancestors

Michael Lee (MBA ’10) works in the Media Solution Center at Samsung Electronics headquarters, about 45 minutes south of Seoul, South Korea. Recruited while still at Georgetown, Lee does product planning and strategy for applications and content for smartphones and tablet computers.

Born in the United States, Lee wanted to work in South Korea in part because he wanted to learn his ancestral language. His parents grew up in South Korea, but immigrated to the United States as young adults. A grandfather in the foreign service spoke fluent English, and the family quickly established roots.

“All of my family members live in the U.S. now, and they’re all very American,” he says. “It’s kind of like a reverse migration for me with regards to my family. I think that most Korean-Americans grow up speaking Korean and they learn the culture, unlike my situation. This has given me the opportunity to familiarize myself with everything that I wasn’t really a part of growing up.”

Lee first worked in South Korea as a summer intern for Hyundai, where the workforce is overwhelmingly Korean. The parlance there was business Korean, which differs from casual Korean, adding another layer of complication. “It’s almost like learning the language from scratch again,” he says. Co-workers address each other in a military style, with title, then last name: Manager Lee and Vice President Park, etc.

When he first talked to Samsung’s recruiters, Lee learned that the company’s newly formed and fast-growing content division was very globally focused and used a lot of English in the work environment. “It’s kind of a softer landing for someone who is not Korean,” he says.

In some ways, Lee says, he may have had more trouble adjusting than other international employees because he is of Korean descent and native Koreans expected him to understand all the cultural norms and speak the language. Because of that, Lee values the time he spent at Georgetown, interacting with business students from other parts of the world.

For fellow MBAs wanting to work in international business, Lee offers advice: “You have to go in with the mindset that you’re expecting a whole new set of challenges. You’re expecting differences, and it’s up to you to adapt to the culture. You can’t expect the culture to adapt to you. I think as long as you have that type of mindset and a good attitude, more often than not, you’ll have a positive experience.”

When his parents visit him this fall, it will be a culmination of Lee’s own journey back to his roots — and the first time they have set foot in South Korea since the 1960s. “It will be pretty shocking for them,” Lee says, noting that when they left, South Korea’s economy was little better than North Korea’s.

Speaking Like the Locals

Patrick Knowles (EMBA ’10) is director of business expansion for CGI, a Montreal-based IT services company. Having worked in Europe, Asia, and Australia, as well as the United States, Knowles has found that each region of the world has its own set of unwritten rules. In Australia, for instance, the workplace tends to be very chummy. Colleagues are expected to socialize with each other after hours. In Asia, things are much more formal.

“It’s very difficult to get to know people personally,” Knowles says. “You just try to keep an open mind, learn the customs and how things are really done, and adapt quickly.”

After finishing his EMBA in 2010, Knowles relocated to Paris, where he now looks after CGI’s emerging markets in Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific. Because 90 percent of CGI’s revenue comes from North America, its operations in the rest of the world are fairly small.

The biggest challenge, says Knowles, is that he doesn’t have the resources he would in the United States, and the company’s reputation in his territory is not well known. Plus, strategies that might work in New York might not work for France, Poland, or Portugal.

Part of the problem, Knowles says, is that his North American colleagues tend to think of Europe strictly as a continent. “They tend to forget that it’s comprised of very diverse countries with different cultures and languages,” he says. “When you’re developing go-to market strategy, you have to know the local markets very well, which can take a long time. A foreign subsidiary based in France or Spain can have very different needs from its North American counterpart.”

CGI’s lower-cost development services from rural areas in Canada or India are attractive to an American company where the language is English. But they might not look so good to a Spanish company that wants to deal with people who speak Spanish. So Knowles must continually tweak CGI’s service model to take advantage of the company’s local resources — such as agents in the area who serve as the face of the company — while identifying new ways for clients to deal with CGI people around the world when the situation calls for it.

The challenges are numerous, but Knowles, who has been with the company since 2000, relishes them. He says he began his work abroad with just a vague interest in learning more about people and culture from other countries, and then, with the help of the EMBA, developed a specialty in helping companies be more effective in their interactions across borders.

Going Where Business Takes You

Gidget Poon (MBA ’06) did not plan on working in her native Hong Kong after graduation. She interviewed with eight or nine U.S. and overseas-based companies the winter before she graduated. But when Intel offered a job as a product line manager in its Hong Kong office, she decided to return. She wanted to be part of the phenomenal growth in the Asian markets in the tech sector — illustrated perhaps most dramatically by Intel partner Apple’s sixfold increase in sales in China in the fiscal third quarter of 2011.

Gidget — who prefers to use her first name in keeping with the casual customs for names in her work environment — also likes that Intel encourages its employees to rotate jobs periodically to keep their skills sharp. After a year spent tracking and forecasting market share for 13 countries in Asia-Pacific, Gidget became a business planning manager in 2007. She then spent three years in product planning, working as the supply lead in Asia-Pacific for central processing unit, chipset, and wireless products. In October 2010, she was promoted to business support manager. She now manages Taiwan-based clients and works closely with the sales team to drive company strategy.

Right now, Gidget is in Taiwan about a week of every month. But she doesn’t have to travel far to take in international culture. The Hong Kong office is like a mini-United Nations, with co-workers from India, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the United States.

Gidget says her experience at Georgetown, which included a market research internship for XM Satellite Radio, helped her strengthen her networking skills so she could quickly connect with new people from all over. “For job hunting, I was expected to talk about my résumé in three minutes,” she says. “The idea of ‘selling yourself’ is very different from traditional Chinese culture, where you’re supposed to be humble and build relationships over time.”

If opportunities come up, Gidget would like to relocate to either the Beijing or Taiwan office. Like her fellow alumni, she can adapt to new environments, and she moves easily among multiple regions. She is willing to go where opportunities take her.

“The Asian markets generate as much or even more revenue as domestic markets,” she says. “That’s where the business is -happening.” w

Laura Putre is a freelance writer living in Cleveland. She has written for O Magazine, The Root, Miller-McCune, and the Chicago Reader, among other publications.

 

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