Small Business

Lasagna, Cookies -- and Me


By Lisa Bergson I left my watch by the sink at home. Too late, I realize my skirt is on backwards. My heart beats so fast, I can't possibly speak. Standing by a posterboard with my name and title printed in large red letters, I try to breathe. Geri Perkins, executive director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia, introduces me to a room full of MBA students from around the world, their prospective business mentors, and faculty members -- some 100 people all told. "Speak from the heart and you'll be fine," advised Arnold Phillips, 75, my personal mentor, who I called in a growing panic on the way here.

I said yes without hesitation when Geri asked if I would serve as the keynote speaker on accessing global markets at Temple's first mentor/student networking event. After all, I'm determined not just to master public speaking, but to excel at it. It's an extension of writing this column -- an even better, more direct way to reach out, move, and inspire people, my ultimate goal.

After munching cheesy lasagna and moving on to chocolate-chip cookies, the students sit at big, round tables set up in the business school's lounge. Most wear suits, and the young men sport ties. I'm glad for my cherry red, Calvin Klein suit. When Geri finishes extolling my achievements, I place my notes, my decaf coffee, and a plastic cup of water on the lectern and say, "What Geri didn't tell you is that I'm also a Temple dropout." That gets their attention.

HANDS ACROSS THE WATER. Now that we're on a confidential basis, I equate the role of the overseas sales rep to that of the mentors they seek today. He or she can help you overcome the considerable barriers -- social, cultural, historic, and institutional -- to conducting business abroad, I tell them. "With the Internet, MTV, affordable travel, and multinationals, you might assume the world is a smaller, more homogeneous, and manageable place," I say. "But if you're traveling on business, guess what? It isn't."

To illustrate, I planned to call for someone Japanese to come forward and show the proper way to greet someone and to exchange business cards in his or her country. Earlier, during dinner, I found myself seated next to tall, obliging Hidetaka Goto, an international MBA student. Since we were able to rehearse his role, our demonstration, which I had fretted over for days, goes perfectly.

"We make very brief eye contact and bow slightly. All this staring we do over here is rude to them," I say as Goto-san and I face one another. "He reaches into his breast pocket -- not his wallet -- and hands me the card with both hands. He is giving me an extension of himself." Goto-san pounds his heart and beams -- I speak truth. "You take the card with both hands and read it carefully, both sides. Then you put it away in your breast pocket or a nice card case. Show respect." Before leaving the stage, Goto-san makes a big gesture of shaking my hand to everyone's applause.

GLOBAL ANIMOSITIES. We're launched. The parts I most worried about are the ones they like best. Would the faculty take offense if I tell students about the valuable role that local sales representatives play in shielding you from the "ethically and legally questionable practices prevalent in some countries"? Not at all. In fact, the issue provokes much discussion during the Q&A and after, with a few of the mentors complaining about corruption here at home.

Would the students consider me narrow-minded if I generalize about how, in selecting a local sales rep, you must take into account the social values in different countries, perhaps their homeland? The Japanese students concur that in their nation, relationships reign supreme. I get no argument when I claim that in Germany, it's most important to have a representative who is degreed and technically competent in your field. And the one Korean student agrees that school ties are binding in his homeland.

When I turn to the need to be "cognizant of deep-seated, historic animosities around the world," they are right there with me. Assuring them that, with determination, you can overcome anything, I tell them about Arnold Phillips' daughter. An African-American woman, she successfully opened up Asia for my company. All the same, I encourage them to study history and become aware of abiding enmities such as exist between the French and the Germans, the Malays and the Singaporeans, and so on. When I mention that Americans can be pretty oblivious, I feel as though half the room is ready to rush up and hug me.

TRAVEL PERKS. "There are significant institutional and commercial barriers to foreign trade as well," I continue. "Everybody wants to export, but few countries see it in their interest to import." For example, I describe how our European sales dropped from $700,000 in 1997 to $240,000 in 1999 after the European Community enacted stringent requirements that were not in force elsewhere. We had to redesign all our products and pay thousands of dollars to heavily backlogged test agencies for proper certification.

Still, if you have a unique, high value-added product or service, you can gain acceptance. "For us, access to foreign markets has been a godsend," I say, noting that they contribute between 30% and 50% to our total revenues, with business cycles that, at times, run counter to our own. "And for me," I conclude, "the chance to shop for cutting-edge fashion in London, see Liebskind's Holocaust Museum in Berlin, and dine at Hediard in Paris compensates for whatever difficulties overseas business entails."

After two enthusiastic rounds of applause, the dean thanks me for a "down-to-earth" presentation and invites me back. Students and faculty crowd around. On the spot, I'm asked to speak at two more events. Yes, yes, I'd be happy to. Next time, though, I just hope I remember my watch.

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Please join me in two weeks when I'll continue to explore the trials and triumphs of selling abroad. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you. I promise a prompt reply. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. She received a Masters in Journalism from New York University and received Columbia University's Walter Bagehot Fellowship for economics and business journalism. You can visit her company's web site at www.meeco.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com.


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