As expatriates, we have a great advantage to become social entrepreneurs abroad and to deal with cultural differences. We have an outsider look which allows us to foresee out-of-the-box solution when locals mostly sees unsolvable challenges.
I founded Creators for Good to help (aspiring) social entrepreneurs design impactful AND financially sustainable social businesses abroad. The more I help expats social entrepreneurs, the more I realize that, if being an expatriate can sure be a great advantage, it also brings challenges which wouldn’t have been faced back home.
I have lived and work in no less then 6 foreign countries over the last 5 years. Those being Japan, South Africa, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria and Turkey (where I am settling). I have experienced the great leverage of being a foreigner : you become suddenly interesting, outstanding and noteworthy at the same time. In business, it is great since your singularity is a wonderful asset for your business to be positively remembered. You can open some doors more easily through the network of expats from your country, and through lovers of your homeland.
On the other hand, being a foreigner also challenges the potential trust of your stakeholders. How committed are you? How could this for the long term? Worse, some hosts can reject our help/offer only because it comes from a foreigner. It touches their nationalistic pride, and often think that foreigners cannot truly understand their problems.. For social entrepreneurs, who ambition to solve problems over the long term, those cultural barriers are even more of a challenge!
> Here are my tips and tricks, learned sometimes the hard way, and which can help you make your social business reach its full potential:
#1 learn (some) local language
There is no best way for you to showcase that you love your host country. Even if the business language is English, or French, learn the local language/main dialect. Off course, no need to be 100% fluent ;) Saying few casualties every time you meet a new person, and an expression here and there is the conversation is crucial.
1 : Foreign accent ALWAYS sound cute (not ridiculous as you might think) and automatically creates empathy.
2 : It shows your true interest about your host country without further detailed explanation.
3: It sets you apart from “the expatriate cliché” and thus allows you to be trusted more easily.
> What would be the 5 expressions / sentences that would systematically impress your audience? What is the motto of your social business in the local dialect? ;)
#2 adapt to local “time”
Time perception is one of the most stunning cultural difference. Because there is no outspoken rules about it, it can lead to misunderstandings and frustrating situations. Some cultures are very strict about time, others are easy-going (if not super-relaxed). It can definitely affect the speed of development of your social business. However, as the foreigner, it is your job to adapt to the local culture. Every time you feel frustrated because of time (someone/something is late, taking much more time then needed, super-delayed), try to find a way to take advantage of the situation. Don’t be frustrated, be creative ;)
When I worked in Nigeria, I had many meetings with locals as part of my business development job. The first weeks, I was completely frustrated by the fact that my meetings were constantly rescheduled. I was filling my agenda up for to coming week, and it never went the way it was planned. As a french person who LOVES planning, it was so hard to take! Nevertheless, I used all my adaptation-skills and resources and found the trick: unlike in France, it is fairly easy in Nigeria to get a meeting for the same day or the very next one. Instead of spending time and efforts filling up my agenda for 7 days, I only filled it up for 1 day or 2. Not only I saved time, but I felt much more relaxed when meetings had to be rescheduled, since I could offer an alternative schedule right away.
In Japan however, where time is time and 1 minute after is not time anymore, I took the habit of always being 10 minutes early. When I arrived as planned, I enjoyed a small zen break in my day ;) When I had mis-calculated my travel time, I still had 10 minutes to be on time and not look super-mega-impolite/rude/untrustworthy. After a while, I really enjoyed to be able to trust whoever I had to meet with that this person would ACTUALLY be on time. For real. The hard part was.. when I moved back to France ;)
Dependless of the type of time-perception, there is always a way to adapt to it and still get things done.
> And you, how can you turn the time-flexibility / rigidity of your host country to your social business advantage?
#3 engage with local stakeholders
No matter how long you’ve lived in your host country, how much you read about it or how much you love it, you’ll never be able to think like a local. The way we see the world is always shaped by a pair of glasses we carry along and build throughout our life, from childhood to present time.
No matter how great your ideas are, the only way to make them fit with the reality of your host country is to include locals into the design process. Good news: this is exactly what is supposed to be emphasized for social businesses (versus classic “competitive” business approach). Collaboration, participative decision making process, continuous improvement… should be at the heart of every social business strategy, and even more when lead by a foreigner! With social media, it became so cheep and easy to consult with potential beneficiaries, clients, partners, investors… so, don’t limit yourself!
By including local stakeholders in the design process of your services and impact, you will not only better serve the local needs, but also start engaging with those interested in your cause. Some highly committed individuals might even become the best ambassadors you’ve ever dream, and bring your social impact to a fantastic new level.
> no matter what stage your company are, there is ALWAYS a survey that can be done ;) What’s going to be yours?
If you have other challenges, or anecdotes, please feel free to share in the comments below ;) I look forward to hear from you!
Solène is the Chief Empowerment Officer of Creators for Good.
She developed a methodology that allows Global Citizen to start and grow their own impactful businesses from anywhere in the world – and with no need for investors or government support.