What does it mean to network effectively when you are an entrepreneur with a diverse cultural background and extensive experience? To answer that question, I will share my experiences as a native of Bolivia, entrepreneur, graduate from Universidad Catolica Boliviana in commercial engineering, and currently, real estate development master’s degree candidate at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business.
To start, we must first define “networking” and reflect on the value that our unique and varied skills can confer upon others. “Networking” is defined as “meeting people who can help you move forward in your career.” In its simplest form, networking is about introducing yourself and exchanging personal information while adhering to a set of professional standards. These standards include wearing business attire, offering a firm handshake, making eye contact, and delivering the all-important “elevator pitch” — a 30-second introduction where you offer one or two key points about yourself to make a connection with others. It is important to leave a positive impression.
Essentially, networking has become the art of showing that you offer value to others. It is self-presentation and, in the language of anthropology, “semiotics”— the study of symbols, signs, and visual cues.
But as a first-generation college graduate from Bolivia whose skin color and accent convey foreign heritage, I have found that in networking situations, many people look at me differently. Sometimes, they even articulate this difference in startling ways. This sometimes means that I am held to a different standard of excellence. In fact, the opportunity to share my global entrepreneurial experience is often sidelined by a tendency among others to focus on what makes me different from them.
Here are four tips for international students trying to network successfully in the United States:
1. Leverage the power of diversity
After years of networking in Silicon Valley and in Utah, I have learned that to effectively network, rising entrepreneurs with diverse international backgrounds must leverage the power of their cultural differences and insights to demonstrate how they bring added value to others.
In my case, with my expertise in multiple languages and international experience, this required me to think about how I could articulate my perspective as a Bolivian graduate student at an American university in a way that brings value to others, while expanding my own entrepreneurial portfolio. For me, the answer was to bring my Latin American cultural experiences to the business world.
For one thing, there is a Latino community in the area to which my language and cultural experience are immediately relevant. In the course of forming my business, I was able to generate a lot of interest by networking in this community.
More broadly, Utahns travel internationally at an unusually high rate due to the prevalence of missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints . This means that they tend to have an international outlook that not all Americans have. This was of great help in meeting new people and generating interest in what we could do together.
2. Contribute a unique cultural approach
Latin American cultures are often described as “collectivist” in the sense of “collaborative.” All work is teamwork, and the fruits of our labor is a shared experience. On the other hand, the United States has a more individualistic culture where the focus is on personal achievement. In other words, teamwork takes a back seat.
When I began my real estate development master’s program at the University of Utah, I searched for classes that would provide opportunities for mentorship and partnership with business leaders. I was naturally inclined toward this collaborative approach.
As a Bolivian entrepreneur in the United States, I am culturally inclined toward working in teams, expanding partnerships, and building community. Yet I believe this makes me a great match for the American entrepreneurial world. Many of the most successful American leaders have emphasized the importance of finding excellent partners and building a synergistic team. In fact, for many Americans who are committed to “going it alone,” the task of team building can be a challenge. This is where an entrepreneur with a background like mine can bring added value through teamwork, complementing my colleagues’ strengths and seeing clearly where they might have a blind spot.
I developed expertise in leveraging the power of teamwork and partnerships while working in the world of renewable energy, cleantech, and real estate. I have used these joint ventures to evaluate industry challenges while offering innovative solutions that have shaped my post-graduate experiences in Utah.
3. Reach out to meet an unmet need in the market
In my home city of Tarija, Bolivia, renewable energy and cleantech is one of the primary industries. Bolivia’s geography requires that its industries traverse long distances and across mountainous regions. For this reason, Bolivia has experimented with the use of compressed natural gas (CNG), which is an alternative fuel source that is cleaner than the more common liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel.
As an undergrad, I worked for a gas station at a time when CNG vehicles were becoming more common. This was a market that we realized we could serve, if we were to invest in infrastructure to offer CNG and power a newer class of more sustainable vehicles.
Drawing on my undergraduate studies, I was tasked with conducting market research on the gas station’s potential CNG clients. I interviewed bus and taxi drivers, looking for potential clients, and officials at companies that convert conventional vehicles to CNG. My networking with private and public sector partners allowed the project to successfully and efficiently move forward, expanding into a new area of the transportation industry.
Tarija is now emerging as an important regional model for renewable energy and cleantech that can help Bolivia diversify its still heavily agricultural economy for the benefit of its people.
4. Translate international experience to local contexts
When I moved to Utah, I used the skills that I had learned in international business to bring new value through private and public partnerships to what has been one of the biggest local industries for many years — the real estate industry.
I wanted to create a company dedicated to service, especially service for people who are trying to rebuild their professional lives after the pandemic. I knew that this industry was saturated, and I wanted to bring value to it through partnerships. I observed many professors and business leaders’ presentations, and I identified a niche in the market where I could introduce my experience as a team player to collaborate with other entrepreneurs and expand our shared clientele.
Drawing on lessons from companies like Airbnb and CORT, I created an independent furnishing company that would provide services in the rental market — from offices and homes to events to destination services. Additionally, I would focus on career relocations and transitions for people seeking new opportunities for upward mobility.
Also, I knew that success and momentum would require a certain level of boldness, fearlessness, and innovation. When it came to building networks and leveraging the power of my international experiences, I was able to better cultivate successful partnerships.
I founded Furnish-All and introduced myself to a community of seasoned real estate companies that were interested in developing partnerships with large developers, small businesses, businesses that serve immigrant populations, and women-owned enterprises.
Teamwork and community-building come naturally to me. The values rooted in my own collaborative culture provided me with a basis for founding rewarding partnerships. My unique experiences are what brought me to Salt Lake City in pursuit of my entrepreneurial goals.
These four tips have helped me to begin the process of leveraging the power of partnerships. By leveraging the power of diversity, contributing a unique cultural approach, reaching out to others with an unmet need, and adapting business experience to the local context, I have placed myself well on the way to achieving my entrepreneurial goals.