Over the course of this semester, I have been lucky enough to work with both NatureSeekers and DORCAS Women’s Group. While these engagements have both had their challenges, I still believe that the unique experience provided by the International Consulting Program at Pitt Business is giving me the chance to improve my skillset as a professional, a teammate, and most importantly a student of the world. Having grown up in the United States and only travelled outside the borders of our country once, I have not had many life experiences that have opened up my eyes to the differences in cultures, infrastructure and general business planning. However, especially given some of the early challenges our team has faced with simply communicating with our clients in Trinidad, this experience is already opening my eyes to the tremendous opportunity our team has been given to make a difference in both NatureSeekers and DORCAS Women’s Group’s respective futures. In addition, I am beginning to grasp why Pitt Business and its International Consulting Program have structured the engagements the way they have to reflect the most effective ways to take these challenges head on and continue to make a difference in these organizations year after year. Below, I plan to shed some insight into what has helped me gain these new perspectives and why they are especially important to me, as someone who plans to begin his career in Consulting but has not yet determined which types of businesses to specialize in once I reach the profession in a full time capacity.
Regarding the Trinidad team’s experience with the culture, I feel that we have been pleasantly surprised in many aspects. Though Trinidadian culture differs from the United States’ culture in the level of context expected in communication and the means of trust building (more on this in a bit), we have found that there are many aspects that are similar. One instance of this, which we learned thanks to our contacts Gail and Torey from Amizade, is the celebration of Carnival. This is not to say the celebration is conducted the same way, but it was a pleasant surprise for me that I was able to connect to the religious roots of the celebration. During Gail’s presentation, we learned that Carnival is essentially a month-long celebration beginning on the day many Americans refer to as “Fat Tuesday”. For reference, Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which for Catholics and Christians marks the beginning of the religious season known as Lent (Lent is the forty days of sacrifice before Easter). As someone who identifies with these religious groups, I thought it was interesting I was able to make that connection to these major cultural events. Another connection Americans can loosely make to Carnival is the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Furthermore, both holidays also share their roots in French culture. Learning about Carnival was not just about personal connections for our group, though. As we went through the presentation, our team was able to gain insights regarding Carnival as a business opportunity for both NatureSeekers and DORCAS Women’s Group. Though we are still looking into the possibilities and have recently connected with our contacts at NatureSeekers to discuss their past involvement with the fabled celebration, we believe that each organization could possibly use Carnival as a strategic opportunity to sell some of their merchandise and increase future revenues.
In terms of how Trinidadian culture has affected our engagements with the client specifically, our team has been able to draw on the advice and guidance of Pitt Business’s faculty to effectively handle these situations. As I mentioned earlier, Trinidad is characterized by high-context communication and relationship-based trust building. High context communication means that good conservation is characterized by using both nonverbal and verbal messages to communicate. Relationship-based trust building is characterized by building trust in someone by sharing personal time as opposed to task-based trust building which is characterized by building trust based on someone’s ability to get the job done. While I feel that I have adapted well to the cultural differences in these two areas, there have been times when the differences in technique have been apparent. For instance, the conservation often flows much smoother when one of our engagement leaders joins the call since the client is visibly more comfortable discussing sensitive business information with a familiar face. Additionally, there have been multiple times where I have caught myself wanting to ask the client to repeat themselves, which is a characteristic of low context communication, because I am still working on using all aspects of the context to understand the client’s message. One aspect to our engagements with the clients that I feel has made adapting to these cultural norms especially challenging is the fact that all of our meetings have been over Zoom due to the travel restrictions implemented during the pandemic. It is often challenging to pick up on many of the non verbal cues, in my opinion, through a video conference.
Going hand in hand with the cultural difference in communication techniques, has been our team’s introduction to the cultural divide in technological infrastructure. During our meetings we have discovered that internet connectivity in Trinidad is not a given at any time like it is in the United States. For example, a handful of our meetings have been cut short or switched to communication via email because the video streams were too choppy and pixelated for either team to understand what the other was saying or see what the other team was sharing with them via the screen sharing feature on Zoom. This has been rather unfortunate for our team, because our clients, when their internet connection allows, have been able to provide us with amazing insights into their business environment and their thoughts on our ideas regarding the Marketing Plan and Feasibility Plans we will be providing them at the end of the semester. That said, I’d like to reiterate that both our team and the organizations in Trinidad have been able to adapt nicely as we have been able to stay in contact via email most of the time when internet connectivity is poor.
Stepping away from culture and into the effects this project has had on my global business perspective, I have been excited to learn about how some of the typical business models in the United States differs from the ones in Trinidad. Of course, there are many similarities between nonprofits here and there such as the presence of an Executive Board and service requirements for membership, but I feel that one difference in particular is especially refreshing: the focus on the organization’s mission rather than the organization’s sustainability. By this, I mean that many organizations in the United States have amazing missions but their approach to accomplishing these missions is to find ways to keep people engaged with their organization at all costs. Through our conservations with NatureSeekers, it has become apparent that the organization’s end goal is to create a culture of conservatism. However, the organization’s goal isn’t to travel the world or even necessarily to nearby islands to make a difference there; rather they are so focused on their goal of changing the culture in Trinidad that our contact mentioned that the end goal of the organization is that there will be no need for NatureSeekers in the future. The contact said that he would be happy if they were able to make that much of a difference that the organization would simply cease to exist. While this may seem extreme or narrow-sighted, I feel that the pure focus on their mission is what will drive the organization to be successful.
Another aspect of this course that has changed my view on the global business environment has been the International Consulting Program at Pitt Business’ structure of the engagement. Our team is currently working through the sixth year of a ten year plan. Before working on this project, I had never worked on an engagement with such a long time horizon. By working through this experience, I have learned that our team does not just have a responsibility to help DORCAS Women’s Group and NatureSeekers, but we are also responsible for helping the groups of Pitt students who come after us and work with these organizations. Our team has found the past research of Pitt students extremely helpful to furthering and focusing our research as well as formulating recommendations for the client. I am hopeful that our group will be able to have the same impact on future groups as well as our clients!