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Midvale Journal

Executives offer advice on doing international business at Women’s Day conference

Apr 09, 2024 11:45AM ● By Brice Wallace

The crowd listens to a panel of international business executives during the Women in International Business Conference at the Zions Bancorporation Technology Campus in Midvale. Part of the International Women’s Day celebration, the event was presented by the World Trade Association of Utah.

Suzanne Wilson described the experience as “shattering, honestly.”

Earlier in her career, Wilson, now the chief marketing officer at The Seer Group, was in Japan, prepared to “run and visit customers.” However, as a woman, she had to wait in her car.

Speaking as part of a panel of international business executives during the Women in International Business Conference presented by the World Trade Association of Utah, Wilson acknowledged that international marketplaces now have better environments for women. But she and other panelists stressed that knowing the details about markets is vital to having success there.

Wilson said part of that approach involves checking your own assumptions and biases.

“Sometimes, we just think, ‘Hey, I have this company role, this is my title, this is how it’s going to play out,’” she said at the event, part of the International Women’s Day celebration. “Each culture that I’ve experienced, there are nuances.…You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I have to be nice and quiet and that’s going to work.’ Absolutely not. Working for a French-headquartered company, ‘nice and quiet’ is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, for example, and that was a fun and enriching experience for me to be involved in. So, yeah, it’s getting down to understanding where you are, who you’re working with, and what’s appropriate.”

Venita Ross, program manager at the Global Business Center at The Mill Entrepreneurship Center, emphasized that companies can avoid needless “stumbling blocks” by gaining knowledge about markets, their culture and their expectations before entering those markets.

“Some of the challenges we see is that sometimes they will just figure, ‘Oh, we can do it’ and they jump right into it without really knowing all the things behind the scenes that they have to know before they go into that market,” Ross said, adding that her center can educate people about cultures, shipping, financing, marketing and branding and other considerations.

Ross and other panelists also stressed the need to have local contacts in those international markets because they are more experienced and knowledgeable about market intricacies. She also said some markets require soft skills and a familiarity with how to negotiate or network. U.S. executives also should learn the local cuisine and how the food is prepared.

“You have to know that we are similar but also different, and we have to learn to appreciate that as well,” Ross said.

“What you learn from being within a culture, it speaks volumes,” Wilson said. While with a dental products company, she learned that in the United Kingdom, it was offensive in some markets to push having “a big, white smile just like Hollywood.”

“Get your boots on the ground,” she said. “Get connected with people and understand what matters.” For much of marketing, 80% is “pretty uniform” but the remaining 20% is most important. “How you go in there with that message, localize it to the 20% and you’re going to see faster and better results and adoption,” she said.

Panelists had other bits of advice for future business leaders:

• Know yourself, have priorities and set boundaries, said Shirene Urry, senior global product manager at BD. “That will accelerate your opportunities more than it seems.…If you can really get clear on what matters to you and what matters to the business that you’re working for and serve customers, then you can grow,” she said.

• “Don’t take advice from people who don’t share your values,” said Shannon Ellsworth, principal advisor of land and water at Rio Tinto. She also stressed the need for resilience. “I don’t want women viewing failure as a dead-end or as a cul-de-sac or some finite element in their lives,” she said.

• Ross suggested knowing your guiding principles, putting service to others above self and learning from mistakes.

• Jaclyn Presnal, director of strategic development at Williams, pushed for people to get out of their comfort zone by learning new skills, taking risks, pushing and challenging themselves.

• Asked about fitting into particular cultures, Wilson said people should be their “authentic self.” “Really taking the time to understand your personal values is a little bit taken for granted. …But take a step back or up, or both, and go inside what truly matters to you. When you bring that authentic self and your values, I think it translates across cultures better,” she said. “Know your audience and know the culture and know what’s appropriate, but to have those values and bring them to the table, I think you’re always going to win. And if you’re not accepted, that’s OK, too, because being true to your values and true to yourself is where you’re going to find your own success blossom tenfold.”

• Wilson also called upon businesswomen to have men as mentors, coaches and participants in their success. “Having that sort of sponsorship, having somebody that believes in you, having somebody that would stand up for you in a room that you were not in, has been probably the most meaningful thing that has greased the pathway for me in my career,” she said. “It’s not just women that we need to surround ourselves with in these kinds of conversations.”

The conference at the Zions Bancorporation Technology Campus in Midvale also featured a keynote presentation by Lesley Paterson, a five-time world champion professional triathlete; an address by Lt. Gov. Deidre M. Henderson; and the presentation of Melanie Cox, CEO of LLC, as World Trade Association of Utah’s International Woman of the Year.

In opening remarks by the conference emcee Barbara Bagnasacco, an attorney with the law-firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer, noted that International Women’s Day is a holiday in some countries. With the song “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” playing in the background over the PA system, Bagnasacco reiterated the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

“Collectively,” she said, “we can forge an inclusive business community here in Utah for individuals, regardless of their nationality, race, religious and political views.” λ