It was indeed an impressive panel of dynamic women who participated in “The Risk and Reward of an International Post” panel at the 10th Annual WSA conference held on Saturday, January 20, 2001. The four top executives from institutions as diverse as Taco Bell International and Ford Motor Company entertained and educated conference panelists with both intriguing and sobering stories of their experiences as women managing on the frontlines of foreign countries.
The panel, moderated by HBS Professor Laura Alfaro, included Nancy Barry, President, Women’s World Banking; Gretchen Hofmann, VP Marketing, Taco Bell International; Kathleen Ligocki, President and CEO, Ford Mexico; and Susan Segal, General Partner, Latin America, Chase Capital.
Nancy Barry began her international career in the slums of Peru where she worked for the Peruvian government on small enterprise development. Ms. Barry has come full circle and is now President of Women’s World Banking (WWB) which strives to expand low income women’s economic participation and power by opening access to finance and markets. Ms Barry feels that naivete early in her career prevented her from considering her age and her gender an issue, yet gave her the confidence to tackle the challenges she faced. “Its important to take risks and place yourself in challenging situations” says Ms Barry, and thereby learn to connect with people from all backgrounds and cultures.
When Gretchen Hofmann “landed” her first international post she did not even have a passport but all the same agreed to take the position with J. Walter Thompson in Mexico in 1992 and has not looked back since. Her international career has included Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East. Ms Hofmann encourages all women to be “open to new opportunities and embrace the unexpected.”
Kathleen Ligocki, intending to live her life as a socialist revolutionary, worked on an archaeological site in Mexico after college but she now calls herself a capitalist revolutionary. She has worked in the United States, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and is now based in Mexico. Ms Ligocki described culture shock as similar to walking into a movie that is half-way through, not knowing the plot or the characters yet having to sit down with an audience that is thoroughly enjoying it and having to figure it out as you go along. “You must get involved in and appreciate the local cultures, and it gets easier over time,” advises Ms Ligocki.
Susan Segal has over twenty years experience in developing countries and currently focuses on the Latin America region. She has often felt that being a woman was a great advantage and has found that it is usually a bigger issue in U.S. companies abroad than in the local cultures themselves. She advises all women not to be self-conscious, to respect cultural and social sensitivities and “to forge ahead.” Although Ms Segal no longer takes international posts as she is reluctant to uproot her two children, she still travels a great deal and feels strongly that her international career has had a positive impact on her children’s upbringing and how they view the world.
All four women agreed that although they lead busy, hectic yet exciting lives, their international careers have shaped who they have become and have afforded them the opportunity to manage across cultures and gender lines in unique situations. It was agreed that typically women bring a collaborative and non-judgmental spirit to such work environments, thereby facilitating understanding and co-ordination across cultures.
Panel attendees were encouraged to seize all opportunities to work abroad, expand one’s horizons and strive to contribute to the creation of global values.