Business and Culture: Transatlantic Business Leaders Offer Advice, Wearing High Heels

Five business leaders walked onto the stage of the Texas-EU Summit to talk about managing transatlantic businesses. Two run European units based in the United States; two developed European units of U.S. practices; and one has done it all. Four wore stilettos.They didn’t have much time, and they had something to say. Not one wanted to be called out for her gender, and not one considered that remarkable.

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(L to R) Ana-Barbara Llorente, partner, Pendas International, moderator; Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US; Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO; Sharon Schweitzer, founder and principal, Access to Culture; and Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC and honorary consul of France

The hardest thing: Finding and keeping talent

Without question, the biggest challenge confronting a European company in the United States is finding and retaining talent. “Americans’ resumes look great, but you have to train them,” said Belen Marcos, president of Cintra US, one of the world’s largest private developers of infrastructure. Marcos, an engineer by training, noted that in Europe educational credentials are paramount. Americans job-hop more than European hires. They tend to specialize and resist working in areas outside their specialty.

“Europeans are generalists. They expect to do many different jobs.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Navigating European statutory regulations

Disruptive business models challenge both business and cultural norms. Consider the vacation rentals that have turned many traditional neighborhoods into latchkey hotels. Cristina Silingardi, a Brazilian with deep finance experience, helped Austin-based HomeAway successfully navigate the sticky process of integrating acquisitions in both Spain and Brazil.

“Understand the statutory regulations before you do business … It went off without a hitch.”

Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO

“Contracts are part of the law in Europe,” said Liz Wiley, an attorney and partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC. who specializes in intellectual property.

“Very little if anything can be negotiated (in Europe). Expect negotiations to take much longer.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Marcos knows a thing or two about the subject. Her company Cintra is part of the Spanish infrastructure provider Ferrovial. She and her team negotiate the construction and long-term management of roads, airports and concessions, many of which are public-private partnerships.

Belen Marcos (holding microphone), president of Cintra US, negotiates infrastructure contracts in Europe and the U.S.: “It takes longer in Europe because of statutory regulations.”

Codes vs. negotiation. Consider privacy.

Europe is not a monolith. Both EU and country-specific regulations come into play when determining who owns what. For example, “the EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but France has its own data protection authority, the CNIL, which handles GDPR complains and defends the French position with GDPR-related issues,” said Wiley

“The United States is not a code country,” commented Wiley, “We make our own deals.”

Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC

Wiley, whose practice includes both French and American startups, recommends first filing for U.S. patent protection, then filing in other countries to ward off infringements.

Soft skills matter

“When in doubt, err on the side of formality,” advises Wiley. And in the hurley-burley world of entrepreneurs, she recommends oral presentation training for cautious French startups that compete in the winner-take-all American pitch culture.

Sharon Schweitzer, principal, Access to Culture

Sharon Schweitzer’s company, Access to Culture, cross trains business people to be effective in other cultures. Recounting an incident where two older Czechs silenced their giggling younger colleagues with a steely glare, Schweitzer said the significance of a seemingly minor incident caught her by surprise.

But do high heels also matter?

The specter of political change is everywhere. Here too, dress is brand. This year’s Yellow Vest protests revealed the deep divide between France’s privileged class and rest of their country. As I’m writing this, on the other side of the world, young people in Hong Kong wear black and mourn a man in a yellow raincoat.

Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s testifying before Congress, stripped of his signature t-shirt and uncomfortable in a blue suit? Melania Trump in a white pussy-bow blouse and sky-high heels? Dress is political, and high heels stand unrivaled as a symbol of gender and power. Flip flops may reign in U.S. youth and tech enclaves, but search “business women” and you’ll find women in power in wearing heels — because they choose to.

In another culture where talent and a diverse work force weigh heavily on its future competitiveness, Japanese women unsuccessfully petitioned their government to ban gender-based dress codes (#KuToo), and specifically high heels. My guess is there’s another shoe to drop there.

In 1869, men in the Wyoming Territory needed wives. Politicians in Washington needed more voters in the Western territories. So Wyoming gave women the vote. John Morris wrote to a national magazine promoting women’s suffrage:

It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest; and then they spread.

John Morris, following the Wyoming Territory’s decision to give women the vote

“To be sustainable, change takes time,” Wiley noted. Would this panel have happened 30 years ago? 20? Maybe.

With that thought, I’m pulling out my high heels to wear sometime soon.

Hats off to Ana-Barbara Llorente and Pendas International, for sponsoring the panel, and the World Affairs Council of Austin for hosting.

Brexit in the Bardo

As I made my way to the Capital Factory, that go-go hive of entrepreneurial-ism in the center of Austin, to hear what the U.K. Dept. of International Trade had to say about Brexit, I thought about a University of London marketing class I took years ago. The professor, a Scot, turned to a world map. He drew a line between Europe and the United Kingdom. Then he drew an arrow across the Atlantic pointing toward the United States and made a prediction: At some point, the British will break away from Europe and join the United States in an economic block. Prescient fellow.

Two countries with a lot in common. Map courtesy of the mls.co

Borders, walls and disagreements

It takes guts to tell your story when the facts aren’t clear, but the U.K. team did an admiral job. Representatives from the British Consulate’s Department for International Trade, law firm Taylor Wessing and accountancy Blick Rotherberg were optimistic that even the Irish border conundrum could be resolved — at the last minute (“That’s the way Europeans do things.”).

 It was one day after Parliament sent Prime Minister Theresa May once more into the breach of negotiations with the European Union, and less than a week after Congress reached an agreement to pause the longest government shutdown in U.S. history so our elected officials could settle a disagreement about a wall between neighbors.

Almost three years ago, on the heels of a political gambit by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, British voters opted to leave the European Union. The questions are when and how. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Do we stay or do we go?

Ross Allen, the New York City-based director at the U.K. Department for International Trade led the discussion, reminding us that the United Kingdom has a special relationship with the United States. The two countries are genetically linked — in language, history, laws and culture — and those commonalities matter a great deal.

Data Privacy: Privacy continues is a hot button for the U.S. GDPR is in place in the U.K., as is Privacy Shield. Regulation is a moving target, but there is a common foundation.

Business Headquarters: “Pragmatism” is the operative word. Considerations such as degree of industry regulation, the need to move people around Europe, the size of the organization, labor laws and tax rates all factor into a decision.

Regional Differences: London will continue to be its own country, as are all great cities. But other regions, particularly the north, where businesses that rely on international supply chains will be hit hard – Leeds, Northern Ireland, Wales. I read this morning that U.K. automotive production declined 8% in 2018, as investment plummets and jobs disappear.

Trade: Separate trade agreements are in the works with Israel and talks are underway with South Korean and Japan.

Defense: NATO, an intelligence community that’s joined at the hip.

Worst case scenario? On March 29, Parliament decides not to decide. A second referendum to stay in the E.U.? Too late and too expensive. Unlikely.

“I am England”

Every muddle has its heroes, and I asked Vice Consul Haileigh Meyers and her Silicon Valley-based colleague David what they thought about Prime Minister Theresa May.

She (Mrs. May) is a true public servant, and she realizes she needs to get this done. She’s driven by a commitment to public service.

UK International Trade and Investment
British Consulate-General
After negotiation Brexit, Theresa May will not run again for prime minister. Photo courtesy of euractiv.com

Imagine taking a job that no one else wants, a job that brings you defeat and humiliation by even your closest allies. Imagine sticking with that job as other opportunities more to your liking and skill set pass you by. If you haven’t read the New Yorker piece on Mrs. May, do. Here’s hoping Queen Elizabeth, another woman who knows a great deal about sacrifice in the name of public service, can offer guidance from her own long tenure as leader of a nation that faced and dealt with dwindling political and economic power.

Y2K.2 ?

Closing the session, Allen tossed out a provocative idea: “What if it’s just like Y2K, and we wake up and nothing happens?” Some of us remember the panic that preceded the turn of the century hysteria about whether networks and data centers could tolerate the transition between “1999” and “2000.”

After the session, I rode down in the elevator with Drew Haas, who is moving to London next week to open the U.K. office of San Saba Pecan. They have a warehouse outside of York, and Drew will be growing the business in Europe, where almonds are vulnerable to some stiff Texas competition.

POSTSCRIPT: Inflexibility: The flip side of determined leadership?

UPDATE March 18, 2019: The BBC reports Mrs. May will try to get her proposal passed after two rejections, something the now-famous House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled as a no-go unless there are “substantive changes” to the proposal. Will Mrs. May charge into the same brick wall once again?

UPDATE March 21, 2019: The meltdown.


Revisiting “Be Nice”: #BeNice2.0

In late July of 2017, I pushed my way into an airless warehouse-turned performance space to be part of an enthusiastic audience for this year’s “Sixty by 60,” the annual fundraiser for the Fusebox Festival, a not-to-be-missed series of glorious international art, dance, opera and all-round inventiveness that happens every Spring in Austin, Texas. For free.

Fusebox’s 60×60 gives performers 60 seconds to say what they want to say.

The piece I remember most vividly featured a young African-American woman wearing a white t-shirt that read in bold, black letters, “Be Nice.”  A small woman, standing in the middle of the stage, she invited the 200 of sweating her sweating audience to pick up the white t-shirts she’d placed on their chairs and wave them over head, joining her in shouting “Be Nice!” to loud music.

The reference to the iconic New Orleans R&B queen Irma Thomas’ white handkerchief was there: Put your backfield in motion, even when your audience waves Confederate flags.

But 2017 brought us a new president, Travis Kalanick, Harvey Weinstein, shootings by and of policemen, fake news, children gunned down in churches, and more.  There is a lot of material to work with during 2018.

Though if it were up to me, a woman raised with the same words, I would make it BeNice2.0 to make it clear we’re done with the old “nice at a price.” We don’t need enemies. We need collaborators, supporters, friends, critics who are willing to listen.

The other thing I like about BeNice2.0 is that it takes us beyond “be kind,” unquestionably a necessary and admirable life rule.  To me, BeNice2.0, suggests a more active, engaging stance. Ask for what you need, point out unfair behavior, propose better approaches. Be active; #BeNice2.0

These amazing times and their cost

I fought my way through Friday night traffic to see my friend Shiva’s daughter perform in their Christmas play, “A Play in a Manger.”  I expected Mary, Joseph and a few shepherds.  What I saw was an hour-long rock-and-roll production built around a plot line of “bigger is not better.”  Mary and Joseph were supplanted by a production manager and a worried production crew and cast, some 20 kids in all.

Everybody got a speaking part, reaching up to the standing microphones like little gold fish getting their supper.).  Shaylee, whose family is from Iran, added what I learned later was an improvised dance number for her part.  The epilogue was this:  “Christmas is not about Walmart or Saks. ipads or iphones.”  That is, it’s not about stuff, because stuff costs a lot of money.

I thought about this when I stopped into my local Wal-Mart for socks and was astounded to find all of the cashiers were gone, erased.  In their place were scanners, waiting for a credit (or debit) card. When I asked the attendant where those workers — mostly women, mostly African-American, mostly over 40 — I got a shrug.

According Fortune, citing a McKinsey Global Institute report released in November, “between 400 million and 800 million workers around the world could be displaced by automation by 2030.”  By comparison, the 2016 population of Texas was 27.36 million.  Think about that — that’s 15 Texas’.

Most affected will be jobs that involve collecting and processing data – everything from accounting to fast food.  The report predicts the pace of displacement will be unprecedented, concluding  “There are few precedents in which societies have successfully retrained such large numbers of people.”

In a recent column, David Brooks had some suggestions for lawmakers to consider, a list that targets practical but oftentimes insurmountable barriers like making it easier for people to:

  • Get to work
  • Get a license
  • Enter fast-growing professions like health care
  • As ex-offenders, navigate the application process

It’s painful to experience the season as one of “haves” and “have nots,”  and easy to turn away we dash through the holiday fully armed.  But here’s hoping each of us has an opportunity to pause and reflect, not just on how very lucky we are, but how we can help those who are less so, navigate these times.

No time for blame

Each of us is tasked with playing the hand we’re dealt. Some of the cards are stacked in our favor; many are not. Nonetheless, it’s a package deal, and the better we understand those cards, the more we’ll be able to accomplish.

I thought about this after reading David Remnick’s sad portrait of Hillary Clinton, in which she blames her gender — among other things — for her loss.  Mrs. Clinton is a super-sized public figure and a role model of tremendous potential.  Perhaps it is a necessary catharsis, but I was disappointed to read that she chose to waste her time.

The New Yorker
What could have been: The cover The New Yorker Had Planned for Hillary Clinton’s victory in the 2016 election. Courtesy of The New Yorker, Sept. 24, 2017

It’s helpful to understand why we fail. But blame is time consuming.  This I know: the faster we lay it aside, the less time we waste. Contrasting the Clinton debacle with Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000, Remnick notes that Gore was 52 at the time; Clinton, 69. Gore had time to grieve, move on, make a fortune and win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Clinton is 69. “She will have a hard time finding a similar peace or place in public affairs.”

Oh, gosh I hope not.

The “genderizing’ conundrum

It’s always worrisome when a noun becomes a verb. So let’s step back. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. When I was in high school, girls weren’t allowed to learn small engine repair; we were shuffled off to home economics and white sauce. When I left school and took a temporary job with H.Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems, I was humiliated by a fellow (male) employee’s passing me a handwritten note warning me that my sleeveless dress was inappropriate because it revealed my arms. I left the job.

Mrs. Clinton, like Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson who presided in the 1920’s and 30’s, rose to power on the coattails of her husband. She, like Sherry Lansing in Hollywood, Toni Morrison in literature, and Indra Nooyi and others among the Fortune 50, carved their roles out of a male tradition  There was no can-do legacy. Unlike Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who sprang fully formed from Zeus’ head, confidence is earned, not awarded.

Focus on making the world a better place — starting where you are

So why not focus our time and energy on moving forward? The fields of law and medicine are being transformed by women. I look forward to seeing similar trends in education and politics (you go, Mrs. Clinton). But no question, it’s a slippery slope. Every day I see young women reverting to baby talk, tantrums, behavior that may have worked in middle school, but is cringe-making in the workplace.

We have a limited time to do what we want and need to do. Life tosses storm debris in our way.  I don’t know how many times I said, “I can’t find the job I want until after my mother dies.”  I didn’t want to face the conflict and ultimately wasted precious time blaming absent siblings, geography — and gender — for lost time and opportunity.

It was a waste of time.  Ultimately, we’re shaped by the battles we fight, and its our ability to accept our faults and failures that make us role models.

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