3 key learnings from being part of a multicultural founding team
Today we find the global entrepreneurial ecosystem to be evermore interconnected. With countless international events, blogs, forums and webinars, meeting a fellow entrepreneur from across the globe to exchange ideas and experiences is almost second nature. It is therefore not surprising that a startup would arise with founders from distinct countries, ethnicities, and backgrounds. In fact, this is how our startup ValorTop, was born. Taking off in Copenhagen Denmark, our founding team consists of one Dutchman, one Japanese and two Spaniards. If you’ve encountered these cultures before, you will immediately know these could not be more far apart on the spectrum of similarities.
Working in a small startup of different cultures is an interesting experience to say the least. Throughout the past year of working together, I have learned that having such diverse cultural tendencies within the team can bring challenges, yet bring exceptionally more advantages and opportunities. The experience has been a true eye-opener to aspects that could be incorporated into startups of all forms and backgrounds, yet are not as obvious if not exposed to these specific surroundings.
ACTIVELY SEEK OUT DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES
Gathering different opinions is key to understanding the viability of your idea, strategy, or vision. As Anteo put it, they had a ‘multi-cultural misunderstanding due to different institutional, philosophical and historical frames that were hampering their ability to define their brand.’ Anteo’s founding team consists of 2 Venezuelans and two North Americans from the USA and Canada. Due to such distinct ideologies, they encountered difference in opinion on a very fundamental, intuitive level. However, Miguel Angel (CEO) saw an opportunity to use this to their advantage. By discussing the sources of their misunderstandings, they were able to identify key holes and points of improvement in their initial brand definition, resulting in a re-defined and stronger brand.
They admit that without this ‘unsolicited clash’ of cultural perspectives, they may not have spent that extra time to perfect their business identity.
Seeking out different perspectives from people that have a background distinct to your own can be a challenge and, according to Shirley, the CEO of InclusionInc, people often find it threatening. Nobody likes to be faced with critique. However, Inc stresses that it is essential for a company, let alone a startup, because it ‘can prevent negative and myopic results of group think’. Group think according to Inc, which is the result of having too many people of similar circumstance and background to make a combined opinion, stifles innovative and creative thinking. Who knows, perhaps you will receive invaluable feedback that otherwise you many not have realised, an eye-opener, an epiphany. By combining information from all possible angles, true value can emerge.
Startups are somewhat delicate entities because they consist of very full-on relationships; you’re spending almost 24/7 together. In any relationship, whether it be business or personal, we all know that effective communication is key to building trust and having productive discussions. It’s a topic we’ve all heard of many times before. However, how much of our time do we really spend on analysing how we communicate among team members, its effects and how we can improve? Especially within startups where time and resources are limited, it is only natural to delegate most of this time into key tasks and strategic decisions. Let’s remind ourselves though, that investing in communication is one of the best decisions you’ll make.
Our founding team being from the Netherlands, Japan and Spain, we started with various expectations of workplace processes and communication methods. The Dutch are direct in their approach, Japanese quite the opposite, and the Spaniards more relaxed. After a few clashes here and there that were affecting our day-to-day activities, we decided to hold meetings to discuss how we can communicate better among the team, what we valued in the workplace, and what made everybody feel comfortable. The result of these meetings were fantastic. We understood each other better, were more conscious of how we communicated, and became an all-round, stronger team. By meeting each other in the middle and discussing what approach works best for our startup, the efficiency of our business activities increased tremendously.
“ A continuous desire to be sensitive to cultural backgrounds must be present when communicating”
Anteo explained this perfectly; ‘a continuous desire to be sensitive to cultural backgrounds must be present when communicating’. This refers to multicultural teams, but is it really that different for all startups? Having a multicultural team just brings the issue out in the open, more often. The fact remains that once you are aware of the effects of communication, you can figure out the magic mix to create a competent, comfortable and trusted environment that works for all employees. Perhaps in one team this works best by communicating in writing while in another it is to be very verbal. Take the steps to see what is best for your startup, and you’ll be surprised at what great communication can bring.
STRIVE TO GROW PERSONALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY
The entrepreneurial journey is not only about creating a successful company, but also about personal and professional growth. Learning is an indispensable part of life and, in this context, of becoming the best entrepreneur you can be. A multicultural environment drives the underlying necessity to learn from each other, and I’m referring to things other than new recipes to add to your repertoire. Differences in language, social interactions, technological expectations, face-saving, hierarchical structures, perception of time and business processes; the list is endless. When constantly confronted with a variety of outlooks and norms, I began to see the advantageous qualities of each culture. A key learning during my experience has been to incorporate these positive traits and work towards becoming an entrepreneur that is well-rounded and effective.
“ I was exposed to new ways of thinking, perspectives and creativity that I did not realise before.”
It is an important understanding too see that your surroundings are filled with opportunities to learn how and where you can grow, personally and professionally. Anteo figured that ‘all members must be eager to learn and be open to paradigm shifts’, in order for yourself and the startup to foster, whatever the background, multicultural or not. How else can you become a great entrepreneur or grow your company without being exposed to new ways of thinking, ideologies, and methods? Actively seek to learn what you don’t know, and your opportunities will expand.
Have you identified any elements that you can incorporate or are already incorporating, into your startup? Being in a multicultural team has been a unique experience, and has made me aware of key elements that can be a integrated in to any startup. In such a team these ‘issues’ are brought out into the open more often simply due to the higher possibilities of friction, but I am confident that your startup can relate in one way or another. Time and resources may be limited in a startup, but this is the moment where it is ever more important to invest in these efforts. Building a strong and effective company culture from the ground up is essential. How will you build yours?
Please share your experiences and learnings that you have had from being part of a multicultural team, that you believe can be incorporated into any startup. It’s always great to hear different stories.