April 22, 2021

Taking It a Step Further: Understanding and Connecting Across Cultural Differences

Alexa Porter wanted one last opportunity to gain cross-cultural experience before she graduated from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in May 2020. As a business administration student focusing on international business and strategy with a minor in public policy, Alexa was looking for a course that would advance these passions. Studying abroad had never been a good fit given her course schedules in previous semesters. Alexa was excited to find the Cross-Cultural Business course offered for the first time at the Ross School of Business. Cross-Cultural Business is part of the Business & Culture: A Virtual Practicum program (B&C), an action learning course on international business cultures that connects students from Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and the U.S. This experiential course had a deep and lasting impact on Alexa even after she completed it and graduated — so much so that she still reflects on it today.

“I was interested in international business from the start and learning about other cultures, so it was a no-brainer to take a course like this,” Alexa said. “It gave me some useful insight into what it would be like to be involved with a global company and interact with clients from across the world.” Her view about culture has also evolved since completing the Business & Culture program. Alexa says that being able to virtually connect with faculty and students from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) throughout an entire semester to collaborate on assignments, including a final international consulting project, made the class a unique part of her degree program. “B&C definitely had an impact on my view about culture,” Alexa said. “Now, I’m more comfortable talking about culture. Not just talking or hearing about differences, but more so about acknowledging those differences and taking it a step further and trying to actually understand those differences.”

Several months after graduating, Alexa landed a job with Veeva Systems as an associate consultant and is now in her home state of New Jersey. Veeva Systems is a cloud-computing company focused on pharmaceutical and life sciences industry applications. Alexa credits B&C in helping her to thrive at Veeva, a global company where she now speaks and works with colleagues from around the world regularly and can effectively and confidently communicate with them regardless of background.

Alexa is more conscious about non-verbal communication because of her experience and is able to pick up on subtleties that might go over others’ heads. “B&C has prepared me well for my future,” Alexa said, “Regardless of where you are, you don’t just work with one culture. Here in the U.S., we’re a mixture of cultures and most people have to learn how to operate among those. Taking a class like B&C really prepares you for this — it puts you in the right mindset. It’s a great way to learn how to operate in a more globalized work environment and more internationally connected world.”

Alexa said she is more able to recognize and challenge her own cultural biases, something she sees as a great benefit to anyone. “A cross-cultural experience like this really pulls you out of your comfort zone. It was interesting to force myself not to think a certain way, consider how I operated, and make this a productive experience,” she said.

The Business & Culture program creates an opportunity for students to make more meaningful connections and transforms participants’ views about the importance of culture. As Alexa puts it, “it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, you can make connections even with differences among you.”