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by Hans H. Chen | March 31, 2009

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If the Internet, the Trans-Atlantic trunk line and non-stop business-class flights have broadened the ability of companies to grow internationally, the human toll on the people responsible for these cross-border deals remains high. For bankers pursuing deals in the world's financial centers, marketers expanding consumer markets in the Third World, and business students learning in a country not their own, international business can mean interrupted lives, disrupted personal relations, and tangles with a daunting bureaucracy.

But with planning, good humor, and a steady focus on the benefits of working abroad, all these drawbacks can be minimized, according to a handful of alumni from the Columbia Business School and the School of International and Public Affairs who dropped a few other tips at a panel discussion at the campus Wednesday.

Discussion of visa applications and other immigration hurdles consumed a large portion of the evening.

As a warning to the students in the audience, Martin Blumenthal, a 1996 graduate of the business school, described how his own insufficient visa planning nearly derailed his career at J.P. Morgan, where he is now a vice president in the private banking group. After getting his MBA, Blumenthal worked in Argentina before taking a job with J.P. Morgan in New York in 1998. But when Blumenthal tried to get a visa in 1998, he discovered his J.P. Morgan training would begin four months before he would receive his visa. American immigration refused to let him into the country on a trainee visa because his Wall Street trainee salary convinced the officials that he was getting paid to work, not receive training.

"They said something like, 'I wish I was getting that kind of training,'" Blumenthal said, quoting the immigration officials. "So most of my training was done [in Argentina] by conference call."

"Planning ahead is very important," added Blumenthal, "and so is staying on top of whoever is in charge of the paperwork itself."

For Kyung Kim, a 1999 graduate of the business school and now an associate director at UBS Warburg, planning ahead always means keeping a stack of extra passport photos.

"Take a picture of yourself and always have extras," said Kim, who speaks Korean, Japanese, French and English and spent seven years working and studying in Asia before business school. "Everywhere I worked, I needed to fill out forms for visas to travel abroad."

~ Another tip the panelists agreed on: If you're working abroad, keep your company identification on you at all times, along with a letter of employment from your boss. If your passport or visas get lost or stolen, this identification will help prove your identity and rightful place in the country.

But getting into a foreign country is only the first challenge for the international worker. Cross-border business demands a high degree of adaptability and respect for foreign cultures.

Neha Jani, a 1997 graduate of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, now works in business development for the Estee Lauder Companies. She described her work in the Middle East, where clothing customs for women such as her can range from a simple head scarf and business dress to a full-length, head to toe shroud, or chador. Rules on personal contact also differ from Western norms.

"Meetings at Estee Lauder are very huggy and kissy," Jani said "But I would never do that with my Kuwaiti brand manager."

But while learning about and respecting foreign countries can be essential to good dealmaking, travelers can get tooobsessed about propriety. For example, James Prusky (CBS '96), now vice president of global market development for Citigroup's Internet division, e-Citi, described how he once tried telling a roomful of Latin American businessmen that he was overly warm, but ended up telling them in Spanish that he was horny.

"These little things happen that you laugh about afterwards," Prusky said. "It highlighted to me the need not to take yourself too seriously when you're in a foreign country."

Pasha Bahadori, a 1999 business school grad and now an associate with J.P. Morgan H&Q, said international students need to overcome their perceived language barriers and be as outgoing as possible so they don't isolate themselves or allow stereotypes to affect how others perceive them.

"You need to communicate properly so people don't assign you to a spot," said Bahadori, who speaks French, Farsi, and Spanish in addition to English. "In certain environments, it might make you the outsider if you don't communicate and integrate yourself."

~ With so many challenges, the panelists warned not to make the decision to work abroad lightly.

"As you're interviewing and talking to the company that's going to send you to India or Hong Kong, it can be difficult to discuss the personal issues," Prusky said. "What does this do to my personal life? My family life? I think I sacrificed a real relationship that I had in the United States because I had a desire to work globally. It's something you have to be very clear with yourself about - what you're doing and where you're going."

Consider carefully those you'll work with, too, since they may be only people you know who speak your language.

"Don't make it an oversight to ask, 'Do I like these people?'" Kim asked. "Because they're going to be the people I'm having dinner with the most."

Lastly, don't forget about the alumni connections you can make while you're still in school, the panel advised. Though career experts frequently laud networking as a tool to rise through the American business world, the usefulness of networking extends past the ocean shores.

"There's not a city in my travels where I couldn't call people I knew from SIPA [the School of International and Public Affairs], or the business school," Prusky said. "While you're still in school, make sure you make that part of your outreach. Reach out to students from parts of the world where you want to go.

Despite the sacrifices, working in international business ventures can, ironically, give a person a sense of control that most people never enjoy in their lives.

"At every point in your life, you have to ask 'what are my priorities?', and 'what part of the world can give me what I need?'" said Bahadori, who has lived and worked in six countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America.

After the panel, students in the audience gave their own answers to a question posed to the panelists earlier in the evening: With all the travel to all the places over so many years, what's home?

"I have been traveling so much for my job," said Rohit Pandey, a first year, New Delhi-born MBA student who worked as a chip designer for Intel in California before business school. "I started in India, went to Europe, went to California, and now I'm in New York. So it's all home. It doesn't make any difference where I am. It's all home."

Get more advice from B-School students and alumni on the MBA Community Boards.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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