The "Accidental" Ambassador

Jun 05, 2019

By William R. Dodson

The entrepreneur who strikes out into international markets has more than just a responsibility to make money. He or she should also strive to represent the best parts of his or her home country’s society, language and culture to people around the world. Being an entrepreneurial ambassador to other countries is also a means to learn more about the societies into which the entrepreneur wants to develop markets. So understanding that the global entrepreneur is as much an ambassador as a businessperson is simply good business sense.

This realization is especially critical for American entrepreneurs. At this critical juncture in globalization, when the competitiveness of developing countries is growing by leaps and bounds, it is important that American entrepreneurs tackle the international markets at a time when the brands of American multi-nationals are on the decline due to foreign rejection of American foreign policy actions.

Brand America: A Gap in Perceptions

America, and by extension, Americans, have a distinctive personality that is readily identifiable by citizens of other countries. Many people around the world see “brand America” as including characteristics such as entrepreneurship, a pioneering spirit and a wholesome, almost simplistic, optimism. On the flip side, many people also think of Americans as being uninformed about world affairs, arrogant, loutish and interested solely in the export of American products to the rest of the world without a quid pro quo.

The Financial Times, in its June 31, 2005 article, “World Turning Its Back on Brand America,” opens with the statement, “The U.S. is increasingly viewed as a ‘culture-free zone’ inhabited by arrogant and unfriendly people, according to [a] study of 25 countries’ brand reputations.” Simon Anholt, the author of the study, which was done by The Anholt-GMI Nation of Brands Index, stated, “The U.S. is still recognized as a leading place to do business, the home of desirable brands and popular culture. But its governance, its cultural heritage and its people are no longer widely respected or admired by the world.”

Indeed, only about five cents on the dollar of the American federal budget is spent on public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is a government’s pro-active effort to communicate with other citizens of the world about a country’s core values. Further, educational exchanges between countries are fewer and farther between, in part because of tougher American visa restrictions and in part because of a prickly bunker mentality America has presented to the world since 9/11. American embassies around the world—typically the most visceral medium through which the residents of other countries interact with Americans—have restricted contact with foreign nationals.

A former ambassador to the Middle East recalled once being asked why American women sleep with at least six men at lunchtime. Eventually it was revealed the Arab asking the question was an avid viewer of "Baywatch" and other U.S. TV shows. This was his only example of the way Americans live.

There is also a gap in the way Americans see themselves in contrast with the rest of the world. The Anholt-GMI study also cited that "the world takes a dim view of the U.S. people will surprise most Americans themselves: the study’s American respondents consistently placed the U.S. at the top of all six categories polled.” Categories included cultural, political, investment potential and other criteria.

Enter the Global Entrepreneur

“Right now the U.S. government is not a credible messenger,” Keith Reinhardt, president of Business for Diplomatic Action, said in a Financial Times interview. “We must work to build bridges of understanding and co-operation and respect through business-to-business activities.”

Curiously, the global entrepreneur does not have to do anything to be an ambassador for his country. He already is an ambassador, like it or not. It is human nature to take an individual from outside one’s tribe or nationality as representative of the outsider’s group. Governmental ambassadors have merely formalized interaction between groups with different interests and values; that is, governmental ambassadors have codified a rarefied language they use between themselves because over the last couple hundred years countries have come to understand that most people do not know how to behave in front of those of another group.

So, as long as the global entrepreneur understands this fundamental human response while traveling to other countries hawking his wares, he will naturally fall into the role of ambassador, albeit not of the Foreign Service type.

This “accidental” ambassador can be one of the most potent players in building bridges of trust and understanding across societies. It is by dint of her informality and the true nature of her visit—i.e., commerce—that the global entrepreneur can have a far greater impact on individuals and even institutions of another society than any professional ambassador. And it is precisely because the global entrepreneur does not move in as rarefied circles as governmental representatives that businesspeople can have a potentially greater impact on the perceptions of average citizens of a country.

More than occasionally in countries in which I have lived and worked people say to me, “Oh, you are not at all what I thought an American would be—arrogant and ignorant of our ‘ways.’” By remaining respectful of and inquisitive about the culture and sensitivities of those who live in other societies, I am able to build personal relationships with these individuals. These relationships are vital for the global entrepreneur, since it is through these personal connections—especially in developing economies like China and India—that best intentions are realized in government and in business. They are also a way to gain fresh perspectives on products and services that serve or promote local values and customs.

Listen and Learn

The key to being an effective business diplomat—i.e., more than just an accidental ambassador—is to actively listen to what people of other cultures have to say and then to learn from them. The global entrepreneur needs to shed his preconceptions about other cultures and allow himself to be led through the culture. The entrepreneur needs to shed his pride and its distorting effects on the perception of others, to stand side by side with the members of the other culture, to listen, watch and, much like the apprentice, learn his craft by working shoulder-to-shoulder with them.

Most markets and societies in the world are not as rationalized as the American and Western European ones. Many of these older societies are tightly bound by historic and linguistic ties that are difficult to fathom at a distance. Many of the same social and historic eccentricities leach into the workings of local economies, as well. It is nearly impossible, then, to penetrate the markets of most nations in the world without some semblance of internalized understanding and even identification with local customs and habits.

An integral part of understanding the way of a culture is to learn and even to follow the way its members use various products. This may apply to something as basic as the way citizens clean their clothes. In China, Western detergent makers uncovered a new market for soap bars when they understood that the vast majority of Chinese who live inland do not have washing machines. Instead, they scrub their clothes by hand in a wash basin. By respectfully observing local residents in their daily lives, listening and learning from them, the company was able to get a jump on Western competition in China.

Cultures Working Together

Here’s another product that can result from listening and learning the ways of citizens of another society—increased cooperation and communication across cultures. The global entrepreneur who represents his own country and then learns the ins-and-outs of another is uniquely poised to bridge the two societies with products that facilitate commerce between them.

A case in point is our own company’s recently released Internet product: The China Industrial Park Online Directory. The Directory maintains information on scores of economic development zones throughout China that Western companies can search by region, type of zone and even industry. The product was the result of a team from our company traveling throughout China researching and learning about investment opportunities in the vast country. It was actually Chinese government officials in several locations who independently suggested the creation of just such an online product!

When the global entrepreneur understands the inevitability of trade and technological barriers coming down between nations, he is able to see beyond the walls of limitation. Now, with the make-up of staff of companies more multi-ethnic than ever before, with the lowering of barriers to travel and to communication, it only makes good business sense for today’s American entrepreneur to accept responsibility for his own society by becoming a welcomed friend in others.

This article is based on a presentation delivered at the conference on “Entrepreneurship in a Globalized World,” hosted by Americans for an Informed Democracy, Northwestern University, November 13, 2005.

About the Author(s)

William R. Dodson is Managing Director of Silk Road Communications (SRC), a China investment research and development company with offices in Chicago, Beijing and in the Suzhou Industrial Park, near Shanghai.  He lives in Suzhou.  Contact him at