Sunday, June 27, 2010

international business management: White guys wanted

I heard a small program on China on the radio (NPR) during a recent drive back from work. Later that night, I goggled and read with fascination the article in The Atlantic "Rent A White Guy: Confessions of a Fake Businessman from Beijing" .

In the article, Mitch Moxley, a freelance writer who lives in Beijing, discovers that merely being a White Guy in China, who can dress well in a suite qualifies him to opportunities including being paid to be a fake American businessman.

Many of us in the global workforce know anecdotally that being American, and white is certainly an big pre-qualifier, especially while being considered for certain opportunities. The article went on to reinforce that view.

The article reminded me of many anecdotes from the past, including a (white) British colleague proudly proclaiming how he got a cool tax-free-six-figure consulting gig as a system administrator for a client in the middle-east because: the client wanted to see a “few white guys” onsite even though most of the actual sysadmin work was being done offshore in India.

We would like to think that the world is flattening - even this phrase has a flat ring to it now – and global opportunities are there for the taking, especially for those globally mobile. However, when it comes to international business, Moxley demonstrates that there is an element of reverse-racism that hard to shed.

Ps: the opinions and anecdotes in this blog are just that: personal observations from the trenches. Nothing more.

Other articles, blogs on the topic

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lessons from BP’s Little People . . . or is it the small people, or the Common Man?

British Petroleum has been in the news so much; with such a great public resentment against them that anything more the BP leadership could do couldn’t perhaps anger Americans more. Or so we thought till BP chairman’s comment about "small people" of the Gulf Coast hit by the oil disaster.

The media and digirati seem to have moved on to other issues but Carl-Henric Svanberg’s clumsy remark about "small people" created more storm in the teacup than it perhaps should have. He did apologize for the remark the same day. And after all, English is not Svanberg’s native tongue.
I guess I cannot make an excuse for the Chairman of BP, especially given the fact that executives of multinationals, even non-native English speakers are increasingly expected to give press conferences in English, and are coached extensively to avoid public gaffe, especially of the nature in discussion.

The fact of the matter is that there is hardly one version of English spoken globally. There is the queen’s English, with versions in Great Britain itself, the Australian and American English, with native idioms, expressions and even phrases. And then there is the English which Indians learn to speak (ref my earlier blog post). Could “Little People” have been a native expression translated by Mr. Svanberg? Kind of like “the common man,” a term that is prevelant in India and south Asia.

Case in point, an Indian CEO, say of an offshoring services firm, during an interview on the impact of sourcing might make a benign remark like “the common man in Redmond won’t be impacted by Big blue’s sourcing strategy.” Wonder what the American or British media would make of this? And would the expression also create a furor for being Politically In-correct?

Ps: for the feminists in the audience, the term Common Man was probably coined much before we did away with “Man” to more PC “Person”

Blogs on the topic
* BP Chairman's Unfortunate Choice of Words: Once Again the Media Fanned
* BP: 'Small People' Matter To Us, Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg Says
* NYT: Small People
* Gulf oil spill: Obama and BP caring for the 'small people'
* BP -- 'Small People' Speech Pisses Off Little People
* Small People by BP Angers Gulf Residents

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Reviewing the book Leaving India and the question “Where are you from?”

I was intrigued by the topical title of the book, Leaving India, a copy of which I picked up while traveling to Bangalore recently. The book, while readable did not exactly “keep me up late into the night” as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s blurb on the jacket promises. It is a mix of academic and theoretical observations peppered with stories and anecdotes. I finished reading it on the 14-plus hour plane ride back to San Francisco.

Minal Hajratwala has done a great job of traveling, interviewing and capturing the immigration saga of her extended family spanning over a century. The book is primarily about migrants of the Gujarati Khatri community that the author belongs to. By selecting her extended family for her research, Hajratwala has been able to focus on an otherwise eclectic topic of immigration.

She draws from her personal experiences, a childhood in New Zealand and Michigan. There is a tinge of bitterness about her childhood, partly attributable to her experiences in racially charged Michigan of the seventies.

One of the most interesting passages in the book is when Hajratwala examines the question “Where are you from?” (P 339).

This is a question NRIs, ABCDs and Indian Immigrants get asked a lot; lot more than we care to admit!

Many a times, the question is just an ice-breaker, like when you are asked “Where are you from?” and you reply “India,” after which the Caucasian woman may ask “which part of India?” . . . and if you say “Bangalore” she might start off with “I was in India a few years ago with my husband/friend, we traveled to Agra and Jaipur”

Now, if like me, you happen to be an NRI, and when asked the question, you answer “I am from Phoenix, or Here, San Francisco,” you might hear Oh?”

And just as Hajratwala reflects in her book “". . .and in her voice you might hear a faint rise: disbelief, wonder, a set of questions she does not ask” . .. “I am thinking of all the times I have faced this question – dozens? Hundreds? – and how, even now, I feel I must defend or explain my answer . . . but none of these would give a clue to either ethnicity or character”

Touché, Ms Hajratwala, well put!

Ps: My Book review on
Washington Post's review of the book