If you are young, your greatest assets are your time, work ethic, and ambition.
The greatest investment you can make with these assets is in the depth of your experiences.
The richest experiences you can pursue for yourself are found abroad.
It was 4:59 on a Wednesday afternoon at Switch Software’s office, situated in the historic district of Montevideo, Uruguay. If you had peered out of our meeting room balcony you would have seen an alley of colonial buildings – old and elegant on the outside, renovated and filled with high-tech businesses on the inside. For the past hour I had been running our first director meeting regarding our plans to enter the United States – spoken completely in Spanish.
The clock on my tablet ticked 5:00 as I thanked Switch’s four executive partners for their time and attention. Walking home later along Montevideo’s sea wall I stopped and sat to watch the sunset over el Río de Plata, the gulf that placed Buenos Aires just beyond the horizon.
I reflected as the clouds caramelized and the sky reddened.
At the age of 23 I was being entrusted with building a team for North American operations in a pivotal point of growth for this talented company.
Why? Because during college I looked abroad to develop my skills, and after college I looked abroad for my chance to stretch them.
If you are a student or college graduate under 30, it is possible that the best thing you could do for both your personal growth and your career is live and work abroad. Here’s my best to explain why:
1. The (lack of?) Opportunity
It’s no secret that the domestic job market has been less than stellar since the 2008 financial crisis – especially for youth. Everyone is familiar with the horror story of being unable to find a job post-graduation or being maddeningly overqualified for the ones that are available to you.
The stats in the US have improved slightly relative to other developed countries in the last couple years, but our job growth rate is still lower than our population growth rate. The situation remains: most young people with degrees are commodities in their own job market.
Meanwhile, the fact that you are an English-speaking millennial with an education grounded in critical thinking and problem-solving makes you highly desirable in markets all around the world. Take whatever skill it is you developed in or out of college, combine it with your Western background, and chances are there are dozens of fast-growing countries that would love to have you. Those experiences, in turn, can multiply your opportunities by differentiating you from the rest. Here are a few examples from my own experience:
- My good friend Chris Williams, who graduated a year late with an economics degree from the University of Texas, skipped the entry-level grind and moved to Mexico City in 2014 to work for Big 4 Accounting Firm PwC in a sales role. In less than 2 years he advanced to be a consultant in transfer pricing.
- Kalei White, 22 years old and fresh out of her studies at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, came to Uruguay 6 months before I did and is being given astonishing responsibility, autonomy, and flexibility in her marketing role at her software testing company. The next step in her career involves moving to San Francisco with her CEO to open her company’s first US office.
- Kyle Zeman took on an internship as a sustainability analyst for the UAE in Dubai in 2013, an experience he says gave him a global perspective that enabled him to succeed at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Atlanta.
Notice that out of these three stories, in only one does the protagonist continue living and working abroad. You don’t have to become an expat to reap the benefits of an international career.
If you are still in college, then you still have the privilege of leveraging your summers (or taking a semester off) to differentiate yourself abroad through international volunteering or internships.
If you graduated with a skill set with no market value the world over, then you still have one trump card: you can do English good. The world is moving mountains to bring people like you to share your knowledge with their people. Numerous programs around the world will cover your housing and round-trip airfare while paying a very good salary. This in turn allows you to get your “foot in the door” regarding learning the local language and finding other opportunities.
(yes, you can teach English – or you can at least learn how to teach English starting as a much-needed assistant somewhere. There’s a difference between being unable to do something and being unwilling to do something outside of your comfort zone.)
2. The Skills, Experience, and Worldliness You Carry
In the summer of 2014 I moved to Colombia for 3 months to teach English as a rotational teacher through AIESEC, the international student exchange organization. My singular goal was to learn Spanish. I chose Popayán – a smaller, lesser-trafficked city in the department of Cauca, close to the border of Ecuador. There I lived with a host family who didn’t speak English and taught in a public school that rested on the outskirts of the city.
When you’re that close to the equator, the weather is dependent on the altitude. Cartagena is sweltering, but Bogotá is all sweater weather. Popayán is nestled relatively high in the Andes and has chilly nights, and my home didn’t have water heating; I have vivid memories of learning how to take unrelentingly cold showers every day. We sure do take a lot for granted in our comfortable lives.
Seemingly unrelated to my business degree in information systems, my experience teaching English among the wonderful people of Colombia is what qualified me for the role at Switch I take today.
I picked up some sales and leadership experience in college, but what made me stick out among the other applicants for the role was my summer living in complete Spanish immersion in a foreign country. An experience like that speaks to your ability to handle pressure and ambiguity. An experience like that teaches you self-reliance. An experience like that leaves you with proficiency in a language that opens up 31 countries and 427 million people to friendship and business.
An experience like that lifts you from the commodity-zone.
3. The Benefit of Being a Global Citizen
“What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight.”
-Christopher Hitchens, regarding traveling the world.
I happen to believe that it’s our individual responsibility to be global citizens and play our part to reduce humanity’s obsession over the slight differences that divide people and drive conflict in the world. But setting that aside, being a global citizen has practical, tangible benefits. Your ability to navigate these slight differences, which can manifest as gaping chasms in the globalized business world of profits and losses, can make all the difference.
These days few businesses have exclusively domestic clients. Diversity is prized by every respectable business and university. Every market is becoming a global market – especially the job market. There are dots waiting to be connected in every industry across every border.
We’re at a fun point in business history in which being a global citizen is both accessible and makes you stand out. I believe that in our lifetime being a global citizen will complete the transition from “nice to have” to “must have.”
Where in the world will you be when that time comes?
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