I speak at university business schools across the country about international business and my work in countries that are as different culturally as they are far away. I get asked questions ranging from simple ones like"How do you deal with jet-lag?" to incredibly complex ones like "Can you explain how venture capital works in China?" The most frequently asked question that I get asked however, is one of the most important to those hoping for a career as an expat; "How do I get started on an international career path?" While this is a great question, many find the answer to be elusive. For recent and soon-to-be college graduates interested in getting into international business, here are 5 tips to getting started on your path to an international career.
Consider Global Internships
Many large US universities have international internship programs that can be done over the summer and for college credits. These internships are an amazing entry into the world of international business. They offer students a chance to not only learn about international business, but specifically the business culture of that country. International internships allow the student to network with a group of like-minded US and local students as well as business people.
Manuel Laguna, the director of Global Initiatives at the Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado, says "An internship abroad is an experience that goes well beyond learning the practical aspects of business. Students gain a deeper understanding of different cultures and what it means to work and live in them. This is essential in today's business world and it is something that can't be learned in the classroom or in a local summer job."
Internship opportunities exist outside of the many university programs as well. My company BRIC Language Systems began offering internship placement in China and Brazil 2 years ago and has helped countless recent graduates get started on an international career. When these interns are not in the office they take part in young professional networking events, tour historic and cultural heritage sites, and learn what it's like to live as an expat.
Discover the American Chamber of Commerce
The American Chamber of Commerce is a great resource for those with international business ambitions. Affiliate sites in different countries list job openings at both US and local companies. I am a member of both Amcham Shanghai and Brazilcham and can let you know first-hand that they are great organizations. As a job seeker you do not have to be a member. Any and all jobs listed on these types of websites are going to be legitimate opportunities at reputable companies.
Amcham Shanghai is also where I learned to network. It's where I built my support system in China. Once you're there, they hold monthly young professionals networking events, usually at the best local bars and restaurants. These are a must-attend event for anyone new to living in China or anywhere else for that matter. Networking is painful for most, but it is a necessary evil, especially when living abroad. These events make it easier to meet new people while also getting to know where the hotspots in the city are.
This is something that you need to start doing before you go. Don't wait until you have arrived and can attend Amcham and other networking events. There are various meetup groups in cities across the country that are a great opportunity to meet people that are either interested in international business or are already involved in it. Going to an event where you don't know a soul isn't fun for anyone, so bring a friend. Or venture out on your own with the knowledge that everyone is in the same boat as you are and draw courage from that. Get used to walking up to strangers and introducing yourself. It's easier than you think and you don't need a lame joke or anecdote to get the conversation started. Just reach out your hand and introduce yourself.
Get Involved With Online Networking
There are also plenty of expat-related sites for most international cities. I just googled "Singapore Expat" and the first result is Singapore Expats. I can't vouch for the site but it includes housing, job listings, expat guides and restaurant and shopping directories. I did the same search for Sao Paulo and got ExpatArrivals. These sites not only have the resources listed above but usually play host to expat networking events and social gatherings to expand your network and help you to meet new friends once you're there. They also usually list the embassy and consulate information you need in case of an emergency. Join the chat groups and messaging boards and start meeting people before you go so you have a network already in place. You'll need it; no matter how die-hard you are about localizing, you'll want American friends to fall back on at some point.
LinkedIn is another great tool for networking before you go. You can upgrade to a premium membership that allows you to reach out to people in the international business world and grow your personal network. If you don't want to pay for it, join every group that you can related to the country and the city that you are going to. All you have to do is search "China Groups" and you'll have options to join hundreds of China related groups. Be active in commenting, asking questions, and reaching out to others in the group that work for interesting companies.
Spend a Semester Abroad
The traditional semester abroad is another great way to get started. While many semester abroad trips have turned into nothing more than a 3-month foreign vacation, if you put the effort in you can have fun while at the same time laying the framework for your international career.
All you need to do is heed some of the advice put forth above. Take a few nights off from partying and go to the young professionals networking events. Meet people who have already made the move. Don't just meet with American young professionals though, make sure to meet locals as well. Learn about the culture and how business operates there. This is a great opportunity to participate in experiential learning in a foreign culture. Don't waste it. You can have fun while doing both.
Hands down the best way to get started is to find a way to get there without having to jump in with both feet. A lot of people burn out during their first year there. If you have an opportunity to do a semester abroad or to do an international internship, take it. This is the easiest way to enter the global job market. An internship is ideal because many lead directly into employment after graduation. If this is not an opportunity that you have readily available, start growing your international network via the online and offline options listed above. Prepare yourself, don't be afraid, and find a way to go global. It will be the most rewarding thing you can do both professionally and personally!