What Does Intercultural Competence Have To Do With Entrepreneurship?

Mar 05, 2019

Last month marked the three-year anniversary of me leaving my stable, full-time job to start True North Intercultural. Reflecting on the journey so far, I’ve noticed a striking number of parallels between intercultural learning and entrepreneurship. I’ve realized that the work I’ve done around my own intercultural development has actually helped me as an entrepreneur.

And so, in this post, I’d like to discuss how intercultural learning has contributed to my success in building a business. The reason I share this is because I think there are a lot of people who don’t see a connection between intercultural learning and their discipline or area of work. They assume intercultural learning is only about interacting more effectively with people from different cultures.

While that’s certainly an important goal of intercultural learning, developing our intercultural competence also involves building skills that are useful in tons of other areas of our lives. So for anyone who has ever said, “What does intercultural learning have to do with me?” (or heard such a comment from a student or colleague), this one's for you…

Embracing the Unknown & Taking a Growth Mindset

Developing intercultural competence requires you to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and to practice engaging ambiguity. I really think it’s my ability to sit with discomfort and be okay with not knowing how things are going to transpire that gave me the courage to venture out on my own.

This comfort with discomfort not only helped me leave a stable job to start my own company, but has also helped me continue to evolve the business and forge my own path. I have become more comfortable sitting with ambiguity, knowing I will figure out the best next step, trusting my gut when it comes to me, and taking action.

When training educators to facilitate intercultural learning, I stress the importance of balancing challenge and support. By regularly pushing learners (including ourselves) outside their comfort zone, into the learning zone, we ultimately expand both.

There were a lot of things involved in starting my own business that were way outside my comfort zone to begin with. But if I can get myself to “do one thing that scares me every day” (an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that has always motivated and inspired me in my intercultural adventures) with my business—whether it’s investigating how to form an LLC, designing a website, or opening myself up through a blog post—my comfort zone grows just a little bit each time.

In both intercultural development and entrepreneurship, continuous learning is central. Having a growth mindset is mandatory. I’ve heard it said that starting your own business is “personal development on steroids.” I could say the same about most intercultural experiences I’ve had. Both require a lot of learning, growing, and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone if you want to succeed.

Know Thyself

An important aspect of having a growth mindset is self-awareness. For me, both intercultural learning and starting my own business have required a lot of reflection about what my values are and how I can best live in alignment with those values. (See the January 2019 blog post for more about values.)

I started True North Intercultural as a way to live in better alignment with both my personal and professional values. I left a stable job so that I could (1) have the freedom and flexibility I sought in my life, particularly as a mother, and (2) use my knowledge and understanding about the process of facilitating intercultural learning to begin to shift the focus and conversation in higher education from one of increasing the quantity of students having international experiences to one where we recognize a wider array of intercultural learning opportunities and actively help people—students, faculty, staff, and everyone else involved—grow and develop through those experiences.

Now, building a business in alignment with my core values doesn’t necessarily come easily. For example, my desire to be present for my kids is in constant tension with my travel schedule. However, when I notice such tensions, I’m able to ask myself better questions and come up with innovative solutions. For me, one way I’ve resolved that particular tension is to start doing more online or “virtual” work (nothing feels “virtual” about the kind of intensive individual and group coaching I’m doing).

In addition, building a business has required me to examine my beliefs, values, and assumptions around what it means to be an entrepreneur. What are the stories I’m telling myself about entrepreneurship, business, money, etc.? (As the daughter of a small business-owner, there are a lot!) How are these stories serving me and the business, and where/how are they not? These are things I had not thought about previously, but doing so has come relatively naturally because, as an interculturalist, I’ve engaged in this type of reflection in other areas of my life.

Creativity, Innovation & Frame-Shifting

In addition to self-awareness and getting comfortable with discomfort, intercultural development also requires creativity. Not necessarily in the artistic sense (I’m so not artistic), but in the think-outside-the-box sense.

Actually, I’d take that a step further and say intercultural development really involves disregard-the-box thinking. It requires us to understand that our experiences and our background shape the way we experience the world, recognize that others may experience the world very differently, and learn to shift our frame of reference so that we can not only begin to see the world from other perspectives, but also bridge the gaps that exist.

“Either/or” thinking will not get you there. Intercultural competence requires some serious “both/and” thinking. How can we hold two seemingly contrasting ideas or values in our mind at the same time and somehow create synergy from them? Learning to do that naturally enhances your creativity.

It is this kind of thinking that has helped me ask better questions and, therefore, get better answers. I love the phrase, “The quality of your life is determined by the quality of the questions you ask.” Intercultural practices like frame-shifting and cultural bridging have taught me to ask better questions, which has also helped me be a better entrepreneur. Whenever I get stuck, I try to reframe the question or the way I’m looking at the issue. By asking better questions and engaging ambiguity, I’m typically able to find a creative solution.

For example, instead of asking myself, “Is it possible to develop intercultural competence through an online format?,” I instead ask, “How could I create the best possible online program that would support truly transformative intercultural learning and development?”


I share these insights because I want others to understand that developing intercultural competence involves skills that are highly transferable to a wide variety of disciplines and aspects of life. It’s not just about being more effective abroad. Intercultural learning can help people become more self-aware, embrace the unknown and take a growth mindset, and be more creative and innovative. By developing our intercultural competence, we develop our capacity to live our best life.

Please Share!

I’d love to hear from you about the connections you’re seeing between intercultural development and your own life and work. How has developing your intercultural competence, or helping your students develop theirs, led to both expected and unexpected benefits? Please comment below!

Join the Conversation!

Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.