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Doing business overseas can be effective in expanding markets and increasing sales, but what's it really like for women with vendors and clients in other countries?
Pam Marrone, chair and founder of AgraQuest , a Davis, California-based biotechnology company that develops natural pest-management products, notes that being a female entrepreneur is still uncommon in the northern European market where she does business. She says even her treatment on European airlines, where she is frequently the only female in business class, shows people are inexperienced at dealing with executive women.
"The flight attendants dote on businessmen," observes Marrone, 48. "I literally have to jump out of my seat to get served. On one airline, I flew more than 100,000 miles per year, but when I asked where the business-class lounge was, the gate agent said, 'Why would you want to know?'" Marrone, who helms a company with more than $5 million in revenue, started dressing more formally, hoping to improve the service, but it didn't help.
Ironically, Marrone had a completely different experience in Taiwan, where she expected stereotypes but was accepted as a relative equal. "After a meeting with Taiwanese investors and businessmen, I was asked to participate in one of the country's standard business practices: karaoke," she recounts. "I ended up belting out, off-key, My Way by Frank Sinatra and closed the deal."
Marrone says she always remains calm and confident, realizing that regardless of the situation, her goal is to sell her philosophy and vision of the product. Currently, international sales make up a quarter of her company's sales; she expects an increase to 50 percent within three years.
According to Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, author of International Business: A Basic Guide for Women and a senior manager at Cisco Systems, it takes three times more effort to prepare for international business. "Know your own business, and understand the business environment," she says. "Read up on the culture-nuances, phrases, etc."
Also check a country's view on gift giving. In Japan, it's customary to give gifts to a business associate; in other countries, such as Malaysia, gifts could be seen as bribes. Avoid flowers or anything with romantic connotations, and be careful with items that may be related to superstitions (for example, giving a clock in China would be considered bad luck; while in South Korea, it suggests good luck).
Women also need to understand the nuances of negotiation. In Japan, silence might be used as a strategy, while in Korea, tempers may flare as a way of gaining a stronger negotiating position. "It's worth overpreparing and identifying a neutral third party in case your negotiation reaches an impasse due to cross-cultural misunderstanding," says Wilen-Daugenti. In some cases, women may need to bring a male associate to get business done.
The way women entrepreneurs dress is also important. While Wilen-Daugenti sees many women wearing pantsuits, suits with below-the-knee skirts are always a safer bet. She suggests colors such as dark blue, gray, black and dark brown. Women in other countries wearing colorful dress are often not in senior positions, so go with subtle attire.
Research and confidence are invaluable for any woman doing business overseas. "Be sensitive of cultural differences, and be open to new ways of thinking," advises Marrone. "Your best assets are your expertise and competence, and your ability to communicate in a clear and confident manner."