Published May 18, 1999
Volume 7, Number 5

Marian Stetson-Rodriguez Helps Clients Discover a World of Opportunity

The first experience Marian Stetson-Rodriguez had living in a foreign country had its mystifying elements. She was an international exchange student working as a summer camp counselor with children in France. 

"I could speak fluent French, and I thought that being a student and participating in the student body that I would make friends, but I didn't really make any friends among the French people," she recalls. "Looking back, that was when I understood the language but I didn't understand the culture at all, their perceptions of how to form friends and what friendship is all about. In hindsight, I know now that for many French people, they don't invest in temporary people who are just passing through; friendships are really a commitment. 

Marian Stetson-Rodriguez"I took it personally — I just thought they didn't like me." 

This was one of her first object lessons in the differences between cultures, and one of the experiences that eventually led her to form Charis Intercultural Training Corporation, an intercultural communication and management consulting firm. 

More than Language
Stetson-Rodriguez's career path was shaped by an early aptitude for languages. 

"They were easy A's to keep my grade point average up, so by the time I graduated from high school I was fluent in Spanish and then in college I studied French, Italian, and German," she explains. She received a degree in linguistics from UC Berkeley in 1976 and then worked as a language-certified attendant for World Airways for two years. 

After spending two years working in his native Venezuela with her husband, a former metallurgical engineer who now works with Charis, she returned to the Bay Area and helped form LinguaTec, a firm offering English as a Second Language (ESL) and intercultural training to Silicon Valley corporations. 

Much of the training was directed at executives travelling overseas on business, but a surprising amount was done for managers who supervised employees from other cultures.

"The international has come home, particularly in the Bay Area where we have three of the most culturally diverse counties in the country," she says. "The county with the most cultures per capita is San Mateo County, followed by Santa Clara and Alameda. We have everybody here." 

Creating Goodwill
After 11 years with LinguaTec, she found a desire to focus more on the intercultural training elements of her work and founded Charis, named after a Greek word meaning "goodwill." 

Stetson-Rodriguez believes that intercultural training will grow in importance in terms of its impact on a company's bottom line. 

"People are looking for a strategic advantage where is the last bit of advantage that can be squeezed out of an organization?" she says. "The next step (in that process) will be adding the creativity and the diversity: What's the Dutch perspective, or the women's perspective, or the Generation X perspective?"

She notes that studies have shown heterogenous groups to be both more ineffective and more effective than homogenous groups. 

"You can understand why (heterogenous groups) are on the low ends of the curve because there's lots of misunderstanding and miscommunication, different values and motivations," she explains. "Get them to work together with clear management, a clear goal, and ground rules that allow for individual expression, then you're at the high end. We can leverage this international perspective for the next level of strategic advantage but it takes integration to get all these cultures talking to each other." 

Personal Insight
Stetson-Rodriguez takes a great deal of personal satisfaction from her career. 

"I have the greatest job in the world," she says. "It's discovery all the time and it's fascinating."

One of her favorite aspects of her work is the opportunity for personal insight.

"In the process of looking at other cultures, it makes you question your own," she notes. 

She cites her previous example of friendship as a concept that varies from place to place. 

"Here, friendship is often tied to activities while we're involved in activities together, I would refer to you as my friend, and then when the activity ends, I might not call that person again, and that's okay here. For people outside the culture, they don't understand that and we're sometimes judged as Americans as being superficial, but it's rather that we're highly mobile and sincere in our own way." 

With successful business relationships around the world, Stetson-Rodriguez is making lots of friends, however it's defined. 


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