Making an “Us” out of “Them”

In today’s constantly broadening global economy, it’s more important than ever to be able to bridge cultural gaps. Denison alumna Laura Kriska’s book, “The Business of WE,” provides a blueprint to navigate these sometimes-tricky waters.

“There’s never been a more urgent time to bridge the culture gaps we have in our global economy,” she says. “COVID has helped prove that we are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. There is no sustainable way to block yourself off from other countries and other people.”

In her new book and in her work as a cross-cultural consultant, Kriska provides practical tools developed over 25 years working with thousands of professionals on four continents. She shares inspiration through first-hand stories of people and organizations. “I want to help readers recognize the urgent need to actively dismantle Us versus Them dynamics. I want to inspire organizations to actively build a WE culture so that people from various backgrounds are safe, welcome, and productive.” This is good business sense.

Kriska comes by this knowledge through her own experience and research. When she was just a child living with her missionary parents in Japan, she began navigating two different worlds. Her first words were in both English and Japanese. Some mornings she ate rice with chopsticks and other days pancakes with a fork.

Arriving at Denison, Kriska designed her own major in Japanese studies and landed a job in the country’s first Honda plant, conveniently located nearby in Marysville, Ohio, thanks in part to a Denison connection.

“While at Denison I had written Scott Whitlock ‘64, who had a senior position at Honda in Ohio, asking for a scholarship to study in Japan. He offered me a job as a lifeguard in their sports center instead.” That lifeguard position led to an internship working in Honda during Kriska’s senior year — which in turn led to a job offer.

A week after graduating on May 30, 1987, she was welding parts on the automobile assembly line. Two months later, Kriska headed to Japan, where she was the first American woman to be employed in Honda’s Tokyo headquarters. Her first book, “The Accidental Office Lady,” shares her perspective as an American employed in Japan.

A second Denison connection, racecar driver Bobby Rahal ’75, proved to be another critical piece in Kriska’s formation as a cross-cultural consultant.

“I spent almost a year working for Bobby Rahal and his team during a period when Rahal and Honda worked together in a research capacity. I recognized that Rahal’s English-speaking team members and Honda’s Japanese-speaking team members needed to build strong relationships from the beginning so I taught the American employees to use a few words in Japanese. On the day that the two teams met for the first time the American team members each introduced themselves in Japanese. This made an immediate and positive impact on the visitors from Japan. Years later, as a result of many efforts, this team won the Indy 500!”

“That was the beginning of my WE-building effort — and a direct contribution to the work I do now.”

Kriska returned to the US in 1989 and realized that, while there was a lot of interest in Japan, there was also a lot of confusion. “It was at the peak of Japan’s global financial dominance in the late 80s early 90s. I wanted to address misinformation about Japan and share my own experiences so people would not repeat my mistakes.”

After working for a consultant company, Kriska launched her own in 2009. “I’ve really enjoyed having my own business. I have three children so flexibility has always been very important.”

Kriska shares three pieces of advice for people interested in global business:

  1. Cultural data is more important than ever before. Many people consider it a luxury, but in fact, it is mission-critical.
  2. Cultural differences are not only about international or global differences. Culture means any aspect of a person’s identity which includes everything from gender orientation, race, ethnicity, age, and more.
  3. Learning about another culture’s norms is an important way to avoid causing cultural damage. The best way to learn about other cultures is through face-to-face interactions of increasing depth. Gathering cultural data can then be leveraged toward positive outcomes.
April 20, 2021