Thirty-five years ago, I would wait impatiently for a light blue aerogram, hungry for news from home. As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Africa, posted to a small village far from electricity or running water, the only world news came from those slim aerograms or from my short-wave radio playing Voice of America.
What a difference a generation makes! Yesterday, my oldest son, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Africa, texted me a link to a New York Times article on missile testing in North Korea. Despite the fact that he is far from home, he follows the Golden State Warriors’ quest for a basketball championship and knows that Turkey’s President Erdogan’s referendum passed by a narrow 51%. As the world has become more interconnected than ever before, he is able to share his observations and adventures on the continent in ways that I was never able to.
Thanks to technology’s astounding advances, this generation is able be part of the world using means that were unimaginable when I lived in Africa. Not only are we able to bring the world into our homes as never before, the world itself is better than ever before. More people are entering the global middle class than at any time in human history, more children survive beyond their fifth birthdays than ever before, and poverty rates worldwide have plummeted. We can credit some of these positive changes to the worldwide movement toward economic, financial, trade, and communications integration.
And yet, despite the greater economic prosperity around the world, we see a backlash against globalization at home in the United States. Despite being able to communicate across borders as never before, we see a growing fear of those who are different than us. Despite promises of future affluence, we see job disruption and loss of opportunities for those whose skills have not kept pace with the rapidly changing economy.
In response, politicians have placed the blame on “unfair” trade deals and immigrants who have “stolen” American jobs. Although evidence shows that the majority of jobs have been lost to technological advances, and not because they have been moved overseas, politicians have fed into Americans’ fears and disappointment, promising easy answers by walling off the country and “forcing” companies to bring manufacturing back to blighted cities and communities.
What does this mean for the corporate leaders who need to rethink where and how they compete given the recent cultural and political trends?
Instead of building walls and closing borders, I believe we have a unique, unprecedented opportunity to foster understanding across cultures and countries, thanks to technological advances that make communication across borders possible. Taking advantage of interconnected and complex global markets, we can bring together diverse viewpoints and approaches to create strategic business models that will make people around the world more prosperous and self-sufficient, particularly if they have the training and education to compete in a new global economy. The challenge today is not to turn inward to solve our problems, but to turn outward and to embrace the many opportunities before us.
Let’s not return to the days of the blue aerogram and isolation. Let’s not lose sight of the many positive changes around the globe since I lived in Africa long ago. Instead, let’s embrace diversity and globalization to make the world a better, more prosperous place.