History Makes a Case for Cultural Exchange

January 04, 2018

No national politician has probably ever run a campaign without promising to strengthen and grow his or her nation’s economy. This shared intentionality is in fact what makes nation-states. While most people agree with this objective, their opinions about the best means of reaching this future differ.

In today’s Western political arena, there is a rise in loud voices advocating trade and immigration restrictions in order to bolster the economy at home. Since humans are naturally tribal, this logic of keeping out the other and strengthening one’s own makes sense. By putting tariffs on imported goods, domestic goods become more appealing and by limiting immigration, there are more job opportunities for citizens. However, in today’s global society this point of view is myopic and a formula to slow down innovation.

Today, so many companies operate with a global innovation model in which a multicultural network for research and development is crucial to building new value. They are looking for employees abroad and hoping to succeed in foreign markets. Part of their methodology is collecting the best minds to come together to drive creative thinking. In so many cases, history proves that cultural exchange and immigration are a key ingredient to innovation.

Immigrant is such a politically charged word that holds a bit of a negative connotation. However, history books are filled with examples that demonstrate the value for a country to let its citizens work abroad, as well as host immigrants to work in its own companies because it is an opportunity for the free flow of cultural insight and best practices.

One way to spur innovative thinking is by integrating different cultural know-how, which is how Salvatore Ferragamo built his success. When he went to the United States in 1914 to work in a shoe factory in Boston with his family, he was impressed by the modern production machinery, but as a traditional Italian shoe craftsman, he understood that these machines limited the quality of the finished product.

Ferragamo created value in the United States when he opened his shop in Santa Barbara and constructed beautiful shoes by hand for Hollywood starlets. Then, after studying human anatomy, chemistry, engineering, and math at UCLA, Ferragamo returned to Florence, Italy, where he was really able to disrupt the shoe industry. By setting up his own workshop of craftsmen working in an assembly-line system, Ferragamo was able to ensure the Italian artisanship quality of his shoes, while keeping up with the constant export demands from the U.S. customers. This blend of American and Italian know-how was a huge success and makes Ferragamo an outstanding example of how a person’s experience working and learning abroad drives entrepreneurs to develop hybrid cultural business approaches in order to solve business problems.

The adoption of a different know-how is not just something the immigrant gains, but also something the people working with the immigrant get. Petra Moser, an economics professor at NYU, studied the effect the German Jewish scientists who immigrated during the World War II era had on American scientists. At that time, Europe was the center of scientific discovery. However, after the United States took in many German Jewish scientists, there was a rise in the number of U.S. patents registered by American citizens. These patents weren’t coming from the immigrants, but a direct result of the immigrants teaching the Americans new concepts that sparked inventive ideas. It is this immigration that helped establish the United States as the global leader in science.

There are also the several cases of immigrants like Levi Strauss or Francesco Illy, who were not only able to create businesses that were successful but also products that became metonyms for the countries they founded them in. For example, Francesco Illy arrived in Trieste, Italy from Hungary after World War I. He observed that the energetic city had everything a coffee production and sales company needed to keep the whole production process in one city; something that was never done before. So, in 1933 he founded illycaffè. After almost 85 years, illy is now emblematic of Italian excellence and a leader in the global coffee culture.

Part of the Italia Innovation methodology is mixing up international experiences, perspectives and best practices to unlock an individual or a company’s growth potential. Empowering people to achieve big global goals requires immersing people in an environment that fosters an international mindset. Self-referential business practices don’t create the future, but investing in new practices does. While this point of view stems from business, it extends towards the political and societal realms. Therefore businesses should denounce economic nationalism and encourage social servants to come up with policies to help the free exchange of ideas in a safe and productive way.