When students look to study abroad, it’s often to gain a new perspective, to enrich their education by adapting to, and learning from, new surroundings — and there’s no reason to limit that sort of international experience to the college years.

In support of this idea, Big Four firm Ernst & Young’s Vantage Program sends its professionals around the globe to help developing businesses. Launched in 2005 in conjunction with global nonprofit Endeavor, the program looks to support entrepreneurs in emerging markets, all at no cost to the proprietors.

Now entering its 10th year, the Vantage program works for both EY and the communities it serves. Deborah Holmes, the firm’s Americas director of corporate responsibility, noted that the companies that work with Endeavor grow by an average rate of 68 percent, and pay salaries that are far above average for their regions. These are the types of companies any firm would want in its client base.

But she also said that the proof of the program’s success lies in the returning advisors, who are chosen from a pool of applicants to spend six to seven weeks in their assigned country. “Their communication and relationship skills grow exponentially during the assignment and they have the chance to explore all these different approaches,” said Holmes. “It was clear that ... our hope for them to have a real impact in just two months was realistic. They have a global mobility experience we see as fundamental for successful careers.”

 

Boots on the ground

Irene Liu, an advisory manager based in New York City, and Albert Garza, an assurance senior manager from Dallas, completed the Vantage Program just last year, and their experiences have had a profound affect on how they continue to do business stateside.

“It was everything I was looking for,” said Liu. “I previously studied internationally and wanted a place to brush up on my Spanish skills and I was always interested in entrepreneurship — I actually started my own business before EY. Something that drew me to EY was their work with entrepreneurs.”

“It was a very transformative experience for the positive, in hindsight,” said Garza. “What excited me was being a part of something bigger. I thought the program was really exceptional, to use my skills that I developed over the years and apply them toward a business where I could see the impact directly.”

Garza’s assignment found him in Santiago, Chile, working for a startup recycling company, Eco-logica, that works to improve the state of waste management and alternative fuels. “They are a pretty unique company because they were one of the first to take the waste [from] companies and make sure it’s recycled or used for fuels,” he explained. “They know the rest of the world is focusing on this and jumping on the bandwagon.”

Even though factors such as language barriers and bare-bones offices were a challenge, it was those same differences that Garza took away the most from. “It made me really appreciate the diversity of thought, being in a room with them,” he said. “Everyone [in the U.S.] is educated and has a similar background, to a degree, but their culture is completely different. Their way to look at a challenge was much more different than mine.”

Liu’s assignment found her in Mexico City at a company called Kichink — an emerging e-commerce platform based in the nation’s capital that is also one of the first of its kind.

While echoing Garza’s impressions of diversity of thought, Liu took away a more social aspect from her time in Mexico, citing a stronger emphasis on interpersonal relationships. “Before we got down there, there was training to highlight some of the differences in the U.S. and Latin American working environments,” Liu recalled. “[They urged us to] take the time to get to know the person you’re working with and try to develop stronger working relationship with them. That went a long way — they appreciated it and responded well to it. In the U.S., we are focused on getting work done — there, it’s different. Every morning, we’d chat, [and] everyone would go out to lunch. It was a little more laid-back, but they made it work; they were very effective.”

Liu added that she now tries to take her more communal attitude back to her office in New York. “One of the things I try to focus on [now] is building relationships with the people that I work with,” she said. “On a personal and professional level, I think it goes a long way. When you have group events, do you work or do you go and get a little further behind? More and more, I think it’s important to meet up or take a break and just talk about things outside of work. The work will still be there when you get back.”

 

All around the world

Holmes described plans to have the program expand outside of the Americas. “I’m really excited that this year marks the global rollout of the program,” she said. “We’re in the planning stages now. ... EY employees from not only the Americas will be able to participate, but EY Americas, India and Asia-Pac.”

And as the program continues to develop new relationships with pioneering entrepreneurs, an investment in the future might be its most important result. “EY has this motto, ‘Building a Better Working World,’ which may sound cheesy, but this was the firm putting its money where its mouth is, creating jobs and social change,” said Garza. “Firms driving that by helping people with good ideas … have an investment in the working world.”