Where Einstein Meets Edison

Multiculturalism and the International Start-up

Multiculturalism and the International Start-up

Jan 16, 2012

In today’s global economy, we often hear of international start-ups targeting international markets with team members located in different countries, and of the many challenges they face. Yet the international start-up faces additional complexities such as navigating new legal and cultural frameworks, planning across several geo-political settings, and managing socio-economic dynamics shaped by individuals’ values and emotions. Using a common working language, such as English, helps mitigate many of these challenges. But it is equally necessary to have an organizational structure and operational framework that responds well to internal situations and market realities. What’s more, a continuous desire to be sensitive to cultural backgrounds must be present when communicating and when making strategic and tactical decisions.

This has been our case at Ateneo Digital. Our team is a small group that includes two Co-Founders (Olivers De Abreu and I) and two principal contributors, Constance Semler and Laurence Robitaille. I was born in Venezuela, and by age two moved with my family to the United States, traveling often until settling abroad permanently in 1997. Olivers is a native Venezuelan and continues to live there. Constance and Laurence are from the U.S. and Canada respectively, though both are polyglots and have extensive international experiences. From the moment the team was put together we faced some interesting tests due to our multicultural nature, and have had to be very creative to overcome these. In this article, we will share with you four of the biggest hurdles we have faced as an international start-up and how we have succeeded in overcoming them.

Choosing a legal framework
Olivers and I wanted Ateneo to be a US company.  The legal system in the United States is well defined and developed, and business and intellectual property rights are protected.  The U.S. legal system also allows for flexibility in decision-making, as it follows common law, which uses past interpretations of regulation to guide future decisions.  In contrast, Venezuela’s legal system is grounded on civil law, which bases future actions on written code.  As a result, under Venezuelan law, our memorandums of understanding, non-disclosure agreements, and other contractual obligations would have needed to be written more elaborately.  The Canadian legal system was also briefly considered, give that it too follows common law. Still, that country’s legal system is not as well defined as that of the United States. 

Taking the time to thoroughly distinguish all three legal systems was key to finding common ground between team members with different understandings and experiences. It also allowed us to create a more encouraging and safe legal framework for our geographically dispersed content partners and customers, while also protecting them and ourselves from future lawsuits or patent violations.

Finding a culturally-acceptable and meaningful name
Early on, Olivers and I had agreed on the name—Ateneo Digital—and secured the web domain.  “Ateneo” is a Spanish word of Greek origin, which means “physical space where scientific and literary communities gather.”  It is used frequently in the names of cultural institutions, such as Ateneo de Madrid in Spain and Ateneo de Caracas in Venezuela.  However, “ateneo” held little meaning for our content strategist who was from the U.S. Constance wanted more due diligence on product definition and branding before committing to the name Ateneo Digital. A multi-cultural misunderstanding, due to different institutional, philosophical and historical frames was hampering our ability to define our brand. 

We shifted the discussion to the source of our disagreement – the word “ateneo” and its implied value across different languages – and then performed further due diligence on product definition and branding. We shared with the team evidence of how people in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Spain are brought up with a strong exposure to the word. ”Ateneo” is used in a consistent way by schools, universities, cultural centers and other institutions, something that does not occur so frequently in English-speaking settings. Identifying the cultural root of our miscommunication and addressing it clearly helped solve our differences effectively. Furthermore, we learned that there could be similar brand and messaging misunderstandings in the future, among ourselves and with external audiences. Therefore, we changed our approach to communicating in multiple languages. Now, rather than simply translating a text, we first identify which concepts need to be presented uniformly given their relevance to our brand, then craft these so that readers in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish can understand them clearly, and finally allow ourselves the necessary cultural freedom to adapt our content’s message to the targeted audience.  Our name, Ateneo Digital, remains; and our messaging is now methodically reviewed across all languages to ensure that it is culturally meaningful.  

Planning when countries don’t function according to plan
To put it bluntly: you can’t plan much in Venezuela! Every day brings with it all kinds of unknowns, from water shortages to power outages, to torrential rains and the usual “I’ll see you at 7” when that really means anytime after 8.30. Olivers is acquainted with the environment well and knows when to schedule group sessions, what things could be done remotely, how much to fit into a day’s work, etc. On the other hand, the North American team (myself included) had no sense of this. We have had to learn and accept that Venezuelan entropy is a part of doing business in the country, and that it is no use planning beyond a certain point or stressing over things. Adding extra buffers, giving priority to the local team in defining work flows, and carefully managing everyone’s expectations has been crucial for getting things done under so much uncertainty. Such realities also forced us to reconsider our development plans, acknowledging that, in order to compete regionally, we would need to reposition key functions in North America and elsewhere in Latin America.

Amazingly, just as our efforts have suffered from the constant inability to plan things in the country, we have also benefitted from being resilient and inventive when addressing difficulties. One example is how we institutionalize knowledge and agree to work activities. We have adopted simple, yet reliable technologies to ensure that teams are self-sufficient and materials are always synchronized and backed up. We define tasks under the assumption that the team lead may not be available for consultation; colleagues jointly develop concise instructions, determine clear accountabilities, and have absolute freedom to question assumptions. Patience among project members—a virtue that’s always welcome—has also become almost mandatory, accepting that we need to truly place ourselves in the other person’s shoes before drawing any conclusions on a given matter.

We’ve also had some great recipe exchanges for everything from quesillo to oatmeal raisin cookies, all while waiting for the power to return, or for a person to join a call.

Focusing on where to seek resources and help
In January we will be joining one of Latin America’s most prominent start-up accelerator programs, Start-Up Chile.  Ateneo Digital needed a strong presence in Latin America, independent of Venezuela, and access to greater resources and entrepreneurial help.  With limited time and resources, we could concentrate on only one application for an accelerator. We chose Chile, mainly because it is an economic hub, with a strong and well-respected jurisprudence, a forward-thinking business environment, valuable free trade agreements, and superb telecommunications infrastructure. What’s more, the program’s design and emphasis met our cultural needs. Unlike other programs, Start-Up Chile is designed to connect Latin America with the world by combining best practices for entrepreneurship from everywhere around the globe with particular expertise and experiences from within the region.

Future unimaginable situations stemming from our cultural diversity will occur. Nevertheless, we believe our multicultural DNA will help immensely. Venezuelans have a great sense of humor and are resilient when it comes to getting things done with limited resources; the US carries a strong dose of work ethic; and Canadians are firm advocates of work-life balance. In the end, we combine all these things into our company. It’s what makes us a true pan-American start-up.

Our learning thus far has been that irrespective of whether your team is from the same city, or spread out across geographies and cultures, what is most important when creating an international start-up is that all members be eager to learn and be open to paradigm shifts. Everyone will be forced to reach the limits of their comfort zone, oftentimes having to go well beyond it. Take your time to thoroughly evaluate each challenge from every imaginable angle, discovering its many causes, and quickly decide what must be done to address it then and in the future. A discerning approach, with attention to multi-cultural details and patience, will be of immense help to your efforts, no matter where you are.


Ateneo Digital is an online publisher and distributor, using digital publishing technology to facilitate access to specialized academic and professional content. We provide content via an on-line web browsing system and off-line via the sale of mainly ePUB, Mobi, and PDF files. We specialize in content originating throughout the Americas and make it available worldwide.