How I’m Making Sense of the Mess That is My Book-in-Progress

making sense of my mess

That’s my mess! Part of it, anyways…

Today I read Abby Covert’s book How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody.

It makes me feel more confident about tackling my current challenge: writing a guide to international career opportunities. I’ve got illustrations (Gracias Nacho!) I’ve got 8+ years of anecdotes and 5 years of blog posts and several years of presentations and conversations about this topic. I’m not starting from scratch. I have a deadline. (Thank you Erin.)

But it feels like a mess! So many documents! So many stories! So many aspects to cover!

This book helped. It’s concise. It teaches you how to organize messy information of all kinds, without using jargon like “information architecture” or “user experience” or “wireframe” or any of the other tricky-to-explain phrases I’ve learned over the past few months. 

Each page has a sentence-long headline that makes a decisive point, followed by tight paragraphs explaining it in more detail. 

My favorite page is 46. It reads:

Language is the material of intent. 

The words we choose change the things we make and how we think about them.

Our words also change how other people make sense of our work.

In writing this book, my intent was to make it:

  • Accessible
  • Beginner-friendly
  • Useful in a broad range of situations

As a result, I had to be comfortable with it not being these other things:

  • Academic
  • Expert-friendly
  • Useful in specific situations

How can I relate this to what I’m writing?

My intent is to make it:

  • Visual
  • Open-Ended
  • Inspiring for the well-traveled, ambitious and bored 

As a result, I need to be comfortable with it not being:

  • Authoritative
  • Managerial
  • Inspiring for employees seeking international transfers within large companies

I also loved Abby’s post about her process of making sense of her own mess, through teaching, writing, iterating, editing, and more.

A good book. Highly recommended.

This post is part of Small Planet Studio’s #MyGlobalLife Link Up!

Moving Home After Living Abroad: 4 Tips for Re-Entry

I recently moved back to my hometown, San Francisco, after spending the past three years in Chile, where I taught entrepreneurship courses at universities and collaborated with local startups.

This is not my first experience with re-entry. I’ve experienced two severe bouts of reverse culture shock over the years, along with many milder ones. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

After Chile, Back to School

These pictures are from my year abroad. On the left I'm with my host mother, Latife, and her husband Jaime. In the middle I'm standing in front of the library in the Toma de Peñalolen, where I volunteered. On the right, I'm with my montañismo classmates at the top of a snowy mountain we climbed together.

These pictures are from my year abroad. LEFT: with my host mother, Latife, and her husband Jaime. MIDDLE: standing in front of the library in the Toma de Peñalolen, where I volunteered. RIGHT: with montañismo classmates at the top of a snowy mountain we climbed.

At the end of 2005, I finished my year studying abroad in Chile. As I packed my suitcases, I tried to summarize my experience in one sentence: Chile’s a country of contrast between rich and poor, traditional and modern, liberal and conservative, city and country side and as an international student, I was able to see the extremes of all of these different contrasts often in the same day. In December I left Chilean summer and landed in California winter.

Chile changed my perspective. I’d grown up. I was 21.

It hit me hardest when I went back to college. I lived in the sorority house where I’d lived B.C. (before Chile). The rules seemed silly — no boys upstairs after ten or downstairs past midnight, you must wear light-but-bright-blue + bronze + brown tweed for tomorrow’s event….

I overcommitted myself. I needed two classes to graduate, but signed up for five, including a social entrepreneurship seminar, a student-taught women’s leadership course and ballet, plus too many activities and internships.

About a month into the semester, it hit me hard. Rushing everywhere, fueled by fear of missing out, exhausted — I missed Chile.

A few months later, I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies. Then I moved to China. (Here’s the full story.)

After China, Hometown Adventure

In December 2007, after a year and a half in China, I moved back to San Francisco.

As I packed my bags, I tried to summarize my experience into one sentence and came up with one word.

Harmonious. A word I’d heard many times in China. “Build a Harmonious Society” is a Chinese government slogan that refers to hierarchy, stability, peace and respect. This was the topic for a student speech competition I’d judged and a favorite buzzword for Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. But when I arrived home, I realized that this convoluted story about “harmonious” was not what anybody wanted to hear.

When people asked me about China, I said: “Fun, interesting. Lots of people.” And then we’d move on to another topic.

I’d say things like, “Wow, there’s free coffee at Bank of America! You can understand exactly what I need and help me in five minutes!?!?” and “Wow, Trader Joe’s has so many choices. And I can read all the labels!”

Fast Forward to Now

San FranciscoNow I’m back in San Francisco again, adjusting. I’m staying in my parents’ house (they’re out of town) and I’ve had plenty of time and space to myself over the past month. I’ve figured out how to introduce myself without going on and on about my travels. I can’t say it’s been totally flawless: 6am fire alarm I don’t know how to turn off? Not fun. Long-distance relationship? Not easy. But I have learned a lot over the years about how to process all these faraway experiences and move forward here.

4 Tips for Going Home After Living, Working, or Studying Abroad

(1) Give yourself time to adjust.

There are lots of subtle, mental shifts that you don’t necessarily recognize until you’ve lived them, but if you’re in the supermarket saying, “OMG I can read all the labels!” you should give yourself that moment to pause and think about it rather than jumping right ahead to, “I have five minutes to buy all these things on this list.”

(2) Keep your descriptions concise.

Your family and friends probably don’t want to hear all the details. An analogy: one of my best friends earned her PhD in biophysics. If she were to talk for an hour about her experiments, I probably wouldn’t understand it all. She and I are better off talking about things we have in common: friends from high school, what her sister’s up to, a bit about what we’ve been doing since we last met. But it can’t be a monologue. If it is a monologue, it is not really a conversation.

(3) Don’t go back to the same living arrangements as before.

It’s important to re-negotiate the major relationships in your life, as well as where you’re living and how you’re spending your days. You’ve changed. It’s important to figure out ways to acknowledge and account for these changes. It’s easier said than done, and it takes time.

(4) Get professional help.

Working with a résumé editor, or a career coach that can help you translate your experience into clear value in the local labor market, or a professional who’s familiar with re-entry issues can be helpful. Cate Brubaker has excellent resources about Re-Entry Reality on her website, Small Planet Studio.

What else might you add to this list? 

Update: November 25, 2014


Added by Stacie Berdan, via Facebook: “I’d add one more tip: Learn to tell a great story. This way, when you’re asked about your international adventures, you can share it in an engaging and non-threatening way. This one is particularly helpful with employers.”


I agree. It’s so important to be able to tell a great story that resonates with whomever you’re talking in a specific situation. Since I’ve been back I’ve frequently told the story of how I chose General Assembly‘s User Experience Design Immersive. In Chile I taught entrepreneurship classes with a focus on design methodology, and I wanted to go deeper into how design methods can be used to improve user experiences. It’s a more technical, specialized and applied approach to topics I’d explored a bit before.


It’s really important to be able to connect the dots in a way that’s engaging, non-threatening, and easy to understand.


Now that we’ve finished the course, I’m applying for jobs. This means that I’m continually re-telling my story, choosing details that are specifically relevant to each potential employer. In some cases this has meant emphasizing my language skills, in others it’s about showcasing my experience with mining-related startups, technical storytelling, this blog, or something completely different. I’m lucky to have such a wide variety of anecdotes to draw from!  

This post originally appeared on Lane Letters, my friend and former colleague Christy’s lovely blog about living adventurously in the middle.

Dispatch from the Rollercoaster Career (a look back inside my brain)

This morning I opened a notebook filled with scribbles from 2012 — ideas that overflowed from my brain while I had way too many things going on at once. As I read through these notes, I snapped pictures of a few of them to share with you.

I wrote down these quotes while reading the book Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko.
"The brain that doesn't feed itself eats itself" — Gore Vidal via Michael Michalko. Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for, like a new bird seen in your trees, and, if you turn to your usual task, they disappear." —Ralph Waldo Emerson via Michael Michalko
This is me, feeding thoughts into my brain and the collective brain of the internet, looking after them and not letting them disappear, despite the usual tasks to do. I wrote those words during this trip to Valparaiso, while fighting a stress-induced, not-yet-diagnosed, nasty case of bronchitis.

I attempted to define a broader theme around all these random thoughts.

I'm always connecting poeple and big ideas beyond established boundaries

One of the books I found most helpful and validating: Mash Up! How to Use Your Multiple Skills to Give You an Edge, Make Money and Be Happier, by Ian Sanders and David Sloly (which I reviewed here on Amazon). My notes:

notes from MASH UP!

Along with notes from books and events and my students’ assignments, this is a common theme: stress.


And I’m continually reassuring myself that I do have the answer, I don’t need anyone else to magically fix me. It’s all in my power.

BUT I don't have to live like this

A part of me feels like this is way too personal to post on the internet — and I probably wouldn’t be posting unpolished scribbles from this month, about unresolved doubts and questions that are currently keeping me up at night. But I do love the intimacy of handwriting, and I do like to share books and ideas that have influenced me.

What about you?

  • Do you write down quotes from books?
  • Do you scribble through frustration?
  • Do you prefer handwriting?
  • Would you post something like this on the internet?

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at

Working Abroad? How to Give a Presentation in the Local Language

This post originally appeared on The Daily Muse.

Even if you’ve been working abroad for a while, and you feel comfortable getting around the city and chatting with colleagues, there’s something incredibly intimidating about being invited to give a formal presentation in your second (or third) language.

I used this process to create to develop a recent keynote speech at Universidad Arturo Prat in Iquique, Chile. The topic was Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to build stronger support for innovation in Iquique. My parents flew in from Ghana for the event. They both spoke in English and I translated everything into Spanish. This article was published on The Daily Muse the same day as the event!

I used this process to create a recent keynote speech at Universidad Arturo Prat in Iquique, Chile. The topic: Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to build a similar ecosystem in Iquique. My parents flew in from Ghana for the event. They both spoke English and I translated everything into Spanish.

Take it from me: The first week I landed in Chile as part of a government-backed entrepreneurship program, a professor invited me to a faculty meeting to speak about Silicon Valley and how academics could participate in entrepreneurship through technology transfer programs. Though I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, was familiar with the entrepreneurship scene, and spoke fluent Spanish, I wasn’t sure how to start creating a presentation for a totally foreign audience from scratch.

But, I did it, and since then I’ve given dozens of presentations in Spanish as well as coached friends and colleagues as they’ve prepared to speak in formal, cross-cultural situations. If you’re panicking about your international presentation, here are a few pointers based on what’s worked for us.


Pick the Best Format

Before doing anything else, think about the goals of the event. Are you teaching something? Are you inviting everyone to participate in an upcoming program? Are you competing against others for the audience’s backing?

Once you have a strong sense of these goals, ask yourself if your language skills are strong enough to really move them forward. Be honest: If your vocabulary and fluency aren’t up to par, it might be more effective to present in English and team up with a translator. And that’s totally OK.

If your language skills are solid, go for it, but don’t think you can wing it the way you might in your home country. It’s still important to give yourself enough time to plan a well thought out, culturally appropriate presentation and practice far more than you usually would.


Design Your Message to Fit the Local Culture

As you’re putting together your presentation, remember that the stories, anecdotes, and persuasion techniques that you’ve used in your home country might not always resonate abroad. For example, sports references like “batting average” or “home run” won’t work in a place where baseball isn’t popular. Or, if most people live with their families throughout college, they might not understand anecdotes about dorms or roommates.

Instead, think about what might help you connect with your international audience. If you’re in a place with a strong tradition of family businesses, like most countries in Latin America, and you come from a four-generation legacy in the same industry, be sure to mention this history, because it will establish common ground. You might even want to include family photos if they support your core message. When I spoke about Silicon Valley at the faculty meeting, I started with a picture of myself at age five, playing on our family’s Apple Macintosh II. With this image, I illustrated that technology has always been an important part of my life, and it could play a similar role in the audience members’ lives, too.

How could I mention this picture without showing it? Photo courtesy of Dad.


When in Doubt, Use Visuals & Examples

Last week, I attended an event that featured a German manager from a well-known tech company. He’s based in Barcelona and speaks excellent Spanish, and during his presentation he told a story about a taladro. He mentioned this word at least 10 times, and it seemed essential to the point he was trying to make. However, a significant percentage of the international audience did not understand this word and started whispering to neighbors or looking up taladro on their phones.

The situation illustrated an important point: When there’s a language barrier of any kind, photos, charts, graphs, and visuals can be a great way to help get your point across. If the presenter at my event had shown a picture of the object—a drill—he would have been much more successful in holding everyone’s attention and getting his key point across.

This is especially important when you’re introducing a new concept to your audience. For example, say you’re pitching an energy efficiency app to a panel of foreign investors. When explaining this brand-new concept, you might want to show a picture of something they already know and understand: the energy guide sticker that’s typically found on refrigerators, for example. Explain how this information helps users save energy and money, then extend the analogy to your own product.

Refine and Practice!

As you prepare the content for your presentation, write it all in complete sentences. Share your written draft with at least two or three locals, and incorporate their feedback. Then, read it out loud, and record yourself on a webcam. Watch the recording, notice where you stumble or make awkward faces, and edit out any phrases that are tough to say.

When you’ve finalized the presentation, put the entire script on an iPad or notecards. You don’t want to read it word-for-word—it’s more important to engage with the audience than to get everything 100% right—but having the full text on hand can build your confidence day-of.

Then, practice—as much as you possibly can. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice with your language tutor if you have one. Practice in front of at least two or three native speakers. Make a list of the questions your audience might ask, and practice answering them. The more confident you feel with what you’re going to say, the more you’ll be able to relax and connect with your audience—and that’s what’s bound to make a great impression.


Thinking back to that first faculty meeting, it turned out to be smaller and less formal than I’d anticipated. About 12 faculty members and a few students sat around a big table. I shared my presentation about Silicon Valley, learned about their research, and then fielded questions about a forthcoming grant competition. I enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve gone on to give similar speeches all over the country.

That day also taught me that, as an outsider, you’ll stand out from the crowd. But if you prepare, personalize your presentation, and rehearse your message, you’ll be remembered for more than just your foreign face—you’ll be remembered for introducing a new world of possibilities.

This post is part of the #MyGlobalLife linkup. 

photos from Chile, dispatches from Ghana, the “gymnastic intellectual training” of multiculturals (an update)

Fall Stroll in Santiago, Chile. May 2013. Leslie Forman
I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past few months, so I’m making up for it now, with pictures, links, and more. That first collage is from a stroll through the neighborhood on a pretty fall day here in Santiago. The past few months have been busy! Here are a few snapshots, in no particular order.

I traveled to Iquique to lead a workshop for UnoCrea‘s MEC Universitario on how to formulate a pitch that resonates.
I used similar techniques to map big ideas about energy efficiency at Co-Work.

Marcelo and I enjoyed a gorgeous weekend in the south of Chile, exploring Puerto Varas, Puerto Montt, and the Carretera Austral.
M and L in Puerto Varas
My parents moved to Ghana to serve as business coaches for Stanford’s pioneering SEED program. I invite you to read their blog, which is filled with stories of African businesses, inspiring educators, and their adventures on the road.
Partners in Adventure
I taught a first-year course on Entrepreneurship and Leadership last semester, and we’ve just started a new semester. Now I’m teaching Social Entrepreneurship for the second time. Teaching this course is so much easier with a year of experience under my belt. I feel more ownership over the material and more confident in answering the students’ excellent questions. Here’s how I define Social Entrepreneurship.
I define social entrepreneurship as the intersection between business and changing the world.
I’ve been collecting hearts for my friend Jennifer Massoni Pardini’s Chain Link Heart Project. So far she has collected more than 1600 hearts from 11% of the countries in the world. I know that many of you are reading this from countries that are not yet represented, so I hope you’ll send hearts too. When you start thinking about Jenn’s story, you might start seeing hearts everywhere. Here are a few that I’ve found.

One reason I’ve been so quiet on this blog is that I’m in the process of completely redesigning it. I just finished an online course on Empathy Marketing with Abby Kerr and Tami Smith (which isn’t yet advertised online but is similar in content to this offer) and that has really helped me clarify how I can serve people in this space. Here’s a preview of what it might look like. Design and photo by the fabulous Priscilla Radebach at Recheck.

And since one of my goals is to help independently-minded global citizens build international careers, here are a few fabulous resources on this topic.

Sebastian Salinas Claro has launched Balloon Chile, a program that brings young professionals from around the world to an impoverished region in the south of Chile, to build new entrepreneurial opportunities together, using the Business Model Canvas and other tools.
Balloon Chile

Susan Munroe is the master organizer behind Rios to Rivers. Rios to Rivers brought a group of American students to kayak the Baker River in the deep south of Chile, and a group of Chilean kayakers to kayak the Colorado River. These trips have fostered a multifaceted dialogue about culture, hydropower, and global citizenship. When the American students met with HidroAysén CEO Daniel Fernandez, I had the opportunity to translate the meeting and witness this dialogue in action.

– And last but not least, “Multiculturals have a kind of gymnastic intellectual training…” This article by Yves Doz from INSEAD outlines how multicultural experience can benefit companies, by:

    1. Making creative associations and drawing analogies between geographical markets, allowing L’Oreal to develop global products and build global brands while remaining sensitive to local market differences.
    2. Interpreting complex knowledge – i.e. tacit, collective and culture-dependent, hence impossible to simply “explain”_ across cultures and contextsan essential skill when marketing products like cosmetics, where much of understanding is tacit and culture-dependent.
    3. Anticipating cross-cultural conflicts, and addressing them, something critical to the effectiveness of global teams.
    4. Integrating new team members from different cultures into teams that quickly develop their own norms of interaction and a strong “in or out” identity, making joining the team once it has been in existence for a while particularly difficult.
    5. Mediating the relationship between global teams, with a high level of cultural diversity among their members, and the senior executives they report to, or their interaction with local subsidiary staff they collaborate with, who are usually monocultural.[more]

This marks the end of this insanely long blog post. Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to!

Needfinding for the Global Citizen

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m studying Diplomado en Creatividad e Innovación, a new program in the design school of one of Chile’s best universities. It’s a night-and-weekend class with a diverse group of students.

The class has several different modules, each with a different teacher. We just finished a section on needfinding.

Our teacher, an anthropologist, guided us through all the steps: observation, problem definition, interviewing, storyboarding, and analysis. We narrowed down the vague and abstract concept of the global citizen into a more specific population: Chilean professionals who want to go overseas to study or work in order to have better opportunities upon returning to Chile. Then we methodically created an interview guide, and each interviewed one or two people who fit the description.

The most fun, useful and concrete tool we used to summarize our research? The storyboard. This is what we presented:

A Chilean professional daydreams of working or studying abroad. His daydreams gravitate towards four key areas: the potential for growth in his career and life, the logistics of the trip (where to live? how to get around?), the language skills he’ll need, and how he’ll finance this experience.

Then, when he’s on his way to his destination, he’s full of questions about these four topics.

He arrives at the destination. He’s confused and exhausted and full of urgent questions. Then, he meets a kind local who knows the area well. She helps him find a place to live, and figure out how to get around. She also helps him stabilize his financial situation.

A few months or years later, he graduates. At this point he speaks the language(s) well. He has a strong, multicultural network and has matured as a professional.

 When he gets back to Chile, he has memories, a big network of contacts, and a 5-star CV. He’s well on his way to climbing the ladder, both professionally and personally.

What was really challenging about this exercise was to stay in a place of empathy and research, rather than immediately jumping to solutions. Instead of talking about, say, a search engine for overseas scholarships, a job-placement program, or a guidebook for the upwardly mobile Chilean global citizen, we had to focus on the experience that these aspiring expats were envisioning.

Almost every person we interviewed mentioned that it would be important to have a friend, tutor, or guide in the destination to help with local logistics, so we emphasized that person’s role in the storyboard.

All of the interviewees talked about going to a country that’s more developed than Chile (US, UK, Europe) to develop professionally and personally and “see the future.” No one talked about going to Bolivia or Vietnam or Ghana or any supposedly less developed country.

The teacher encouraged us to analyze what wasn’t said. Why did no one talk about working or studying abroad in less-developed countries? Where do our interviewees get their information about opportunities abroad?

Overall, this exercise stimulated lots of ideas and new questions.

What do you think of our storyboard? Have you ever done a needfinding exercise or drawn a storyboard of the experience of your target audience?

How Studying Chinese Complicates My Impression of International Women’s Day

First of all, check out my brother’s project. The ZBoard: The Weight-Sensing Electric Skateboard. On Kickstarter! It’s so amazing to see how many people have already backed the project. Keep up the good work, Ben!

Today is International Women’s Day.

"If you are a woman, enjoy the delicious and exquisite cookies that Co-Work gives to you to celebrate your day."

International Women’s Day is not a holiday that I grew up celebrating. I first celebrated it in China. I remember that my Cameroonian colleague in China said it was a big event in her homeland.

In Chinese, people often refer to holidays by the date — month then day. Since International Women’s Day is March 8, and March is month #3, the holiday is 三八 (san ba) or 3-8.

San ba is also a common insult for a gossipy woman. A forum on learning Chinese gave the following definition:

the sentence :

ni hen san ba.

means you are a person always like to talking about others’ business,privacy,etc. or wanna intervene others’ business.

san ba means 妇女 in chinese, eapecially refers to moms and middle aged women. from international women’s day,so it exists only in modern chinese language. but it refers to old chinese women. in old days, chinese women were not well educated and couldn’t go out for work. they had lots of time , some of them then always had time and concerns with others’ business.

Curious about how this double meaning affected Chinese women’s perceptions of the holiday, Anna Sophie Loewenberg, perhaps better known as Ms. Sexy Beijing, interviewed women all over the city.

Click the title of this post if you can’t see the video. Enjoy! 

I loved this video and it made me feel less alone in my complicated, multilingual impression of this holiday. Our personal histories shape the way we interpret the simplest things: holidays, words, phrases, events.

Enough overthinking! I’m off to grab another cookie. Chocolate.

Update: Isabel, the woman who put out the cookies pictured above, sent me this fascinating article about the hidden history of this holiday (in Spanish.)

There is a myth is that women were sewing in a factory on March 8, and while they were petitioning for better working conditions, the boss burned down the factory. The cloth they were sewing was violet, and therefore, violet is the holiday’s official color.

But this is not true. The day that this revolt supposedly happened was Sunday and the factory was closed.

The article goes on to explain the work of various feminists and revolutionaries, and then concludes: [This holiday is] “an offense for all who died to bring us out of ignorance, slavery, and submission. Because we don’t want gifts, we just insist on our rights.”

What comes to mind when you think of International Women’s Day? Cookies? Labor conditions? Rights? Men running races in high heels? 

Larry Summers is Wrong: Why Learning Multiple Languages is So Valuable

Today’s New York Times features a Room for Debate section about the need to learn multiple languages. Six panelists, including author Stacie Berdan, agree that it is crucial to learn more than one language to operate in the new, globalized world.

They all refute an assertion by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury (and a man with a history of making blanket statements), who wrote What You (Really) Need to Know.

 The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East. [emphasis mine, read more here]

This strikes me as arrogant and short-sighted. Even if more non-Americans are learning English and Google Translate is getting better, that does not negate the value of learning other languages.

Being able to speak more than one language has had an immeasurable impact on my own life.

I learned Spanish before the age of five, thanks to my wonderful Nana Petra. While my parents were working, she totally spoiled me with home-cooked Mexican meals, lacy white dresses, and games of Lotería. She drilled me on pronunciation (A, E, I, O, U) and taught me nursery rhymes.

This early exposure to Spanish paved the neural pathways in my brain to let me think in more than one language.

I continued to study Spanish all through school and all through college, including a year here in Chile.

When I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, I moved to China to teach English at a university near Shanghai. I’d never studied Chinese and never been obsessed with Asian culture, but I was able to quickly pick up the basics of child-like Chinese through conversations with vegetable vendors, security guards, and migrant workers on the train.

Over the next few years, I took many private lessons and small-group classes. Thank you Layla and Xiaofei for helping me elevate my Chinese skills from toddler level to that of a nine-year-old who likes to talk about wind turbine engineers and garbage incinerators. Learning Chinese gave me access to get beyond China’s single story, beyond the world of tour guides and textbooks, to take part in everyday life.

Now back in Chile, I use Chinese less. In the last month I’ve used it twice: at a restaurant and with a new Start-Up Chile entrepreneur from China. But linguistic crossover shapes the way I see the world.

Last week I led an entrepreneurship seminar at Casa de la Mujer, a community center in a poorer neighborhood of Santiago. The last day, fabulous Start-Up Chile video intern Javiera came with me to film the class and interview me and the ladies about our experiences. (The video will be ready soon!)

I talked about the course in English and it was SO HARD!  You might be thinking, but Leslie, you’re AMERICAN. English is your first language. How can it be hard?

Since I taught and thought about the class in Spanish, explaining it in English felt distant, foreign, and even patronizing. I stumbled over words; I felt like English made the distinctions between myself and the ladies too dramatic. In Spanish it felt more communal, more egalitarian, more personal. My testimonial, of how leading discussions with these woman has inspired me as an entrepreneur, flowed with enthusiasm in Spanish, but in English it felt forced, hesitant. Good thing Javiera took lots of footage: there should be at least a few clips in which my English is fluent and confident.

Linguistic crossover has had such a profound impact on my worldview. It has given me a broader understanding of words and grammar, but more importantly the tools to navigate the world with flexibility and empathy.

I truly can’t imagine life in only one tongue. I wish every preschooler could have a multilingual headstart!

From Corporate Copywriter in China to Emerging Entrepreneur in Chile: A Year in Review

I pretended to give a speech at EXPO CHINA, at Santiago's Estación Mapocho. Maybe next year!

If 2010 was the year I spent thinking about Chile from China, 2011 has been the year I took action on this vision. It has been a crazy year, and I am so happy about where I am right now, in the final days of 2011.

The last day of 2010 was my last day of an intense job as a copywriter for a very big Chinese client of a very big Japanese advertising agency. I had originally intended to stay for at least a year, but the combination of long hours (until 5, 6, 7, 8am at least twice a week) and corporate policies that I didn’t understand took a heavy toll on my sanity, and I decided that I could not sign a long-term contract. So New Year’s 2011 marked a new beginning.

I celebrated my 27th birthday on January 5 in Beijing, with a delicious dinner at Nice Rice and festive drinks at Mao Mao Chong. Stephanie brought balloon animals, which added special flair to the occasion.

My hairstylist (#8 - I miss him!) gave me curls and the balloons really brought life to the party.

Angie, me, Shepherd, and Sean. At Mao Mao Chong in Beijing celebrating my 27th birthday.

When I left my advertising job, I intended to write a book about careers for young foreigners in China. I created this simple website and began to brainstorm an ambitious book proposal. But I soon lost all motivation. I could hardly get out of bed. How could I write a book about the advantages of launching a career in China? My own China career hit a low point. I had plenty of freelance work — tutoring a sweet UK-bound high school student, training an upstart recruitment firm, planning a charity cycling event — but I felt overwhelmingly reactive, and was not doing my best work.

Following a sunny family vacation in Thailand and Cambodia, my brother visited me in Beijing and we visited the snow-covered Great Wall at Mutianyu. The day was pretty and not bone-chillingly cold.

In March I received an unexpected but ultimately life-changing email from a Canadian-American renewable energy entrepreneur who I’d met in Chile in 2005. She invited me to upload my resume and a full scan of my passport as part of her solar energy startup’s application to Start-Up Chile. In May we found out that we’d been accepted to the program. In June I bought a one-way ticket home. Two weeks later I packed up all my belongings, made a huge donation of clothes and shoes and random supplies to a local charity, and planned a simple farewell party at my favorite rooftop Yunnan restaurant.

I packed my stuff into these 2 suitcases and 2 bags, and hailed a cab to the airport. Zaijian Zhongguo!!

On the plane home, I wrote this: Dear China: It’s Not You, It’s Me. Let’s Be Friends Forever.  That post meant more than anything else I wrote this year, and I received dozens of comments and emails from friends near and far.

I spent about three weeks at home in California, partying with my parents’ friends on “the Lane” and visiting my brother in Hermosa Beach for the 4th of July. This was my first time experiencing the new lives that my closest family members have built while I have been on the other side of the world.

My parents' most obedient child, Max.

In mid-July, I landed in Chile. Thanks the to generous hospitality of Roberto Edwards and his team, the open doors of Start-Up Chile, the strong support from Marcelo Peralta, and so much more, Chile has given me the opportunity to bring my passions together.

For years people have been telling me that someday they envision me running my own company, but before I landed in Chile I didn’t really think I could do it. Working in a gorgeous office with entrepreneurs from all over the world, and giving speeches in Spanish to encourage the next generation of entrepreneurs has shown me that yes, it is possible.

Thank you to my first clients — Trey, Chai, Luis, Victor, Juan Cristóbal, Charlotte, Adam — for believing in me and what is becoming my consulting practice, Tricontinental Advisors.

Grazie to my designer friends -- Nicoletta, who created the Tricontinental Advisors logo, and Sara, who made the Beyond Chile's Single Story banner -- for making my websites look more professional.

Thank you Joe, Fu and Yuli for helping with Chinese translation. Thank you to everyone who has taught me Spanish, particularly Nana Petra for love-filled Spanish lessons throughout the first five years of my life, the University of California Education Abroad Program that brought me to Chile in 2005, and Marcelo who continually teaches me new words and phrases.

Thank you to all the wonderful people I have met through the power of social media: AkhilaAlexis, Andrea, Dan, GiaHilaryHumbertoJacciKyle, Roxanne, Sarah, Sarah, Stacie, Susan, and so many more. Thank you to everyone who reads this blog, especially the lurkers (say hi!)

Thank you Start-Up Chile and the Ministry of Economy, for shaping a new culture of global entrepreneurship in this gorgeous country of contrasts, a place that has always embodied the entrepreneurial spirit.

Thank you Grandma Ginny. Every writer should have a pen pal like you. I look forward to seeing you in a few days.

Thank you Ben. I am so excited to show you and your team the entrepreneurial side of Chile in 2012!!

Thank you to my parents for their enthusiastic support of my international adventures, and their resourceful use of frequent flier miles that enable their international adventures to coincide with mine.

This list is incomplete; I could write pages and pages more. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all!

Here’s to health, happiness, and prosperity in 2012 and beyond!

Lots of love,


An Experiment in Location Independence, Pichilemu-style

I wrote this from Pichilemu, a tiny, idyllic surf town on the coast of Chile, about three hours south of Santiago. It looks like California, but without the highways, chain stores, hotels, malls… if you took a bare stretch of the California coast and added a few little guesthouses, family-run pharmacies, ice cream parlors, sidewalk restaurants, and shops filled with inexpensive beachwear, it would look like Pichilemu.

I came to Pichilemu to get away from the stress of Santiago (including loud repairs in my apartment) so for my first two days here I just read novels, wrote in my journal, gave myself a pedicure, bought a striped sundress, and sampled several flavors of ice cream.

But by Monday, I knew I needed to get some work done. Inspired by Alexis Grant’s recent blog post, Learning How to Travel While Working, I decided to turn my day into an experiment in Location Independence.

Workplace #1

My first stop was a hotel that had a wifi sticker on its door. It specializes in government-endorsed package tours for Chilean senior citizens. I asked if I could use the internet, and a woman pointed me to the living room, a cozy space with several yellow leather couches. I sat down on the couch and asked for the wifi password. She said that the password had just been changed, and she gave me a password that didn’t work. So I sat down on the couch and started writing. I don’t need the internet to write; it’s actually a distraction. I periodically switched on my phone’s data plan to check email and Twitter, look up quotes for the articles I was writing, and ask colleagues to call me if they needed anything.

After about two hours, dozens of guests came back to the hotel, and the maid started vacuuming the living room. She apologized for disturbing me, and suggested that I move to another seat. But I saw an obese man setting up his cello for a performance for the senior citizens’ group, and knew it was time to move on.

I paced the streets of Pichilemu in search of wifi. I knew I had spotted at least one guesthouse with a sign advertising wifi. I entered one residencial and asked if I could use the wifi. I told him I was willing to buy lunch, drinks, or even just pay for the service, but he refused. He said that now is the time to clean, not attend to guests.

So I kept walking. And eventually I found a guesthouse with a British theme and wifi. I rang the doorbell and no one came. So I just opened the gate and sat down at a white plastic table in the garden, under a handmade sunshade. The place had wifi but no one to tell me the password. So I typed this on a disconnected computer. So much more productive that way!

Workplace #2

After two hours (and writing two full articles) I moved on to a seafront restaurant with a lovely deck where I’d eaten before. It advertised wifi, but the waiter told me that the entire town’s wifi was broken and they needed to wait for a technician from another city to come and fix it. He apologized, and recommended the lenguado (best fish in Pichilemu.) So I ordered lenguado a la plancha con ensalada surtida and continued to write, as I watched the waves roll in.

Workspace #3

After sunset I visited an internet café to respond to a few emails and read the day’s news.

In a day and a half of working Location Independently, I wrote 7 full blog posts, and got a solid start on 3 more. Not bad!!


6 Tips for Location Independence

1) Invest in the right tools. 

In Pichilemu, the right tool would be a wireless internet device that plugs into the side of the computer. These are widely available in Chile and there are both monthly and prepaid payment options. However, as you can probably tell from the previous story, I don’t have one. (And even if I did it might not work due to the problem with the town’s wifi.) I do have a Samsung Galaxy Mini smartphone with a Chilean SIM card and a prepaid Android data plan that costs me too much money. (I’m definitely due for an upgrade to a monthly unlimited plan.) For other destinations, investing in the right tools might mean renting an AirCard.


2) Bring earplugs.

In the day’s first workplace, the radio was playing way too loud, on a station that had “My Heart Will Go On” and other classics on repeat. Thankfully I had earplugs. A godsend for my attention span and sanity!


3) Ask people to call you.

This is the best way to communicate with people in other places. If you’ll be far from home, you might want to set up Skype (and a healthy dose of SkypeOut credit) on the computers of your loved ones and colleagues and write down the time difference, your number while traveling, and the best times of day to call.


4) Be realistic with your expectations.

If you are a writer and you’re trying to spill out a “shitty first draft” of your novel, a place like Pichilemu is ideal. It gives you the mental and physical space to process thoughts and put them on the page. If you are a consultant or web designer, whose business depends on conference calls and other Internet-centric tasks, I recommend taking #1 to heart and staying in a place with more connectivity. For example, here in Chile, there are plenty of beach towns (Viña del Mar, Reñaca, La Serena, etc.) that have a greater concentration of nice hotels and cafés to help you stay connected.


5) Spend at least a week in each place.

Once you’ve found a comfortable and convenient workplace, complete with reliable wifi hotspot, good coffee, handmade muffins, beautiful scenery, massage chairs (hey, a girl can dream!) stick around for a while. You will work much more efficiently if you don’t have to search for a new space.


6) Be sure to enjoy your chosen destination.

Why go to a tiny beach town if you’re going to code all day? Be sure to indulge in your surroundings: go for a long walk on the beach, eat some fresh ceviche, work on your tan… I think you get the picture!


The beach in Pichilemu on a weekday in December. Not a soul in sight!

Have you ever tried working Location Independent(ly)? What has been your experience? What would you add to this list?