Study abroad teaches how to ask the right questions

Success in international business is often about asking the right questions rather than having all of the answers, and international businessman Steve Markey believes the best way to gain this skill is to study abroad.

“The kind of people who are willing to go abroad and spend a year in a foreign country are the kind of people I want to hire, because I want people who are willing to take risks and figure things out for themselves,” says Markey, vice president of sales for Green Toys, a U.S.-based maker of toys that are fun, safe, and made from environmentally friendly materials.

A native of Manchester, England, Markey supports the Foundation for Global Scholars and serves on its board because he credits his own time studying abroad with giving him the global awareness needed to work successfully in the toy business throughout the world. “People who have a lot of international experience, who have spent a lot of time abroad, they realize there are other ways of doing things, other ways of approaching things, not necessarily the same way they do things at home, but just as valid,” Markey says.

In his own work overseeing sales domestically and in 85 international markets, Markey can’t know the nuances of every location but must frequently ask the right questions to gain an understanding of the cultural differences that impact a customer’s decision to purchase a toy. “As an example, all of our products are sold in open boxes in the U.S. because people like to touch the products,” he says. “In China, they hate open boxes. They don’t like the idea that anyone else has touched the product at all.”

Markey gained much of his global awareness through two immersion experiences, including two years teaching English in Madrid, Spain, and in Castres, in southwestern France. These experiences vastly improved his language skills, which besides Spanish and French, also include Latin, German and Italian. “Languages were the only thing I was good at in school,” he says. “I was terrible at everything else. So from an early age, I knew I wanted to have some kind of career in international business.”

After his time teaching in Spain and France, Markey entered the toy industry, eventually running the Europe, Middle East and Africa division of U.S. toy manufacturer Ertl. Since then, he has worked in senior sales roles within various toy companies including OddzOn, Hasbro, Wham-O, Prime Time, Sprig and Green Toys. In his current role at Green Toys, Markey has helped the company expand distribution into over 5,000 U.S. retail outlets. He is also proud that the company’s U.S. manufactured toys are now sold in over 85 international markets.

Markey says he believes in the work of FGS to develop global changemakers through study abroad because there is no substitute for actually going to other countries and experiencing how other people live, think, and act. “I don’t think you can appreciate other cultures without actually going there,” he says.

For this reason, in his own travels, he has used soccer as a way to get involved in local communities and interact with local residents. “When I lived in Madrid, I really tried to spend time with Spanish people,” he says. “I’ve always played soccer, so whenever I’ve lived in other countries, I’ve joined a soccer team and made friends with the locals. I got really good at swearing in French and Spanish.”

Studying abroad also teaches individuals how to be independent, self sufficient, and broad minded, he says, while also nurturing an appreciation that there are other ways of doing things. “I think it makes you more tolerant and understanding that there are lots of differences between people,” he says. “Being different is no better or worse. It’s just being different.”