I spent three months in Spain, and let me tell you, I learned a lot.
I mastered enough Spanish to justify the “working fluency” currently listed under the “Skills” section on my resume. I learned enough about olive oil and Spanish cuisine to make tortilla de patata. And I learned probably more than I ever cared to know about how to get your severely dehydrated roommate into a hospital and hooked up to an IV on a Spanish national holiday whilst you both suffer from food poisoning. But oddly enough, one of the most important lessons I learned wasn’t some great domestic, political or cultural phenomenon.
No; the most important lesson I learned came from a 10-minute conversation with a 30-year-old Spanish entrepreneur.
I had the opportunity while studying in Madrid to intern for a technology start-up called Opinno, Open Innovation. Our team in the Madrid office was small but tight-knit, and one of our larger responsibilities this fall was organizing the first annual “Competición de los Emprendedores,” an event aimed at developing relationships between Spanish technology start-ups and Silicon Valley angel investors.
The design of the competition was pretty simple. Forty-eight different Spanish entrepreneurs submitted 90-second elevator pitches to our company, which were then evaluated by a variety of pre-selected American judges. The top ten ideas were then selected to compete in the final round of judging held in Madrid, complete with five new American judges, an investment forum and a ten-minute question-and-answer session. The only catch? Everything had to be in English.
For most of the competition, each finalist demonstrated a relatively high proficiency in English, and both judges and finalists could understand each other well enough. But when Cesar Marco, the CEO of Rhythmography, a teaching tool geared toward helping the hearing-impaired learn to read music, came to the podium and asked for a translator, we [the Opinno team] all looked at each other frantically. We didn’t HAVE a professional translator.
Eventually, our CFO, Tomás Baylac, stepped up to the plate and began to translate. But because he wasn’t a professional, a large part of Marco’s presentation was (excuse the pun) lost in translation, and the evidence of this confusion was clearly visible on the judges’ faces.
An hour later, I took a seat next to Marco and asked him to explain his product and business model to me, in his native Spanish. Ten minutes into our conversation, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that his product and passion were the most impressive I had seen that day. But because of Marco’s inability to communicate in the “language of the business world,” Rhythmography didn’t even place.
I’m the first to admit that I don’t have an MBA, and the extent of my experience working with entrepreneurs and business models has been exactly three months. But I will say that I understand people, and I understand passion, and Cesar Marco had more belief and conviction in his idea than a great many people have in themselves.
I went home that night with Marco’s burden on my shoulders. What he had finally made clear to me was that there are individuals all over the world with great ideas. Some of them may be as innovative as a way to help the deaf understand music whereas others may be as simple as a new way to take out the garbage. In any case, whether we like it or not, without a connection to resources or adequate means of communication, these great ideas never make it past the theoretical stage.
But I have those resources. I study at one of the greatest research institutions in the world, in the middle of one of the most innovative environments in the United States, and I’m fluent enough in English that some fool on The Daily’s editorial staff lets me publish 800 words every week. But instead of creating great ideas, I’m too focused on the immediate terror of finding a PoliSci adviser.
They say studying abroad changes you, shapes you and makes you never want to come back. I disagree. I learned more than anything from my time abroad that I am an American, through and through, and that my jokes in Spanish, although still pretty terrible, will never be as terrible as my jokes in English [Editor’s Note: True]. But what I have gained is an appreciation and a newfound sense of social responsibility. Cesar Marco’s conviction in his idea and to Spain’s 20-percent unemployment rate demonstrated the need for my maximum contributions to both society and the marketplace. Above all, however, I gained a responsibility to be passionate.
And that is a responsibility I have only to myself.