Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Overview: In this episode Jennifer Birtcher talks all about her experience living abroad for over 20 years. From Kenya to Saudi Arabia to Switzerland she’s found HR roles wherever she has gone.
Guest: Jennifer Birtcher is an accomplished human resources leader with experience in many different industries and countries. She has lived and worked in England, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, among others. With experience working for large companies such as Saudi Aramco and Nestle as well as nonprofit experience in Kenya, Jen has vast knowledge about leadership, how to develop talent, and international culture and business.
Ok I believe it just started recording. Yes, it says Madison started recording a call. Ok I guess if it’s ok I’ll get started. Ok sure. I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about your background, like your background: where you’re from, where you got your education, etc. Sure. Um, well I was born in CA, in San Diego. And then I’ve lived in various places. We lived in North Dakota, we lived in England, and then in SLC for kind of junior high and high school. I went on a mission to Japan. And then I went to BYU and studied business. I got a minor in Japanese and Accounting. And then I went off to work in LA for a printing company, international printing company. Doing pretty much human resources my whole career. Just progressing up into various levels. A few years after working I got my master’s in human resources. Um, cause my company paid for it. And worked full-time. And did that at Claremont University, in CA. And then just have been working for the last 20 years.
Meg: That’s awesome. Ok, so tell me about some of the places that you’ve worked in.
Jennifer: Um countries, or companies? Or a little bit of both?
Meg: Both. Yeah.
Jennifer: Yeah so I worked for 9 years at a printing company in LA. Um, but while I was there, for 3 of those years, I worked in London. And so I lived there. And that’s when I started doing international human resources. So I supported um offices, uh, in England, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. And so I did that. And then I went back to LA and kept working for them. And then they had lay offs and closed their plant, so I actually lost my job. Um, but I was lucky, I had two offers, um, within a few months. Uh, and I was still getting redundancy pay they call it from being laid off. So when I started my next job I had double pay, from the previous company. So a layoff is not always a bad thing. Um, but it can be scary too. Um, yeah, and so then I went to work.I had an offer from SONY, and I had an offer from Medtronic. Um, so, prayed a lot about which one to take. The SONY job actually paid more. Um, but I decided to take the Medtronic job. It’s like a pharmaceutical medical devices company. Um, and I chose that because in HR, the kind of people you work for is really important. Um, and I thought at SONY I would have a lot of big egos and personalities, which would be hard to manage. From a HR side. But it was a really hard decision because it was a Japanese company and I had served my mission in Japan, spoke Japanese. Um, so it was a big decision. Anyways, I actually only stayed there for a year.
I had a head hunter call me for Nestle. So I went and worked for Nestle, um, doing HR for about 3 years. Um, do you want me to keep going? On the path? Yeah sure.Ok so I was still in LA. It’s kind of like what I’m doing for my job interviews. Um, yeah, then I went. Um, I was still single. And I was in my late 30s, or 30s. and I started feeling like, this is really not what I want out of life. Just going to work every day, going home. Living by the beach in Santa Monica was a really wonderful life. But it was also, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of purpose. So I decided to walk away from that. Which was a really big difficult decision.But I had an opportunity to go and do a nonprofit startup in Kenya. So I put my condo up for rent and moved to Nairobi. And a huge leap of faith. I consulted a few friends before I did this. And they said Jen, everyone talks about doing that kind of thing but no one does it. And I said, “well I’m going to be the one that does it then. So that’s what I did. I lived there for a year. Um, learned about farming. Helped set up a farming project with a root called kasaba. And learned how, how you farm that. It was really kind of an entrepreneurial experience. It was funded by the Melinda& Bill Gates Foundation. Um, and the ministry of agriculture in Kenya. So I learned how to work with the locals, I learned how to farm from the ministry of agriculture, how you dry it and produce it into flour. Um, so I hired employees. Um, learned just a completely different culture of working with people who are really desperate for money.Um, sometimes we couldn’t pay them, so I actually brought groceries for them.
Because I knew that would be their greatest need. Um, while I was working there, I did on the side, pick up some work with a consulting company. So I did some work for them. They just paid me a daily rate and I went into companies and did leadership development. Developed material for them and then trained their leaders on how to be more effective leaders.Um, and I did this for one of the companies I worked for was the UN World Food Program. um, Somalia. So they sent me to Somalia, to train their leaders. Yeah, it was a crazy experience. I flew on a UN plane. Because commercial planes don’t fly there, it’s too dangerous. And um, yeah, from the airport, we were escorted from there to the headquarters for their facility. And took them through some leadership training and learned all about the Somali culture. And had some evenings w/ the employees at their homes. So I got to learn a little bit more about the culture from a personal side.
Uh huh.So I did that. While I was there, one of my friends called and said are you done traveling the world? Ready to come back and work? Because when I did live in Kenya I traveled to about 10 different countries in Africa. Just when I had time, by myself. So I could see. Of course that’s a whole other story about adventures. Of that. Um, but from the business side. So my friend worked for a company in Saudi Arabia called Saudi Aramco. Um, which is an oil company. So he was actually a dentist there. The company provides um, dentists, and schools for the kids. All western type facilities. Um, so they had just built a new leadership development center. And we were trying to hire people who had background in HR and leadership development. So I was the first female that they were considering. Um, because it’s just hard for western women to work in Saudi Arabia. Um and they were very interested in me. And they hired me. And I ended up working there for 5 years. So I wore many different hats there. But mostly I conducted different workshops, like the Franklin R. Covey workshop: 7 habits of highly effective people. Um, so I was certified in those types of programs and facilitated them.
Um, then I did coaching. I got certified in business coaching while I was there. And um, and coached individual leaders. They’re called like high potential leaders that have, they’re kind of marked for top leadership positions. So I worked with them one-on-one and helped teach them how to effectively manage people. Kind of in a more western type style. Um, do you want me to keep going? Well, I have like follow up questions. But if you want to go through the whole, then I can come back. I’m almost there. So in Saudi Arabia, I met my husband. So a lot of people think, oh is he muslim? And no, he was doing exactly what I was doing, working for a company in Saudi Arabia. So that’s what he was doing there. He’s a British guy. And so we got married. And then he had an offer to come and work in Switzerland. And asked me if that was something I would want to come and do as well. And I said of course! That sounds amazing. So I started applying to jobs in Switzerland. And was able to find something w/in just a few months. So that was really cool, an American company. So that’s what brought us to Switzerland. And my role was global HR Director. So I had about 10 different locations throughout the world of employees that I provide HR support for and then I have HR managers in each of these countries that report up to me.Awesome.And I’m still working here, in Switzerland.
Meg: That’s awesome. Um I think my first question is when you were in Kenya, did you take other Americans with you, or what was your support system there? Was it just you working w/ the community members there, or were you just alone?
Jennifer: Um, I really didn’t have much support, to be honest with you. Um, I had been to Kenya before. When I was working at Nestle, I took a vacation, on my vacation time, I went with some other friends to Kenya and we started building schools and medical clinics. So I had built some Kenyan networks. So when I was ready to leave Nestle, and explore the world, I called one of my friends and said, if I was able to give you a year of my time for free, would you utilize me? What could you do w/ me? And he said well absolutely, I have this farming project I want to get going, could you come over and run that for us? And I said, well, my background is in HR, not you know, running a business. But I think I could do it if you think I could. And he said, absolutely. If you studied HR you can do anything. So I thought that was funny that he though that. But he trusted in me. And you know, he wasn’t affiliated with the church or anything. Um, but he was a Christian. So that’s how that came to be. And it was really really really tough. Um, no, I didn’t have a network there. You know, I had the church, but I was really the only western person in my ward.
So I had experiences of even ward members stealing from me sometimes. I mean I really had to get tough really quickly and really figure out what people’s intentions were vs. people who genuinely wanted to be a friend of mine. And so it was really tough. Yeah that sounds really hard. Oh my gosh. Um, did you experience language barriers? Or did a lot of people speak English?Yeah, so what I did was I started studying Swahili, but I didn’t get very far. But I um, you know it’s really inexpensive so I just hired a private tutor. And then I could at least talk my way through on the bus, you know when I was trying to take transportation, I could negotiate enough that they knew they couldn’t take advantage of me. I mean they could’ve, and I wouldn’t have known, but I tricked them, cause I knew a little bit of Swahili. Um, but yeah, in regard to that, that was helpful. And then yeah, English is my main language. But I think I went to being a little naïve to really suspicious. And had to be for survival. In regards to international assignment, it’s probably one of the toughest. It’s really difficult, Africa, for someone who has grown up in the USA. That’s pretty crazy.
And then you said when you went to Somalia, you had some chances to have like dinner w/ people living there and you got to see a little bit about their culture, how would you describe it?Oh, let’s see. Um, it’s really interesting because the women are all covered, even their eyes, a netting. Yeah so this was interesting because it prepared me for Saudi Arabia, which I went to next. So, I feel like it’s a culture that’s missing half of their people. Because half of their people are covered, the women. So when I went out into the market, I would just see men. And that’s a weird thing, to just see one gender. Um, but when I went into the home of the people, some of the employees. The women, I went into the kitchen with the women, and they uncovered completely. And they were cool normal women like you and I. Just talking about their life.Um, and in some ways, I feel sad for the lack of freedoms that they have no idea that they’re missing, as women. But they were genuinely happy people and really excited to learn from me and what I had to offer, had to bring. So that was really cool.That’s interesting. That’s awesome. When you were in Saudi Arabia, you were working for an American company, or like a western company that was based there right?Well, it is a Saudi owned company, because it’s a Saudi oil company, but it was originally I guess the oil was discovered by some Americans. And they partnered with some Saudis to create this company.
And eventually it became more and more Saudi owned. But yes, their goal is to try and become more westernized. They’re always striving to do that.So did you work with any Saudi women?Yes, yes. This was unusual though, because most Saudi women are not allowed to work. Their husbands have to give them permission to work. So I had some Saudi women reporting to me. But I knew they had special privileges to be able to work. And to work at a company. Because their husbands had to give them permission to do that.So there’s not a lot, but there are women who work there.Ok, that’s awesome. Um, I’m just looking over my questions, seeing what else I want to ask you. Um, what have you seen, cultural differences between Switzerland and the US?In some ways, especially from a HR perspective, and well, I guess just as a citizen and taxes, or things like that, what’s similar is Switzerland has what are are called kantons, and those are very similar to states.So, we have federal laws and state laws. And they got federal laws and kanton laws. So you pay taxes to both, to the kantons and federal laws. And laws and rules and policies and holidays, they’re different based on each kanton.
Yeah, but the interesting thing is, Switzerland is only a population of about 6 to 7 million people, in their whole country. So it’s really, really small country. So there’s a lot of wealth and power. So you think of it as being bigger. But yeah I think in LA there’s maybe like 18 million in the city and you think of that compared to the whole country of Switzerland, 6 million people. So similarities I would say people tend to be very active and outdoorsy and healthy. I think California is more like that. Healthy outdoorsy. Being active is important to them. And the thing that’s different, maybe that’s where you’re going to go as well, is they’re very rule and policy oriented. And Americans we tend to be more how can we break the rules, how can we bend the rules to make things work. So sometimes I feel a little rebellious here. Because if you break a rule, your neighbor will point it out to you.
Meg: Have you had any experiences where that happened?
Jennifer: Yes. I went to put the trash bag out and when we first moved here, I couldn’t see any trash cans near our building. So I saw some across the street, so I went to put them across the street next to the other ones. And someone was watching me, unbeknownst to me, and came running out. And chewed me out in german, that that was not where I was allowed to put my bag, I needed to put it on my side of the street. There are multiple national languages recognized in Switzerland, what are they? Yeah, so there’s actually four national languages. So german, French, Roman, and Italian. So I teach the youth Sunday school class in my ward. So I have German and French speakers. Of course, English is my first language, and I know a little bit of german, even less French, so we have Sunday school in those 3 languages. In just our class. But I live in the german speaking area of the country, so mostly I’m involved with german speaking people.
But I work in the French speaking area of the country, so my colleagues speak French. Yeah, it’s just a really diverse area. Most swiss, their second language required is one of the national languages that they don’t speak. And then English. So most of them speak 3 languages. So when I complain to them about having to learn Japanese, they’re like, oh, it’s just another language. What’s the difficulty? And another interesting bit. In the german speaking part, they actually speak swiss german. Which is actually different than german from Germany. So in my ward there are members who always speak swiss german, and they don’t know how to speak regular german. Which is difficult because I only know regular german. So that can complicate things as well. It’s not really another language, but it’s more than another dialect, it’s a little bit more trickier. Ok, so have you lived outside of the US longer than you’ve lived inside the US?Um, not….i would say I’ve lived outside of the US maybe 20 years. Um consecutive maybe 15, and then my mission and when we lived abroad when I was young, so I would say maybe 20. In some ways, I don’t feel very American. I mean, I love America, but when I’m in the USA, I can tell I’m different than other people.
Meg: Ok what would you say are some of the pros and cons of working in a different country than the one you grew up in?
Jennifer: Um, so the pros and cons of working outside the USA? Oh, when my family was young, we moved to England, I was about 6 years old. Something just happened to me that changed how I saw the world. Because I realized at that point, that I had to see the rest of the world. And that America wasn’t the only thing. There were different ways of doing things. Going international, not just travel but really live and experience the culture, really hit me at a young age. And I desperately had that desire to do that. But I didn’t know how I could get that experience. And when I actually did, which was through begging and begging my company to send me, that..so I was England for 3 years and when I went back to the USA, I felt like I was lacking more purpose in my life. So that’s when I went to Kenya. I wasn’t feeling satisfied and needed to get away. Because I missed that learning and growth that comes from being in another country. And continually having to test how you see things. And push those limits to how the world, or how this country sees things. We think that how we see things is the best way, but once you get living in these other countries, you think some ways they do things are actually better.But there’s definitely things that are better in the USA, so nothing is perfect in any country.It helps me see gosh, I would want, I mean, for example on my mission, we didn’t wear shoes. In japan, they don’t wear shoes in the home.
So when I came back to the USA I was like, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s so much more hygienic, it’s more comfortable. I’m going to do that. So there’s things that you pick up and you bring back with you, that, that, recycling. In Switzerland, recycling is huge. And I know that wherever I live in the USA again, I will take that with me. Because it’s my way of being able to contribute and help the environment. Um, yeah, there’s just so many wonderful things you learn in other countries that you can bring back into your life, into the USA.Ok awesome. My last question is, what advice or recommendations would you give to someone who is interested in working outside of the United States?I thought, I was hoping you would ask me this, because I actually get connected to a lot of people on Linkedin who ask me, how, I want to go work there, how did you do that? I
want to do that. And I’m always saying, it’s not glamorous how I got here. So like I said, when I first came onto my international assignment, when I was based in London. I went to my boss frequently for about a year. If there’s ever an international assignment, I would love to do it. If there’s ever an international assignment, can I do it? I mean frequently frequently frequently. Even if it’s just a few months. But I would love it if it were a few years. You know, all companies now, really, there’s a lot of difficulties that make it difficult for them to send someone to another country. Most of it is the cost. Because it’s 2x the cost the send someone to another country than to hire a local. Which I didn’t know or understand. The other thing is when you’re younger in your career, how can you prove that you’re going to bring expertise to these employees in this other country? You can’t really.
So it was really for my own purpose, my own selfishness that I wanted to go. I couldn’t really benefit the company. But I just, my persistence and persistence. Finally, he said, and I wanted to go to paris. Send me to Paris, send me to Paris. Finally, after a year, a junior HR role opened up. I’m like yes, yes, yes, send me, send me. I said, look, I’ll just pack my one suitcase, you don’t have to pay for anything. I’ll even pay for my airplane ticket. So this was how I did this. And being a single person, the cost was even lower.Because once you have children and a spouse, the cost can triple for the company. So he sent, they paid for my airfare and housing. I said that’s fine, I’ll take it. So then once I got to England, that really opened the doors for everything at that point. Because they said well wait a sec, we need you to go to France, and help, work with some employees. And then all of the sudden I was going to Germany,
I was going to Luxembourg. So now, it wasn’t just England experience, it was European experience. And every time I saw a door open, or even if it didn’t open, I saw an opportunity, I started the discussions. Well, I could do that for you. Or what if you give me the opportunity? I can help out. Or if someone can’t do it, I’m here ready to do it. So, it sounds desperate, but that’s how it worked for me. No that’s awesome.Yeah so when people, I know sometimes people contact me to see if I could bring them over to work for my company here. But it’s really difficult because getting the visa to prove that they’re the best person in Switzerland that could do that job. Younger in your career it’s hard. So, you have to really just look for little opportunities where you can contribute. Even if it’s just saying, oh, can I be a mentor or get mentored by the person who works in Singapore for our company. Then you start to develop that relationship.And then, oh, can I go over and do some training with them? And of course, you need to work for an international company because if you’re not, it would be hard for that door to open within your own company.So I think those are probably the pieces, and then I mean once I married James, he being British, that opened up more doors for me to, without a company having to sponsor me, I can work in Europe under his sponsorship. I mean, not that you’re going to marry someone for that. But it helps. But before that, it was just a lot of me creating those opportunities.Because that’s just what I wanted early in life. I wanted to work internationally. So I made it happen.I think it’s so important to be intentional and deliberate so I think that’s very good advice.Blah blah blah…
Sometimes the job, the HR job in London was maybe a little bit below what I thought I could do. But, I was actually surprised because there’s a huge learning curve once you get into another country. As to how the business operates and works. So you have to be careful not to make on more than you can chew. And you have to be humble. Because it could possibly turn into something bigger and better than you had though.