Culture Matters

By Wenyi Cai

Culture is the consequence of some persistent economic activity. It is anchored by a traditional industry — its ingredients, craft, demands, ascetic, work hours, gender roles, smells, and remnants. Take a look at the culture of a country, region, town or neighborhood, and you will see the distinctive imprint of the industry that shaped it — from the physical details, to the intangible ethos of the place. Even if that industry has almost disappeared…

Take the nautical culture of Portugal. The Portuguese dominated the seas long before the naval powers of Spain and Britain. Despite the recession of their empire and seafaring ways, we still observe it in all aspects of life: port, quasi-spoilt wine for the long sea voyages; bacalhau, dried cod that still perfume entire neighborhoods in Lisbon and makes it’s way into a variety of dishes, even in Brazil; and fado, the sad songs of longing sung for the loved-ones away at sea and likely to never return.

Well-documented in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, the work ethic necessary for rice farming in Southern China is etched into the culture. In China, those of us who grew up south of the Yangtze make fun of those who farm just north of the river, because they can only be bothered to plant one crop a year instead of two or three. The industrious of the Yangtze Delta translates into a strong value for education, openness to experimentation and trade, and thus the highest growth and living standards in China.

This is why culture matters.

Colombia’s culture is based on that of small-scale farming. Major crops like coffee are still grown on family-owned farms like they have been for centuries. They are still incredibly labor intensive, isolated, and commoditized.

Isolation has bred a complex economy, because transportation costs means that locally produced goods (even now) are often competitive to imports. Compared to the size of the economy, Colombia still produces a surprising array of products, long ago abandoned by less geographically-challenged countries to the Asian manufacturing powerhouses. This is interesting, and gives the country an industrial and talent base quite rich compared to its neighbors.

Isolation, however, has produced other, more challenging, mindsets and behaviors that directly affect the business culture. The first is to think small scale. Since people have not seen large businesses built in recent memory, the instinct is naturally to not dream so big. The focus is on one sale, one store, maybe another, but hardly beyond a city and definitely not beyond the country’s borders.

In addition, the business culture is not accustomed to competition. Thus, instead of innovating, it tends towards commoditization. If someone does something new, whether a large corporation or a street vendor, there will inevitably be scores of others to copy it, legally or illegally. This is a vicious cycle as the incentives to innovate are further eroded. At most, everything is incremental.

With little scale and innovation, the country will within some years exhaust its demographic advantage and post-war growth ingredients.

What is needed is to foster a culture of abundance, as opposed to the mindset of scarcity. With this culture of abundance, there will be room to dream, invest, build, destroy, and re-dream. And do so on a grand scale.

This is complex because a culture of abundance is different than abundance itself; it does not necessarily mean wealth or exuberance. Naturally, cultures of abundance emerge from stability and some resources. But more important are foundational elements like trust, optimism, and meritocracy.

Without trust, the task of building large companies becomes much more daunting. Every good business is based on the ever-growing trust network of its employees, supplier, partners, and customers. Without optimism for the future, the only reasonable instinct is to preserve, to salvage rather than invest. Without seeing hard work and honesty as the best path to prosperity, the individual contorts onto itself selfishly, eventually confining the momentum of self and whole.

Of course there is always a great deal of circularity in discussions about change, but Colombia truly is at an inflection point in its modern history. It has overcome multitudes. When Colombia came back from 0–3 to tie Chile and qualify for the 2014 World Cup, I found myself swept up in emotional reflection. It demonstrated the spirit of incredible resilience that makes me fundamentally believe in the country, and devote to it.

However, resilience is simply not enough to build bigger and better in a way that Colombia has never experienced before.

I see a great majority of the middle class working multiple jobs, attending night school, spending aspirationally for their children. I see Colombians educated abroad returning or others choosing to stay because of the quality opportunities now available. These are all great things, but might fall short of creating a culture of abundance with one downturn of the economy.

To truly build a culture for the future, a consciousness needs to emerge — an awareness that every action lives beyond itself and the actor. It can be the perpetuation or formation of culture good and bad, and thus underpins all that will be. Colombian culture should extend beyond the individual and the family, to see to the prosperity of society as the responsibility of each person. And that respect and deference to the whole should impact every action. Only so will trust, optimism, and meritocracy come to be, and the culture of abundance will translate to abundance itself.