May 9, 2017

As an international hub, Seattle often hosts business, government and education leaders from around the world. A key organization that sponsors and strengthens international exchanges, including programs for students, is the World Affairs Council–Seattle. These initiatives generate many benefits to the city ranging from economic growth to heartwarming personal relationships.

“Exchanges are an incredible gift to the community, often changing people’s perceptions and building business relationships and lifelong friendships,” says Rachel Paris-Lambert, director of the Council’s International Visitors Program. Since guests stay with host families during exchanges, “Connecting with young, energetic and intelligent people at the dinner table goes a long way to break down stereotypes, especially when visitors come from places like Mexico and Iraq.

“Our guests are the future civic and business leaders of their countries, who not only get to see America’s democratic values in action, but also the kindness and hospitality of our people — a side of America not always understood from the nightly news,” she explains. “And of course, we have our own stereotypes from our 24/7 media.”

International programs — many designed and implemented by World Learning, a nonprofit that oversees exchanges around the world with groups like the World Affairs Council — also generate revenue for Seattle every year. In fact, World Affairs Council exchanges contributed more than $2.7 million to the city in 2016, primarily hotel accommodations and transportation for 721 visitors, but not including revenue from meals and cultural events.

Perhaps most important, these programs inspire visitors to come back and further develop business relationships that support local companies or establish new ventures. The prestigious African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program is a case in point.

New business opportunities
Vava Angwenyi first visited in 2015 and has returned many times connecting Seattle to her work in Nairobi. Vava is the Founder and CEO of Vava Coffee, a social enterprise that seeks to improve conditions in the coffee industry and create sustainable livelihoods for the workers in the industry.

“It was always a dream to come to Seattle — given the coffee connection and growing entrepreneurship scene,” Vava says about her initial visit. Through the program, Vava was introduced to Seattle-based Atlas Coffee Importers. After a short meeting with Atlas’s founder, Craig Holt, “it became clear that our purposes and missions had the same goal, and we could really team up,” says Vava.

Vava also connected with other local businesses that share similar visions, including

Uncle Harry’s Natural Products, a woman-led company based in Redmond that is introducing a coffee-themed scrub to their product line, and Café Avole, a new Ethiopian café in South Seattle that will sell Vava Coffee.

The projects that have grown out of Vava’s visit are examples of the power of public diplomacy and showcase how such connections can be a catalyst to business innovation and collaboration on global issues.

In another exchange, a designer from the Netherlands forged a new partnership in Seattle for sustainable marble-like products made from recycled plastics. And local business leaders recently hosted a group from Latin America and the Caribbean, which has triggered new marketing opportunities in both directions.

Barrier-breaking conversations
What really launches these business opportunities is something quite simple — the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation.

As part of the cultural portion of her first visit, Vava was invited to the home of a local Seattle family for dinner, great conversation, and an evening of laughter. In-depth discussions on politics, pop culture, religion, society, and business ensued, and by the end of the evening a deep connection had been formed.

As a result, Vava not only stayed in touch with her host family, but she also stayed with them during her second visit to Seattle, when she was introduced to even more business people and activists.

“These face-to-face interactions are vitally important to our national security and economic prosperity, because they create a foundation of understanding, which fosters mutually beneficial relationships,” says Rachel. “People in Seattle are hungry to engage internationally and our programs make that happen.”

Cultural understanding…and fun… for students
Exchanges that sponsor high-school age visitors also lay a foundation of global understanding for the next generation. Such interactions change people, whether it’s a Jewish family hosting Muslim and Buddhist guests, or a visiting Muslim student speaking with a local Imam who believes in LGBT rights.

Katherine Randolph’s family recently hosted Kareem, an Iraqi student who was about the same age as her 17 year-old son, Alex. “It was a wonderful surprise that the two boys really hit it off and found they had a lot in common. They’re both smart and empathetic people who share a similar sense of humor and enjoyed goofing around with each other, just like any teenagers,” she says.

“We all pay attention to what’s going on in the Middle East,” Katherine adds, “but nothing compares to getting to know someone personally and what their life is really like. Thanks to Facebook and Skype, these deep relationships will continue. Alex and Kareem are friends.”

Smith, Iraqi adult mentor Mustafa Mohammed, and student Aria Qadir at a Seattle Sounders match.

Kristen Smith and her husband Pete Lawson have hosted visitors many times, mostly adult mentors, and enjoy showing them the Seattle-area sites, from the Pike Place Market to Mount Olympus, as well as just hanging out. She, too, says her perceptions have changed.

“We see Iraq as a war zone with guns everywhere,” she explains. “But the Iraqi people we’ve met are just living their lives. While there are dangers, not every area is a war zone, and we have a much better understanding of how they deal with life day by day.”

Changing perceptions about us
Visitors also come with misperceptions. “Many guests think America is a hostile place,” Kristen says. “Their image of America is about bombs and guns, and they think Americans are just focused on money and work. But they get to see who we are in full, our kindness and generosity. It really makes a difference.”

Ultimately, “perceptions change because we start to care about each other. Our guests go back home with a little piece of my heart, and I have a piece of theirs,” she says, softly.

Janine Magidman, a veteran teacher at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, coordinates homestays for exchange programs, so she has an even broader perspective, overseeing a growing network of host families for the thousands of students who want to come to Seattle.

When a group of enthusiastic Brazilian students came to Roosevelt recently, it lifted the spirits of the entire school and brought people out of their shells. “All the students realized they had so much in common,” Janine recalls.

“We need these programs now more than ever as a counterbalance to the negativity we see, and to build social activism,” Janine adds. “The key to peace is citizen diplomacy. Nothing works better than sitting around the kitchen table telling stories. We tell the people who think about hosting, don’t be afraid. It’s an awesome experience and you’ll develop lifelong friendships around the world.”