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Eric Nummedal

Cultural Rediscovery: How One MBA Found His Professional Path While Hitchhiking South America

For Eric Goytia Nummedal, a first-year MBA and Consortium fellow at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, all it took was 13 months and thousands of miles wandering across South America to find his direction in life.

What began as a cultural quest, in which he hitchhiked from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip, became so much more than he expected. “What I discovered was an incredible diversity of cultures, each with its own story to tell to those who were willing to listen,” says Nummedal, a first-generation Argentinian-American. “I found that our world is much smaller and more connected and that many challenges know no borders.”

Nummedal recently spoke with The Consortium about this cultural journey, how it has influenced his career trajectory and what the experience taught him about the nature of business.

What was your childhood like, and what role did culture play?

Eric Goytia Nummedal

I was born in Los Angeles. My mother was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and my father was born in Oslo, Norway. I grew up with my mother and sister. She was a traditional Hispanic mother. She’d cook us a lot of empanadas, alfajores, and there was always Argentine music playing in the house. It was a loving childhood.

I lived a year in Latin America. Originally, it was supposed to be a visit to see family, as we had typically done every Christmas. I had recently graduated, and just a month beforeleaving I asked myself, “What’s really pulling me back to the United States? What’s keeping me from just staying here?” And I couldn’t find a good reason, so I cancelled my return trip, booked a flight to the southern tip of the continent and started making my way north.

What inspired you to embark on this adventure, and where did it take you?

Growing up, I wanted to connect with my Argentine heritage on my own terms. My concept of Argentine culture was mostly limited to what I had experienced in Buenos Aires with my family, which was porteño culture. Buenos Aires is a port city that was heavily influenced by the influx of European immigrants that occurred at the end of the 19th century. It’s a culture that has assimilated these histories and has diverged from other regions in Argentina.

I quickly realized that there were many communities that I had not considered in my concept of Argentina; I had been blind to the colors of so many cultures. This made me eager to broaden my scope and welcome the insight that diverse cultural perspectives could offer. For example, out in the provinces, especially in Patagonia, the gaucho culture is distinct from the culture in Buenos Aires. They don’t dance tango, for example; they dance something that’s more similar to flamenco. In the northern parts of the country, you’ll find the former dominion of the Incan empire, so the people there live similarly to what’s traditionally thought of as Incan culture, as you would find further north in the Central Andes.

Reconnecting with my heritage was the original purpose, but I never imagined that the trip would extend as long as it did. As I camped and hitchhiked, I would spend time with local peoples, and they would say things like, “Oh, if you’re going north, then you have to do this,” or “Oh, you should check out this.” It was supposed to be just Argentina, but I ended up crossing into and spending a substantial amount of time in Chile, then I crossed back into Argentina, then I went into Bolivia and just kept going north into Peru and Ecuador, and finally into Columbia. It was one of those things [where] I didn’t really know where the journey was going to take me, but I knew I wanted to keep going.

Has your culture always been something that’s been important to you?

I think having an understanding of your cultural heritage is intimately tied to your sense of place in the world. I grew up at this intersection between Argentine, American and even, Norwegian culture. As I was entering into adulthood, I thought it was important to evaluate who I was through firsthand experience with my cultural heritage. What I did not expect was how quickly the experience would force me to grow. By constantly facing unfamiliar situations, I learned how to be self-reliant, interact with people across a spectrum of cultures and adapt quickly to challenges. By reconnecting with my past, I was simultaneously creating my future. It was a becoming experience.

What did you find most surprising or intriguing about your journey?

The journey made me realize how connected our planet is. There are many instances where you can see the local effects of broad forces and the broad effects of local forces. For example, an oil spill in the Amazon not only affects the local ecology and its inhabitants, but the emissions it creates also lead to the receding of glaciers in Greenland, which alters wind patterns, like those in the Bodélé Depression of Chad, whose dust storms cross the Atlantic to fertilize the Amazon. Everything is connected, and to explore the Earth’s dimensionality is to discover causations that span our planet.

Another realization was just how many different ways we’ve found, as a people, to inhabit this planet. Just as you’ll find that different plants and animals have been able to relate to their environment in different ways, you’ll see similar differences in how local peoples have learned to relate to their surroundings. For example, in the Amazon rainforest, you can find indigenous tribes that live 5 miles from each other, but their cultures will be totally different — their ways of gathering food, their music and their religious traditions will be unique. That was something that was incredible to me — the number of different ways people have found to exist on this planet and the lessons that can be [learned] from human existence.

How did the experience open your mind and change your perspective personally and professionally?

All along the route, I saw the impact of multinational corporations. We’ve seen businesses become more global in how they source their labor, their supplies, the capital they access and the people they serve. I could buy a bottle of Coca-Cola in just about every village I entered, no matter how small. It reaffirmed my belief that the world needs leaders with a global perspective — an intimate understanding of how decisions can impact every factor it leverages. As business leaders, it is our joint responsibility to be mindful of those effects and strive to create a planet that is better than the one we inherited.

I firmly believe that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. As we broaden the scope of our experience, we similarly broaden the scope of our thinking. When we exist as strangers in foreign lands, we are forced to humble our thinking and assimilate the experiences of others. Only once we make ourselves vulnerable in this way, can we more fully appreciate the richness of human experience.

Did your experience have any affect on your decision to go to b-school?

My decision to go to business school was influenced by a realization that private industry has become one of the most powerful forces on our planet and that the people in charge of pulling the levers — leaders of private industry — must realize how much responsibility comes with a global footprint. I wanted to learn how to become a leader who is able to think both of the local and global impacts of business, and one who can translate this into positive impact.

Your undergraduate degree is in biochemistry and neurobiology, so are you hoping to combine that background with your MBA?

My background is primarily in healthcare research. I have been fortunate enough to do some cutting-edge research on the development of the visual system, create stem cell treatments and manufacture cancer immunotherapies. That was a rewarding experience, but I also felt isolated in the laboratory environment. I often operated in sterile conditions, so my ability to interact with people was limited. I knew I wanted to move away from the laboratory and into a position where I could leverage my technical knowledge to drive impact, but the only way that I could make that transition was if I had some background in business. I knew I had to learn certain business fundamentals and expand my network in order to successfully make that transition. So that’s why I decided to go to business school, to lead scientific progress from outside the laboratory.

What drew you to The Consortium?

I was drawn to The Consortium’s mission of creating a more diverse and inclusive corporate America — one that represents the true face of our country.

The United States has dealt with racial injustices that have led to significant inequality. It is a country that continues to reckon with its past. However, this is not unique to the United States. Similar racial and ethnic divisions can be found across the globe. Humans have always found ways to point to negligible differences in order to substantiate injustice. But there is an insurmountable wave of change moving ever forward — a collective belief that we should find strength and understanding in what makes us unique. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is a constant struggle, but it would be mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, should we accept our common primary identity: We are human.

We are called to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard than the society that we live in. Change comes from the uncompromising integrity of individuals. In a world where private industry supplants governments as the seat of authority, business leaders must be accountable for the highest degree of moral integrity.

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