A life in the US! Benoit Courcelle’s interview.

1. Can you introduce yourself and briefly describe your background before arriving in the US?

« I grew up in Normandy, then in Paris’s suburbs before moving to Paris’s 17th arrondissement at the age of 15. After my high school diploma, I started a law school, not by passion, but because it was the “classic” way to prepare for the police commissioner exam, the profession I wanted to pursue at this time. Once my masterdegree in public law was validated, I started to “cram” into this “famous exam”. As English is part of the written tests, I decided to go to the United States in order to improve it and to live a new experience abroad ».

 A little anecdote:

« Before I flew to the United States, I went for a drink with a friend who asked me a question to test my “language skills” ».

  • He asked me: « How do you say in English?: Il fait beau = the weather is nice ».
  • I proudly replied: « The time is good! »

« My friend laughed a lot! All that to tell you that my level was at its lowest, English was clearly not won! » 

2. In which context did you arrive in the United States?

« I arrived in mid-December 1985, at the age of 23, at the home of the son of a “Russian-Lebanese” couple of friends of my parents who had offered me a free room for three months in his apartment in Los Angeles. I remember my first day in the US as if it was yesterday. My flight from Paris to LA via Minneapolis was a hell of a mess. I was late, I couldn’t find the “domestic flight” inside the airport. I didn’t speak a word of English, it was snowing, I was freezing with my little French “Lacoste” jacket and I was stupefied to discover “cowboys” instead of policeman. One thing led to another, I finally landed in LA. My first night was relatively calm but when I woke up alone in the apartment, it was a panic call. My first thought was to say to myself, “What am I doing here?”.

As I explained earlier, the goal of my trip to the United States was to improve my English “quickly” to be able to go back to France to pass the police commissioner’s exam. At that time, I thought that a few months was enough to learn a foreign language.

To finance this project, I did some “small jobs” and a student credit. I arrived in the United States with $2,000 in my pocket, enough to pay for my life there, but not for housing or buy a car (at that time 10 francs was equivalent to 1 dollar) ».

3. What has been your experience in the United States?

STEP 1: « Shortly after my arrival and some research, I quickly found a school in Downtown LA offering English courses for immigrants. The 25 cts registration fee did not make me hesitate too long to integrate it. It was with the Latin and Asian communities that I started learning this new language.

After 3 months at school, I still didn’t speak English and it was hard to imagine returning to France. Luckily, one of my Nicaraguan classmates offered me to stay with him and his whole family in the Latin Quarter of LA. I was there for six months! I kept going to school and spent the rest of my days in “Downtown” with my painters and creators friends that I met at school ».

Little anecdotes:

« I was always travelling by bus, no driver understood me when I gave the name of the stop where I wanted to get off ».

« One surprise I had in my language school in LA was that the teachers were very positive and encouraging, they told me: “Very good! Good work! ” I was not accustomed to this kind of speech during my studies in France ».

STEP 2: « Thanks to my father’s connections, I found a job in Irvine in the international department of the company “Allergan” (specialized in medical products for the eyes). I spent a year in the “Market Research” pole before returning to France to do my army. I stayed there for 3 months before being reformed after a car accident I had had in the United States. After this stage, I stayed about six months in France doing “small jobs” with the only wish of returning to the US ». 

STEP 3: « In 1989, a period of recession in France, I decided to return to the United States where I started a new job as a “Graphic Designer” for a manufacturer of “dishes” in the food industry. New job, new challenge and learning new skills! I have been working and evolving in this same company for thirty years now.

My “leit motiv” has always been to work hard in order to evolve and access better positions.

For 20 years, I have been part of the international division. Our sales volume is fifty times higher than when I started. We have more than seven factories worldwide and more than 1 200 employees. Thanks to my position as “Director of International Market Development”, I am now involved in various departments: “Sales, Marketing and Logistics”.

In parallel to this career, I have developed with some friends a language school offering French courses for locals looking to learn Molière’s language! I also created several “businesses” offering translation services, graphics, software export, import of ovens from a French company… In this set of experiences, some worked, others did not!

When you live in the United States, you always keep in mind the possibility of creating a business; you are constantly looking for potential ideas. It’s a nice feeling to know that anything is possible, but you have to be willing to spend time on it ».

4. What were the positive points and difficulties you faced related to your “expatriation”? 

Positive points:

  • « The freedom to do what you want and to leave the classic French course: “Street smart Vs Book smart! »
  • « A country of sellers, if you know how to sell you can do anything! »
  • « If you want to grow and work hard, you can! »

Work hard, 10 hours a day and achieve your goals! Don’t ask for a day off or an extra holiday day, just WORK! Add value to the company, challenge your boss, solicit him, be proactive. Don’t wait to be promoted! The formula is simple to evolve in the US, at least there are possibilities.

The difficulties encountered:  

  • « The difficulty of creating friendly relationships ».
  • « The culture clash: at the time, 30 years ago, the United States was a very rich and powerful country! The Americans had a very limited interest in what was going on outside, actually they didn’t care! There were their ways or none. With an “Anglo-Saxon” culture, Americans are less “sensitive” than people with a “Latin background”. They are “strong, hard and know that they are the best” so as a Frenchman, you have to learn to “deal” with this type of temperament clearly differently from ours ».

5. Have you experienced any moments when you wanted to go back to France? 

« Yes, a lot during my first year (hard times, the language barrier, the change of scenery, a police control that had really cooled me down, and of course the lack of my family. At that time there was neither mobile phone nor internet, the cabin phone was extremely expensive (there was a real business selling phone cards on the street). I was able to contact my parents about twice a month ».

6. What are your next projects?

  • « Continue to develop the Chinese market for the company where I work with two priority axes; train the sales team to a level of excellence and increase the notoriety of our company ».
  • « Decide where I will retire. When you have been an “expat” for so long you no longer belong to one country. We may have to find another one ».
  • « Consulting for companies that would like to develop their international business ».
  • « Enjoy life and stay “healthy”! These are two very important projects ».
  • « Visit countries in Asia and Europe that I don’t know yet ».

7. You spent more years in the US than in your home country, if you had the choice would you do it again? If so, what would you do differently?

« Yes, without any hesitation, leaving was the best decision. The United States has given me the opportunity to undertake, evolve and realize many personal and professional projects. I have the “certitude” that I would not have been able to accomplish as much or at least have the same possibilities in France. Today, I have a job that I love, which allows me to travel all over the world, I am financially stable and I enjoy the Californian sun every morning… I have a very good quality of life that I share with my family and friends ».

What I would do differently:

  • « Get an MBA and learn how to sell. Being a salesperson in the United States is the gateway to higher jobs».
  • « Further develop my networking ».

« Today I would recommend that young people who want to travel to learn English should go to Asia. Hong Kong or Singapore where it is easily possible to obtain working visas for 1 year ».

A huge thank you to Benoit Courcelle: “Director of International Market Development” at Cambro Manufacturing, for his feedback, his time and his confidence.

Kathleen

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