Dean Foster ’69 says he has a perfect job. As a cross-cultural consultant, he has traveled to and lived in more countries than many can name off the top of their heads. Living and working in foreign lands has been challenging, never dull, and always fulfilling. Foster’s company, Dean Foster Global Cultures, delivers training programs in what Foster calls “cultural fluency.” Clients range from Fortune 500 companies to intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations.

An expert on global etiquette, culture, and social issues, Foster is the host of CNN’s Doing Business in … series and the creator and host of the podcast, Oops, Your Culture’s Showing! Here Foster, who graduated from Brooklyn College with a B.A. in political science, talks about the value of understanding and navigating cultural differences in today’s interconnected world and how it all started.

What inspired you to start your business?

How much time do we have today? We started this work over 30 years ago. We’re talking about the ’80s. I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research and received my master’s degree in sociology there in 1985. At the time, U.S. businesses were just starting to globalize and starting to do business outside of our borders. A few colleagues and I saw some opportunities to create this niche business, gathering all the information about how to work in another country—the kind the cultural information that a company would need to succeed. What we did as a small consulting company here in Brooklyn was to package this information into training and consulting programs for businesses. When we first started, nobody was doing this kind of work. It was truly unique. Now, of course, we have competition, but we have been doing it the longest.

Can you tell us about some of your clients?

Early on we were privileged to do some work for an organization that sent a medical ship around the world that provided eye care and eye operations for children in developing nations. They would pull into port and kids would come on board for treatment. There were many cross-cultural issues because not only did the medical personnel have to learn about the cultures of the children they were treating, but also the cultures within the diverse medical community on the ship.

It’s serious business, but are there lighter moments?

I remember working with a Thai prince who was being relocated to the United States. One of his main concerns was how to relocate his pet elephant because in Thailand he had several and he was sure that they could be relocated to … I think it was Chicago. There was quite an education process there!

It sounds like cultural training is not just for diplomats.

Cultural training is a hard skill. If you make a cultural mistake representing your company or organization, even if you made it with the best of intentions—it can cost you down the road. You lose the account, you lose the client, you lose the work. I remember trying to explain this to an HR manager in Kuwait who told me he didn’t see why his company needed the training because everyone in Kuwait could speak English. I was stunned that he could not see that cultural fluency was necessary even though a person is fluent in different languages. Earlier on in the development of our company, we had a marketing relationship with Berlitz languages. Cultural fluency can be learned far more easily than a language and is often a more critical skill. It should be taught starting in middle school through college.

Speaking of higher ed, could you tell us about your time at Brooklyn College?

was blessed to go to Brooklyn College. I could just stop right there and put a period on that and say it was a fabulous experience. I can’t imagine how much finer an education I could have had. It was truly a transformative time for me, and I was the first one in my family to go to college. So it was important not just for me, but also for my family.

When I started my freshman year, a babe in the woods, completely unaware of most things and taking freshman English, I thought I was somebody. I took a course with a professor and read fantastic things that I had never read before. I enjoyed every single class. And I remember taking one of my first tests and thinking I was somebody special. The test came back, redlined all over with a C. I was absolutely cut down. Cut down but also supported in a remarkable way. I will never forget the attention that I was given by this professor, by her willingness to take me under her wing, and not because I was a bad student, but because she saw something in me.

For those considering going into your field, what skills are most important to have?

We’re always looking for cultural informants to help us stay current because cultures are dynamic. They’re always changing. What we say about India today is different from what we said about India five years ago. Essentially, we’re looking for globally curious people. This means that you can demonstrate that you’ve lived or worked in as many countries outside of your native country as possible. We want someone who can deliver training programs in their native tongue and a foreign language. We like to have people who can demonstrate all of these competencies and who have an advanced degree.

Is there anything else you want us to know about the work you do?

We’re at a critical time. This is because of unprecedented access to the internet and media. I think we have to be very careful in this era of globalization that we don’t get blinded to the fact that cultural differences are very much out there, and if you don’t understand them, it can be challenging. Right now, we have the means to bring cultures together in a way that’s never historically happened in the human experience. To be part of helping people choose the right path toward that coming together is very, very meaningful for me.