Friday, July 17, 2009

Why Anyone Who's an AIESECer Gets an Interview with AJC International Automatically

Last month, Kelly Fuson, AIESEC Life's newsletter contributor and Angelika Ilina, AIESEC Life's Editor-in-Chief, had the pleasure of interviewing Gerald L. Allison (Jerry), an AIESEC Life Founders Circle member. Jerry exemplifies someone whose professional life has been entirely shaped by AIESEC. His story began with starting the chapter at Northern Illinois University in 1961 and going on a traineeship to Lima, Peru.

Today, Jerry is the CEO, Chairman, and Co-Founder of AJC International, Inc. He serves on Georgia Tech's Board of Advisors and received the AIESEC Global Alumni Contribution Award in 2003. Incorporated in 1972, AJC is a global company trading meat, poultry, and pork. With 10 global offices and current sales over $1 billion, 50% of worldwide staff works outside their country of birth. In addition, there are approximately 28 languages spoken among employees. AJC has also hosted over 35 trainees since 1974!

Kelly: What was your first introduction to AIESEC, what prompted you to start a chapter at Northern Illinois and what did it look like at the time?

Jerry: I had just completed two semesters studying Spanish in Mexico, and was starting my last year of school when my roommate said, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea – we can go overseas and work there.” I said, “What is it?” and he said, “It’s through an association called AIESEC; I don’t know what it means but we’re going to find out.”

So, we investigated and started a small chapter on the Northern Illinois University (NIU) campus. After getting approval from the National Committee, we raised a traineeship in Illinois and attended the National Conference at Yale University as well as the International Conference at Princeton University, and between the two, we gained a lot of valuable AIESEC experience.

We traded our own pink or green forms (as they were called) and my roommate negotiated a traineeship at a bank in Europe. I felt I would benefit from the most sought after traineeship, even though it was in the least desirable location, Lima, Peru. I said, “I’ll take it!” My 3 month traineeship with Standard Oil (of New Jersey) was extended twice and I ended up staying in Peru for a total of 9 months.

Kelly: Did the chapter continue after you graduated?

Jerry: Yes, the chapter continued until the 90’s. A few years ago, the NIU Dean of the Business School contacted me and asked for my help in designing an international curriculum. She arranged for me and 4 other alumni, involved in international affairs, to attend a panel discussion. In return, I asked her to help re-introduce AIESEC to the Northern Illinois University campus.

Kelly: You didn’t get involved again until a few years later?

Jerry: In the early 70’s, I was working on my master’s program at Georgia State when I saw a sign on one of the school billboards that said, “AIESEC Party,” and I crashed the party as an alumni. The chapter was looking for a Board of Advisors, so I started helping them raise traineeships. I was on their Board for six or eight years until they collapsed. I am happy to report that after a long absence, Georgia State is an active LC again; restarted this year!

Emory University also started a good LC, which I was a part of but recently it has been Georgia Tech that I’ve been helping raise traineeships, working on projects, and providing moral support to.

Kelly: What did the alumni presence look like at that time? Had you kept in touch with other AIESECers that you knew?

Jerry: We had a very difficult time connecting. Much effort was made over the years to get an alumni group organized. The process is getting better but it still requires fine tuning.

Kelly: Did you have an immediate group of friends that were AIESEC alumni that you would interact with in the area?

Jerry: As Board of Advisors, we made sure that all graduates were added to the alumni group before leaving campus. Half of the Board of Advisors consisted of alumni. And, of course, when I started AJC in 1972, I immediately hired AIESEC trainees from different countries, and that kept me in touch with the organization at all times. These trainees were introduced to the local chapter and we’d often host parties for them, etc.

Kelly: Describe the experience of being on the business side and hiring traineeships as an alumnus. Who was your most memorable trainee that you had working for you?

Jerry: Boy, we had so many, and each one of them was memorable in their own way. We just had a visit last summer from one of our first trainees – he interned twice actually, once in the late 70’s and then again in the early 80’s; he brought his wife and his two grown boys on a family vacation, but they also came by to see us in the office and to see how the company has changed. There were about 25 people when he was there and now we have 250, so it was an eye opener for him to see how far we’ve come. He’s now formed his own trading company in Italy.

Of all the 40 trainees our company has hired, I think there was only one that wasn’t successful. Over the years we’ve probably offered seven of the trainees’ permanent positions, and some of them are still with the company. One was a Brazilian trainee that came into our operations department as an intern and then went back to school. Once he graduated, he called us from Brazil and said he’d like to work for us again and we brought him to Atlanta. He stayed here for about a year and then went back to South America to open an office for us. He is still with us today. At one point four of our senior managers were all AIESECers. As a matter of fact, anyone who’s an AIESECer gets an interview with us automatically.

Kelly: How has AIESEC influenced the direction of your personal and professional life?

Jerry: AIESEC had an enormous impact on my professional career because it enabled me to focus on international business. If you’re good at international business and you understand that you need a mix of people to do it, it really helps your career. It set the tone of what I did with my life. AIESEC had an enormous impact on me and that’s why I continue to promote AIESEC whenever I can, both in terms of funds and support because I believe in it. And I find people like myself over and over and it’s a life-changing experience.

Kelly: What benefits have trainees brought to your company?

Jerry: We are very culturally diverse company and I think my experience working in Peru and then going to Puerto Rico showed me the importance of cultural diversity. Today, for instance, 60% of people in our Atlanta office were born outside of the U.S., and as a group they speak about 28 different languages. That’s pretty much the norm in every office that we have. Our office in Switzerland has only two Swiss people and everyone else is from a different country. Bringing in these diverse people – which we learned in AIESEC – has made a really strong company.

Kelly: You received the Global Alumni Contribution Award in 2003 at the International Conference in Serbia. What did it feel like to be awarded that honor?

Jerry: It was humbling. I was very impressed by the people who were inducted into the Hall of Fame that year. I mean, they were incredible people: the CEO of DHL and others who have been enormously successful, so it was an honor to be in such a great group. It was worth it to me just to have a chance to meet all of those people.

Angelika: You mentioned you had difficulty connecting to other alumni, is it still not perfect today?

Jerry: It’s difficult both nationally and internationally. We had a small group at our LC; our membership never consisted of more than 6 people, and it was a very short time frame from the time we started to the time I went on my traineeship and graduated, so I didn’t have many AIESEC connections. I find that’s still the case today. For instance, I’ve had about 40 trainees at my company and some of them keep in touch with me, but some haven’t, and I would love to know how to find them.

It takes effort on both sides; it takes an outreach by AIESEC. That’s one reason I’ve contributed to AIESEC Life – and it has helped. It’s amazing, we think there could be 50,000- 60,000 alumni out there, and right now our list is only 6,000-7,000, and even if it was 12,000, it might only be 20% of the actual number. It’s going to take reaching out to all the LCs and digging; it’s going to take a lot of hard work.

AJC Human Resources is looking for seventeen people this year to hire and we would love to be able to find some ex-AIESECers with 1-5 years into their career to interview. We have specific language requirements and jobs in just about every part of the world, and we are not slowing down. We believe in this diverse cultural population, so it’s natural for AIESEC and AJC International, Inc. to work together.

The mission that we started with AIESEC Life is correct, it’s the execution that’s going to be difficult – the mission is to connect with each other and then support AIESEC’s cause.

Kelly: Tell us about your experiences in Cuba.

Jerry: The U.S. had a policy of "no trade" with Cuba for 40 years – still has – but there was a large hurricane seven or eight years ago and the U.S. offered to supply free food and medicine to Castro’s people. He refused it, but then said that he would buy it if we sold it to him. So, the Congress passed a law that allowed Cuba to buy food and medicine from the U.S.

During that time, the various States Departments of Agriculture delegates from about 47 different states would go down to Cuba to put local pressure on congress to open the trade barriers. I happened to be on one of those trade missions, an agricultural mission from the state of Georgia, when the Congress passed the law allowing food & medicine trade with Cuba.

Since then, I have been back five times and on some occasions, I attend a large food show (there’s only one buyer -- the government -- so I don’t know why they need a food show) and invariably Fidel will speak to our group. They’re always gracious and highly technically, competent people. We’ve been shipping them a boatload of frozen chicken every month and we get about half of their poultry business. This has been going on for at least seven years.

Kelly: Your company is able to sell to Cubans because the U.S. government changed the law?

Jerry: Yes, the ban has been broken in the area of food and pharmaceuticals. The travel ban is still in existence. You’re not allowed to travel there except for four or five exceptions: if you’re a journalist, doing community service, or are in the food business (you have to apply for a license from the Treasury Department – our company has about 15 people who can travel there). It’s a really interesting place to do business. It’s clean, it’s safe, and it’s well-organized and well-run. It’s just very poor.

Kelly: What kind of cultural exchange are we missing out on by not being allowed to travel there?

Jerry: I think we should open the travel ban; I see no reason not to. It would help them economically, and it would help us by giving us a low cost place to have vacations. To me, it’s just a no-brainer to open travel there. It would help the Cuban and American people understand each other.

Kelly: Do you feel at all that their culture should be preserved and if the ban was lifted that they might lose some of their culture by being exposed to others?

Jerry: No more than any other country. I guess you could say that about any country, that they lose some of their culture. Sure, they adapt a few foreign things, but they’re still pretty much culturally different. Look at the common market, they’re all different and they’re still different after working together for many years, so I don’t see any danger in it. Cultures are going to evolve and languages are going to evolve and that will happen. That’s already happening in Cuba. If you walk down the street you’ll notice they are speaking a sort of an English-type mix when they talk to tourists; and you can say that’s a negative? It seems similar to Mexico; I think the benefits far outweigh any risk of losing a part of their culture.

Kelly: It sounds like Cuba is really the one missing out due to this travel ban.

Jerry: I think it’s both us and them. Here we have this beautiful country, 90 miles from our shore, that we’re not allowed to go visit it and I think it’s bad for us. It’s easy to get to, it’s great when you get there, and things are fairly low cost. It’s a great place to go on vacation.

They’re missing out on the U.S. dollars and revenue because it would help them with their economy. I don’t think you should just stop exchange because of a regime change. If anything, when people are exposed to another culture that they think has some appeal, or some system of government, then they are more likely to work for change within their system.

Kelly: Aside from Cuba, what travel recommendations would you give to a fellow AIESECer?

Jerry: I’d go to visit as many places as you can. There are a lot of places and they’re all great and they’re all different. My favorite country will be the next one I travel to. I’ve been to about 145 countries and there’s always one greater one out there.

Angelika: Where do you see AIESEC Life going?

Jerry: This summer’s Founders Circle retreat is going to have a big effect on how we’re going to evolve from here. We all want to change and we realize that we didn’t have a sustainable business plan in the past and that it’s going to take a different way of going about it. Just building a database or putting a platform out there where people can input in the data – that’s not going to do it.

AIESEC U.S. Alumni effort should be separate, but it needs to be part of AIESEC altogether. We’ve now got three to four AIESEC Alumni groups: AAI, MyAIESEC, groups like Georgia Tech, and a lot of cities have their own little groups, and we’re not connecting everybody. I don’t know how to solve that issue myself. There’s a certain amount of need to stay connected to all of the U.S. AIESECers, but if you think about it, it’s far greater. We’re not about having only U.S. students connecting, we’re about having U.S. students going overseas and students coming here, and connecting the world. I don’t think it can be AIESEC Life vs. MyAIESEC, it has to be something bigger. We can be part of it.

Jerry’s AIESEC Resume
  • 1960’s - Founded LC Northern Illinois University, Conference-Yale University, International Conference-Princeton University, Traineeship-Lima, Peru
  • 1971-present: Board of Advisors at GA State, GA Tech, Emory Univ.
  • 1974-2007: Hosted over 35 trainees in AJC International, Inc., global offices: U.S., Netherlands, Argentina, China
  • 1981 – National Conference Emory / GA. State, Atlanta
  • 1997 - International Conference, GA. Tech, Atlanta
  • 2003 – International Conference, Serbia, Admitted to the Alumni Hall of Fame

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