If you shop at Carrefour in southern China, chances are you know Sergio Martinez ’15 as the “Foreign Hero” who offers tips on wine pairings and recipes from around the world.
“China consumers are buying more expensive brands because they value quality,” explains Martinez. “To take advantage of that, we need to educate about quality in order to attract our target customer to purchase pricier goods with a higher margin.”
Martinez conceived the Foreign Hero concept as a way to engage consumers and teach them about how to use the imported foods available at Carrefour, a French multinational hypermarket. Not only did Martinez create educational boards at Carrefour stores about how to make different dishes, he also set up a Foreign Hero WeChat account so customers can get recipes from around the world that feature Carrefour products.
All of Martinez’s experiences prior to assuming the role of south China import food manager play into his success. It all started when he decided to leave his native Spain to learn English in the U.S. Instead of finding a school online, Martinez hired an agency to set up a language program that would cater to his specific needs. He ended up joining a program where he went to Harvard for one month, Stanford for 15 days and then to a program in Florida for four months.
After his English immersion, Martinez hired another agency to find the right university for him.
“In Spain the curriculum is more rigid,” he says. “My goal was a university with a strong focus on humanities where I could enjoy different subjects and choose my classes. I also asked for a city with a kind of European atmosphere where I could walk on the streets and see people.”
The agency recommended the College of Charleston among other schools, but Martinez decided CofC was the best, noting “the weather is good, the city is really beautiful and people in the south are kind to foreigners.”
While at the College, Martinez marveled at the global atmosphere with students coming from all parts of the world.
“When you want to experience international cultures, it’s easy to do,” he shares. “I joined the International Student Club, which is where I learned how to make Russian food.”
It’s no surprise that Martinez majored in international business and minored in business language in French. He lived in the French House (now the Franco-Hispano House) in order to speak French on a daily basis. He also learned to cook French meals.
At the same time, Martinez watched a lot of Netflix to improve his English. One night he watched a show with someone speaking Mandarin, which he thought was cool. So, when he saw an ad for the College’s Chinese program, he signed up.
“My parents thought I was crazy,” says Martinez. “I was already studying abroad in another language, but I did it anyway. I owe my success in Mandarin to professors Piotr Gibas and Lei Jin. Chinese is difficult, but they were flexible. We had exams every week and always had a chance to repeat the exams.”
In fact, it was Gibas who told Martinez about a Confucius Institute scholarship opportunity to study in China, a suggestion which proved pivotal.
“I applied and was accepted to a program at Guiyang University in Guizhou province,” he says. “It was a life-changing experience. The U.S. was different from Spain, but in China I really experienced a culture that had nothing in common with mine.”
Upon graduation, armed with a business degree and three languages under his belt – in addition to his native Spanish – Martinez returned to Spain. He was there for just three months when he decided to go to China.
“I felt I would have career development opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he explains.
Always resourceful, Martinez called upon an agency to help him find a job in China. “Thanks to the agency, I interviewed with five companies in one week and soon after moved to work for Heshang in Baiyun district, outside Guangzhou.”
Martinez was the only foreigner working for the furniture factory. His job was to find international retailers expanding to China and have them buy furniture for their stores. Over the next year, Martinez learned about sales and customer relations, but he found it difficult to live in an area with no other foreigners. Needing a change, Martinez started interviewing with other companies. He selected Carrefour because of its career development opportunities.
In his current job, Martinez is applying much of what he learned at the College. His French, Mandarin and English come in handy as does his knowledge of statistics that he learned from professor Jose Gavidia.
“If I had not gone to CofC, I would not be at Carrefour,” he says. “The company has a strategy to bring foreigners to Carrefour, but it’s hard to find someone with English, French and Chinese. The head executives are all French, so speaking French is an advantage in terms of networking and support, but 70 to 80 percent of my time is spent speaking Chinese.”
As the Foreign Hero, Martinez is riding high. The results of the Foreign Hero campaign have been so great that he even received the company’s Innovation Award as a rising star.
“I am now in a dynamic environment where I get to do many different things,” he says, adding, “I never get bored.”
Such is the life of a super hero.
Featured image: Sergio Martinez, far left, with colleagues at a Carrefour seminar event earlier this year.