Associate Professor Barbara Ribbens, Ph.D., has seen firsthand how combining the skills learned in Illinois State University’s sales and international business programs creates golden opportunities for students entering their careers.

So when the director of the Carson and Iris Varner International Business Institute learned about the Global Bilingual Sales Competition, she knew it would be a beneficial learning experience for her students.

A team of four Illinois State University students was chosen to compete in the event February 28 through March 2 on the Modesto Maidique Campus of Florida International University in Miami. This was the first time Illinois State University participated in a sales competition that included the added challenge of a foreign language component.

“This has a whole new twist to it,” said Ribbens. “This is a chance for our international business students, who are required to do a language, to put it together with their business skills in an integrated setting. To me, that’s what’s really exciting about it.”

Team member Tyler Henson, who is majoring in both Spanish and international business with a focus in marketing, said: “All I’ve ever wanted to do is mix my passion for languages with a career, and this (showed) it was possible to do that. It put two worlds together.”

The junior was joined on the team by fellow international business students Dayyana Ibragimova and Jorge Gutierrez as well as sales major Alonso Ramirez-Rodriguez.

Since three of the four students did not have a background in sales, the team held regular practice sessions in the months leading up to the event.

“We met twice before semester break, and after semester break, we met every Monday and Wednesday afternoon,” said Instructional Assistant Professor Rick Wills, who coached the team in sales strategies. “(Students) Ryan Bachman and Justin McElroy were two additional coaches who put in a lot of time and effort with the team all the while knowing they weren’t going to make the trip down to Florida. They were instrumental in building the skills of the team.”

Wills said Ramirez-Rodriguez was “very instrumental” in helping his international business teammates get up to speed on the sales process.

“They came along really well,” Wills said. “We talked with them about how do you influence people and persuade them. Once you have those skills, it works everywhere. It’s how do you get things done with people still feeling good about themselves and the team. Whether they decide to go into sales or whatever they decide to go into, it’s still a good way to operate.”

The bilingual sales competition involved about 40 students from 10 universities.

“The coolest part was there was a college from Puerto Rico and then a college from Colombia,” said Henson.

Alonso Ramirez-Rodriguez (left), Tyler Henson, Jorge Gutierrez, and Dayyana Ibragimova

On the first day of the event, students competed in English in a mock sales call scenario. “We would all be lined up at these doors with 10 buyers inside, and we all had cameras on us and each person had five judges watching them,” Henson said. “They’d go, ‘3, 2, 1,’ and we’d all knock on a door at the same time and walk in.”

Once in their respective rooms, the competitors took part in a 15-minute role-play scenario in which they evaluated the needs of a potential buyer, who was portrayed by a real-life company sales manager. Those who made it to the second round, including Gutierrez and Ramirez-Rodriguez, then gave a product presentation involving selling services from DHL, the international logistics company that served as the product sponsor for the event.

The following day, the students repeated the process, this time solely in Spanish. This phase of the competition tested not students’ ability to write or conjugate verbs in Spanish but required them to think on their feet and use their verbal language skills in a real-world scenario.

Ribbens hopes the experience helped the Illinois State students develop a comfort level operating in that language in a business problem-solving situation.

Students who made it to the second round of competition in both English and Spanish then participated in a bilingual round in which they were required to negotiate between someone who solely spoke each language.

Henson admitted the process of making a sales pitch in another language got his adrenaline pumping but overall it was a “great experience.” As a person for whom learning languages comes easily, the Redbird found the sales aspect of the competition to be more intimidating than the Spanish component. Still, there were challenges involved in the language portion of the event as well.

“Whether you’re raised with Spanish or say you’ve learned it—like I did living in Argentina for a year—no matter what, it’s different speaking professionally. You may be lacking some vocab here and there even if you’re a native speaker,” he said.

Henson expressed appreciation for the help he received from the team’s faculty and student coaches as he sought to master the sales process.

“I learned so much. That will help me with whatever job I will end up having,” he said.

Some of his biggest takeaways from the competition were to be confident and be yourself.

“Sales is building a relationship and people buy from people they trust. If you’re not you, then they won’t trust you. They can see through it,” Henson said.

During the course of the weekend, students also participated in an elevator pitch competition. They gave 45-second speeches about themselves and then received three minutes of feedback from a sales manager.

“We did 10 of those,” Henson said. “By the end of it, you had it down.”

Although the Illinois State students did not make it to the final round of the sales competition, they found the trip to be a valuable learning opportunity.

“Our group worked hard. It was a great experience. The students had a great time and met a lot of people. There were a lot of companies there that they were able to network with,” Wills said. “They did a lot of networking with other students too, which I think is great. As I tell the kids, you never know down the road who your next boss could be. I had a great career at Growmark because of the kid I sat by while I was here at ISU.”

Henson said the competition was an eye-opening experience. He gained insight into a different perspective by talking to members of the team from Colombia who were more nervous about the English portion of the competition and having people say to him, “You were born speaking English? That’s so interesting.”

He also enjoyed hearing a wide range of Spanish accents at the event and noted that when he spoke people could identify immediately where he learned to speak the language.

“I feel it gives them an idea of what things are like in the other parts of the United States and other parts of the world,” Wills said. “There’s a lot of interest in South America and Caribbean jobs, southern Florida jobs. It was a chance to see a different culture and understand a little bit about what some of the expectations are of companies that work in that area.”

The trip was made possible in part through an endowment from the namesakes and founders of the Carson and Iris Varner International Business Institute at Illinois State. “It’s allowing us to grow these opportunities (for students), which is really exciting to me,” Ribbens said.