05/01/2012 06:34 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

'Borders Frequented by Trade Seldom Need Soldiers'

It is true that when it comes to international business and cultural intelligence, I specialize in pointing out what our nation tends to do wrong. Today will be different, ladies and gentlemen. Today, we will take a ride on the positive side of things because I was fed a lot of hope last week while attending "ACCESS 2012: Africa, Middle East and South East Asia," a yearly conference organized by the U.S. Commercial Services on business opportunities spotted around the world and hosted this year on the campus of Thunderbird School of Global Management (SGM), a vanguard international management institution.

So what made the conference so different this year? Enthusiasm, passion, and the proof, in Thunderbird SGM, that we have great resources and leaders to teach us how to act and behave in a way that engenders true partnership throughout the world.

Former Ambassador Charles Ford, now acting director general for the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Services, was one of the keynote speakers at the conference, and his delivery embodied the determination of the Obama administration in doubling our nation's export within five years. His words reminded us that there is more to trade than money, echoing William Schurz's powerful words that "Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers."

Two panelists, Heather Byrnes from the U.S. Embassy in Ghana, and Lincoln Dahl from African Energy, come to mind when analyzing what we do right in terms of international endeavors. Byrnes loves Ghana, and her passion for this western African nation is contagious. She sees lots of business opportunities there, and her illustrated descriptions of the place ignited the audience, making us want to find reasons to travel to and do business in Ghana.

As to Dahl -- a graduate of Thunderbird SGM and a former commercial officer -- Africa is his whole life. While living in Zambia during his foreign service assignment, he realized that most Africans solely relied on generators and that most had trouble maintaining their access to power.

This gave him the idea that wind and solar equipment manufacturers should export their products to Africa. He contacted several Western manufacturers, providing them with hot leads and advice on how to do business throughout the continent. He quickly realized that nobody had interest in doing business in sub-Saharan Africa. Companies assumed they would never get paid and that the market Dahl described could not afford their products. Disappointed but not defeated, Dahl decided to import those products to Africa himself, creating in the process his own import company.

What is fantastic about Dahl is that he is one of the few U.S. nationals I have ever met who really understands Africa. While on the panel, he told us about the numerous business opportunities that exist in Nigeria and how thinking out of the box with regard to payment and delivery terms made him a millionaire.

Dahl is an exception in our country and a role model we must emulate. His time on the continent made him resilient, flexible, and patient while being quick on his feet. He understood many years ago that Africa can deliver if you learn how to adapt to its pace and know how to rely on the power of relationships.

Dahl is a generous human being who is determined to make a difference in the region while having found a source of income for him and his local staff. And it is that genuine investment in the region he serves and his love for the African population that resonate with his audience. He is invested in Africa for the right reasons, and he is in it for the long run. Dahl told me afterwards that he does not sell his devices anywhere other than Africa because he knows he might get addicted to the ease of serving other regions, which could distract him from his main cause.

Dahl's disposition toward partnership in business and wanting to make the world a better place is quite typical of a Thunderbird graduate, which I learned while sitting down with Dr. Angél Cabrera, president for a few more hours of Thunderbird SGM at the time of our discussion. Managing with ethics -- thus putting personal gain aside, resisting corruption, and the exploitation of the weak -- are priorities to Cabrera, who even came up with an oath that Thunderbird's students recite at graduation.

Cabrera, a native of Spain and an impressive polyglot, is a true globalist. As such, he disagrees with Thomas Friedman's assumption that the world is flat. To him, the world is round, beautiful, and complex; managing amid such complexity requires a global mindset and the ability to lead with cultural intelligence.

Listening to Cabrera is inspiring. His soft and subtle Spanish accent renders his talk on internationalization even more real, but what makes him a great global leader is his ability to connect with people and motivate them into action. He is genuine, kind, and engaging. I have ordered the book he and his colleague, Dr. Gregory Unruh, just released a few days ago (Being Global: How to Think, Act, and Lead in a Transformed World), and I am eager to read it. I normally don't like to be told how to do anything, but I suspect that Cabrera, a man who has been voted one of the most influential global thought leaders of our time, has a few things of importance to share with us as we forge forward into a century that is not always easy to grasp.