Exchange Matters / September 27, 2021

The Exchange Effect: Inspiring Ideas, Connections, and Social Change

By Jonathan Quarles, Global Ties U.S. Board Member 

Given my humble beginnings, I didn’t travel outside the United States until my junior year of college at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU), a historically black college in Tallahassee, FL. I lived in a scholarship house with a Nigerian classmate named Ade, who quickly became a friend and whose contagious passion for his culture sparked my interest in the African continent and in cultures outside of my own. 

In 2003, I crossed the Atlantic Ocean to study abroad in South Africa and to immerse myself in a completely different reality. I spent my afternoons (after class, of course) wandering the nearby neighborhoods to taste organic, locally-grown foods. On the weekends, I traveled to the surrounding countries, including Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana, experiencing the changing cultural terrain, and the healthy cultural competition between these nations.

Studying abroad was the first time that I felt proverbially ‘at home’ – as if there was an inextricable link between my identity and the people and cultures I encountered, albeit varied, in Africa. It was a spiritual transformation, and I returned a different person. My homeland was no longer just a figment of my imagination. It was real. I had walked its streets and taken in its sights, smells, and sounds. I had a broader understanding of where I came from, which strengthened me for the journey ahead. 

I also had the opportunity to meet the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Lana Marks. The role of an ambassador had never been on my radar until that moment, but I left the interaction increasingly fascinated with the way it intersected business, human behavior, and politics. I tacitly placed the position on my constantly growing, but intentional, list of long-term aspirations, where it remains today. 

South Africa was an experience in global travel, cultural exchange, and diplomacy that permanently altered the way I view myself and has continued to influence how I spend my time personally and professionally. Traveling abroad is not an experience that many in communities of color, like myself, find themselves having until later in life, if at all. And yet, each experience that I’ve had has made me a better human and a sharper business person. I’ve remained steadfastly committed to making global travel, cultural exchange, and diplomacy a large and growing part of my life, and to heighten the awareness of it for those I mentor. 

This commitment has resulted in my involvement with Global Ties Detroit, and with the U.S. Department of State Speakers’ Bureau, both of which broadened my horizons about the myriad of opportunities to partake in exchange programs and to host incredible people at home in the United States. Further, I’ve been able to mix my passion for diplomacy with entrepreneurship since I often end up discussing the intersection of business and social impact, the main theme of my recent book, Making Dollars While Making Change, with the folks that I host. 

Since South Africa, I’ve gone on to visit more than 50 countries (and counting!), which has also been a meaningful source of inspiration for commercial ideas and connections. I’ve been fortunate enough to parlay this travel into the expansion of my one of my businesses, The BTL Group, a strategic consulting and relationship management firm, to seven countries outside of the United States. Most recently, I’ve partnered with Highland Poe, one of the largest minority-owned holding companies in the country, to run international business development, with a focus on the Middle East. I view the opportunity as an even bigger platform to marry my passion for business and diplomacy. I look forward to using this platform and my expanding engagement with Global Ties U.S. as a new board member to normalize the involvement of folks who look like me in cultural exchange, and to highlight that diversity in the cultural exchange space is not just a ‘nice to have,’ but rather, a ‘must have.’ 


Jonathan Quarles is the founder and CEO of the BTL Group and a member of the Global Ties U.S. Board of Directors.