Cultural entrepreneur follows her calling

Kristin Paxton Ekkens ’02


Spring 2014

Kristin Paxton Ekkens ’02 always had a passion for diverse cultures and, when it came time for college, didn’t think the school just down the street—Calvin—was going to be her choice.

“I thought I’d go to a large university and live internationally,” she said. “What I discovered is that I could develop my multicultural interests while at Calvin and do the work I want to do right here in Grand Rapids.”

Ekkens has recently branched out to form her own business, C3 Consulting LLC, which helps companies and organizations gain “cultural intelligence” (known in the field as “CQ”) to better compete and thrive in a global and multicultural economy.

Cultural Intelligence (CQ) is a person’s capability to function effectively in a variety of cultural situations. Those situations can be domestic or international. They can be organizational, ethnic, or generational. CQ provides insights about individual capabilities to cope with multi-cultural situations, engage in cross-cultural interactions and perform in culturally diverse work groups.

Ekkens has worked with over 75 companies from various sectors and industries. Ekkens and her team provide the resources, strategies and learning solutions so that organizations and staff members improve in four CQ areas: drive, knowledge, strategy and action.

Prior to hanging her own shingle, Ekkens spent eight years at the Literacy Center of West Michigan, beginning as an unpaid AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the Venter’s Customized Workplace English program and left as the program director. Under her tenure, the program grew from servicing 15 people to helping more than 1,000 per year—and the budget increased from $40,000 to $650,000. She went on to become an executive director of a national nonprofit advocating for career readiness.

She said that Calvin prepared her well. Ekkens majored in Spanish and fit in two minors—English as a Second Language (ESL) and linguistics.

“I had four professors as my advisers at Calvin,” she said, “and each one was incredibly helpful and inspirational. I still keep in touch with them and confer from time to time. I am truly grateful for Calvin’s talented and committed faculty—especially for my mentors in the English and Spanish departments.”

Ekkens went on to earn a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Michigan State University. She also became a certified facilitator of cultural intelligence through the Cultural Intelligence Center.

Two other special Calvin-related preparations for her career: three off-campus experiences (Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica) and living on the “Mosaic” multicultural residence floor (now called the “Grassroots” floor).

As she stepped into the working world and observed work dynamics, Ekkens noticed how cultural blind spots resulted in lost productivity.

“I saw a gap in how employers were working with refugees and immigrants,” she said. “Some workers had been in the U.S. for 20 years and yet had very limited English language skills. In addition, employers weren’t hearing the stories of their workers. Some employees on the factory floors had been doctors and professors in their home countries, and the lack of respect for their intellect and understanding of their abilities was a barrier and a waste of talent.”

This disconnect is a prime example of what cultural intelligence awareness and training is all about.

“We’re trying to help people communicate well and understand one another. Improving in this area can only benefit a company or an organization,” she said.

Her successes in the field are being recognized. Locally, while at the Literacy Center that organization was awarded a Small Business of the Year designation from the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. Globally, she is chair-elect of the English for Specific Purposes (ESPIS) division of the International TESOL Association.

Ekkens is energized by her combined roles as business owner, consultant, cultural change agent, entrepreneur, wife and mother of two young sons.

“I think there are extra challenges for working mothers,” she said. “There’s often a tendency to feel guilty, either on the job front or the family front. But I don’t believe we’re faced with an either/or. God wants women to use all of the gifts He’s given them, and I know that’s possible.”