Archana Sharma reluctantly risked everything, including her successful career in pharmaceuticals, to come to the United States at the urging of her family in 2005. Telling her story to the Export-Import Bank (EXIM) conference in Washington, DC last week, she said when she landed a job in the medical device industry, she accessed “every kind of training that I could find in institutes leadership, everything,” with her company’s support. Then, she got the entrepreneurial bug and asked her husband, “Now, what kind of a business can we do?”
Since her husband is textile engineer who was then working for a textile company that had just declared bankruptcy, she saw a business opportunity, especially since America used to have a strong textile center that had moved overseas. So, Sharma asked her husband to develop a textile product that would enable them to leverage his customer base, and, “based on that, we started our first business. No bank would give us a loan. We were just five years into the country.”
As they built their textile business, which they focused on sustainable manufacturing, they had international customers but limited sales because they were afraid of not getting paid. Then Sharma discovered EXIM bank at a trade show and it opened up new opportunities for them. Back in her office, “I said, Hey, we can get credit insurance for exporting, so you know what? Next time let’s tell them to buy $15,000 worth instead of $5,000 because we’re going to give them insurance. And that was a game changer for us.” That’s why she said, “EXIIM has been a very important part of our export journey,” and advocates for them, including testifying on behalf of EXIM in Congress.
Women-owned businesses that export are more resilient to financial swings and grow – especially post-covid
“With 95 percent of world consumers and 80 percent of world purchasing power outside of the United States, international trade is an untapped resource for women-owned businesses,” The International Trade Administration’s website says. “Women-owned companies that trade and export earn more, create more jobs, stay in business longer and are more resilient to financial shocks than those relying exclusively on domestic markets. Like closing the wage gap and breaking the glass ceiling, encouraging women business owners and entrepreneurs to trade across borders is key to achieving economic equality for women…. Supporting women business owners is even more important in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which dramatically impacted the ability of women to compete economically.”
There are many more resources, including from the EXIM bank, to help women entrepreneurs find, develop, close and finance export deals than these small businesses are using. Simply stated, EXIM bank helps you identify and secure financing for export projects, similarly to how the Small Business Administration guarantees loans, but does not provide direct funding.
Exporting is complicated – 6 Tips for women entrepreneurs from the EXIM conference
Exporting deals are complicated, and though the pandemic’s supply chain issues only made things moreso, those challenges are easing, authorities say.
Here are tips that the women on the EXIIM women entrepreneurs’ panel gave or implied for exporting successfully:
1. Understand the culture, including around business deals: Faheen Allibhoy, Managing Director, head of the Development Finance Institution at JP Morgan Chase, emphasized the importance of understanding the culture and business etiquette in the countries where you want to do deals. She gave an example of needing to send a letter, instead of an email or a phone call to move deals forward in some countries, while needing to have phone calls with others. She also said that trying to learn at least a few words in their language helps build the relationship.
2. Tap the financial incentives and opportunities in the Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the CHIPS and Jobs Act: Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm emphasized this as well at the conference and delineated many of the opportunities. For example, Tracy Gray, Managing Partner of The 22 Fund, a venture capital firm that only invests in women- and minority-owned businesses, said they are focused on clean tech opportunities and see the opportunities in exports.
3. Get creative: Just because your product or service, or a deal you or your customer wants to do, doesn’t fit perfectly in a category, don’t give up. Ask for help from experts for how to make it work, including from EXIM’s resources and staff. They can help you identify, structure, finance and close export deals.
4. Leverage ESG criteria: Allibhoy encouraged entrepreneurs to tap into the ESG market. She said, “there is a big need from institutional investors for ESG and impact assets” today. ESG stands for Environment-Social and Governance, and being a woman- and/or minority-owned business inherently fits in this investment, funding and purchasing criteria. If your product or service dovetails with climate resilience, sustainable manufacturing, renewable energy or infrastructure, you could have even more opportunities.
5. Go to trade shows: As Sharma’s story illustrates, going to trade shows and meeting people, learning about trends in the industry and the marketplace can be a “gamechanger.”
6. Take a range of trainings: As Sharma’s story also demonstrates, we are never too old, too young, too educated or too under-educated to keep learning. We have to keep our skills sharp and trainings, from webinars to certifications, to conferences to more formal college degrees, all increase your knowledge, network and potential opportunities.
“My strong advice is to create your own microenvironment,” including joining organizations, Lezlee Westine, of Personal Care Products and former Deputy Assistant to the President and Director for the Office of Public Liaison (2001-2005), told the panel’s audience. “There are a lot of different organizations, but the more you can collaborate and network with like-minded people, you can support each other and help each other.”
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