Small-business centers in Virginia and Mexico form trade partnership under Obama initiative

Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg - Virginia small businesses have a new resource to help them find new customers and tap into supply chain networks in Mexico.

George Mason University’s business development center last week agreed to partner with a similar organization in Mexico to develop better entrepreneurial training practices and help companies in both regions break into one another’s market.

Executives from the Mason Enterprise Center, housed at the university’s Fairfax campus and funded in part by the Small Business Administration, and a small-business center run by the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon (UANL) in Monterrey, one of the largest schools in that country, signed the agreement Feb. 6 at the State Department.

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GMU’s Mason Enterprise Center and UANL plan to conduct joint research, occasionally exchange faculty and share best practices concerning business and entrepreneurial training. In addition, they hope to have trade missions to each other’s country, and each will establish a business incubation program to help companies from Virginia enter the market in Mexico, and vice versa.

“So, if an entrepreneur comes into George Mason and says they’re interested in exporting or finding supply chain opportunities in Mexico, they have someone in a position to make that connection,” said William Popp, director of economic policy and summit coordination for the Western Hemisphere bureau at the State Department, which helped facilitate the partnership.

It is the first partnership under an international economic development initiative introduced nearly two years ago by the White House called the Small Business Network of the Americas.

Under the program, President Obama has encouraged small-business development centers across the country — which are themselves partnerships between universities, federal agencies and local economic development groups — to team with similar organizations abroad to form what the administration is calling International Sister Centers.

More than 100 other pairs of small-business centers have already drafted preliminary agreements, and the State Department has set a goal of turning at least 20 of them into formal International Sister Center relationships by the middle of next year. Ultimately, the collaborations are intended to spur innovation, entrepreneurship and small-business growth in the United States and throughout the Western Hemisphere.

“This initiative is going to help our small businesses; it will link them up with foreign buyers who are interested in their products,” Obama said when first announcing the program, which will receive a total of about $1.5 million from the SBA, State Department and the Agency for International Development. “We want every business to be able to access these new networks.”

Obama has long called for economic policies that promote the success of small businesses, and recently, international trade has become a point of emphasis in his efforts. During his State of the Union address last month, for instance, the president stumped for new free trade agreements by arguing the deals would go a long way to help companies on Main Street.

“When 98 percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create even more jobs,” Obama said in front on Congress.

Spurred by improving technology and a weak economy at home, there are signs that more small businesses are interested in selling their products abroad. The Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. companies finance trade ventures, last year approved a record-high 3,413 deals with small businesses, representing nearly 90 percent of its total authorizations.

Meanwhile, HSBC, one of the world’s largest international banks, elected to double its initial $1 billion commitment to a new small-business international loan program when it ran through the funds in the first six months. The loans are designed for small companies looking to export their products overseas or expand their operations into foreign countries.

State Department officials hope this new international to help meet that surge in interest from small business owners.

The GMU-UANL agreement “isn’t meant to be a one-off, it’s meant to be the start of a lot more of these partnerships,” Popp said. “This gives George Mason an opportunity to really be a trailblazer for the rest of the network across the country.”

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