Cross-cultural connections: An inside look at how the local business community plays a role in stimulating international trade

Northern Nevada’s community of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) continues to expand and grow in ways unimaginable here just 15 years ago. We’re leading the country in economic development in many ways. This will be especially true as the economy gets more squirrelly with big layoffs and the issues in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  

Speaking of Europe, I’m back from another two-week trip to Poland. I’ve been going there for seven years now, to help companies that want to do business in the United States. More on that in a bit.   

We traveled down to the Ukraine border to visit local government officials, as we did last year. There was a distinctly different tone in the voices of the locals as they discussed how they perceive the third year of the war. It’s much more complicated now—if that’s possible.  

While in Lublin to meet the marshal (governor)—who, last year, gave us pins marking solidarity between Poland and Ukraine—hundreds of Polish farmers were dumping Ukrainian grain there as it came across the border. This happened on the same train tracks that brought refugees across the border into the Lubelskie region of Poland after the initial invasion. The marshal was more dour when we met, stating that the grain was challenging the Polish farmers’ ability to compete on a level basis. They must deal with European Union regulations much like the United States’ pest, pesticide and herbicide testing, point-of-origin docs, etc. This all costs lots of zlotys (Polish currency). Yet Ukrainian grain has no such regulatory costs or inspections associated with it, and Ukrainian farmers are doing anything they can to harvest and sell their grain in between bombs and drones over their heads. Again, its complicated. So this was a much shorter meeting than last year, with no pomp and circumstance, as the marshal needed to quell the protests.  

The week before, we had workshopped the top 20 Polish founders who were competing for 10 slots to come to Nevada in May. This is the third year for the Poland NCBR-NAP. That string of initials stands for Narodowe Centrum Badan i Rozwoju (in English, the National Centre for Research and Development)-Nevada Accelerator Program. The program was founded by Gov. Sandoval in 2017 to stimulate international trade and business. I’ve had the honor of being part of the program from the beginning, and I took the lead of the program with my partners back in late 2021. The 10 companies are traveling to Las Vegas, then Reno and the Bay Area for a “roadshow” May 7-15. 

The qualified companies represent a wide swath of technologies and services, ranging from a company that produces algae for air-cleansing and currently has samples growing and propagating on the International Space Station (no kidding!), to a company that produces and sells sustainable caviar which doesn’t kill the fish during egg extraction. There’s an online event management app, a company that secures business networks from deep hacks, and an AI technology that maximizes space utilization in large areas such as building layout and parking lots. These companies are coming here to evaluate their ability to do business in the U.S., create partnerships and prosper. While there are some who would dispute the benefits of bringing these companies to Nevada or to the U.S. at all, the benefits are many—as these companies are investing here, and investing in our reputation as a pro-business climate. 

Let’s digress for a minute to get a 50,000-foot view. People who’ve grown a business and successfully expanded that business into new markets understand a few fundamental things: Regardless of any current success, expanding into a new market is a risky venture. Past success is not a guarantee of future success. Though successful in our current market, we are a startup in any new market. To expand internationally, the equation becomes much more complex.  

My consulting company has successfully landed in Eastern Europe the last couple of years; it’s been the culmination of doing peripheral business there for many years prior. In order to get contracts and serious money across the pond (over $10,000), we needed background checks, EU certification, an office and an attorney. Prior to that, we needed trustworthy contacts and relationships in the market to know where to steer us and introduce us to their network with honor and respect. We were lucky that almost everyone speaks English in the EU.   

Now let’s get back to our delegation of 10 companies coming to the U.S. in May. We prepped them for two months on how to assimilate into the U.S. market. We had them do market analysis, competitive analysis, pricing analysis, funding comparisons, etc. Any and all of these things may be different in the new market, especially in the U.S., where the biggest market can crush you if not prepared.  

How do these founders expand to the U.S. economically when they still have their companies in Europe? They need “boots on the ground” that speak easily to U.S. customers. To fill this gap, we’ve built a program at the University of Nevada, Reno, dubbed the START program. It takes the best students and former students from the College of Business and MBA programs, respectively. We match them to the foreign companies based upon background, interests, focus and needs. The young men and women then start a part-time gig as the U.S. representative for the company. (By the way, each company must first be registered as a Nevada corporation.) 

Each student is then placed in the company for 90 days, running the U.S. ops, trade shows, business development, customer service and sales, as needed. After the three months, if they are successful, the company hires them with a permanent management position. This program helps keep the smart kids in Nevada, while bringing them high-growth, high-paying jobs, with the potential to become shareholders and executives in the U.S. company.  

This is all happening while big consulting firms are laying off their partners and juniors. We have students who need opportunities, and we have companies that need trustworthy partners on the ground in the U.S. This strategy allows us to fill many needs and keep the Reno market hot, while other cities and states are feeling the big layoffs. In the most prominent recent example, Tesla in mid-April began to lay off 10 percent of its global workforce.  

That is why small businesses and startups still account for 70 percent of the net job gains in America. I look forward to helping these great companies bring great tech, great founders and great careers to Nevadans. It’s a win-win for all—and we can’t ask for more than that.