Business without borders
VCU helps businesses grow their market share internationally and advance the region’s socioeconomic goals
By Brelyn Powell
Choosing a location is just one of many high-stakes decisions that entrepreneurs must make to launch a new venture. For those who want to export their goods or services globally, it is hard to beat the geographical perks of selecting Richmond, Virginia, for their company’s home base. Located at the midpoint of the East Coast with access to major interstates, railways, international airports and the East Coast’s deepest natural port, Richmond makes it easy for businesses to reach markets across the country and the globe.
But despite these optimal conditions for international business, a 2015 study conducted by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization The Brookings Institution found that the Richmond metro area was exporting below its potential and below the national average.
To help area businesses take advantage of this untapped opportunity, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis partnered with local economic development groups Greater Richmond Partnership and Virginia’s Gateway Region to launch the Metro Richmond Exports Initiative in 2015. The trio worked together to develop a strategy for promoting the benefits of exporting among local businesses and to provide assistance for them to start or increase their export sales.
A division of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, CURA specializes in policy analysis, evaluation and strategic planning for urban and regional economic development.
“As an academic institution, our strength is in our ability to convene different interests and stakeholders around a common goal,” says CURA Director Fabrizio Fasulo, Ph.D. (M.U.R.P.’08/GPA; Cert.’08/GPA). “It’s the perfect role for a university.”
Multinational investment bank and financial services company JPMorgan Chase awarded the Wilder School a $140,000 grant to fund the initial research phase of the MREI in 2014. The investment is part of its philanthropic commitment to initiatives that boost metropolitan economies through export growth. JPMorgan Chase has operated Richmond-based offices for middle-market and corporate-client banking since 2010.
“International trade provides a pathway for local businesses to create jobs, attract capital and grow our economy,” says Nick Klym, JPMorgan Chase Virginia market executive. “JPMorgan Chase is proud to be a part of the development of the greater Richmond region’s export plan and to support innovative strategies that will help businesses learn to navigate international markets.”
JPMorgan’s gift helped CURA conduct its preliminary assessment of the current state of exporting in Richmond.
“We spent a year focusing on community engagement,” Fasulo says. “We held focus groups, conducted surveys, attended community meetings. We wanted to learn what tools and resources businesses needed to pursue exporting and then use our findings to develop a program to meet those needs.”
Based on that research, CURA created objectives for the program, established measurable indicators of progress and set an ambitious goal to increase the export success of small- and medium-sized Richmond-area businesses by 40 percent by 2020.
To achieve this, CURA, GRP and VGR prepared a series of networking and educational programs that connected interested businesses with seasoned experts to learn the basics of global trade, to identify compatible international markets and to initiate exporting strategies to suit their business.
Funding for these activities was again covered by JPMorgan Chase, which renewed its support with an additional $150,000 grant for the public launch of MREI’s implementation phase in September 2016. This time, its gift elicited a matching contribution from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s International Trade Division.
“JPMorgan’s support was instrumental as leverage to generate additional funding,” Fasulo says, explaining that the company’s investment in the program served as a meaningful endorsement of its value.
The grant included $25,000 to offer cash prizes for a pitch competition modeled after the popular television show “Shark Tank.” Ten business owners presented their proposed exporting plans to a panel of local leaders during the Pitch Panel competition in January 2018. The judges selected five of those businesses to each receive a $5,000 grant to put their strategy into action.
Gwen Hurt’s Shoe Crazy Wine business was chosen as one of the winners. Growth, she says, has always been at the forefront of her business plan.
“I’ve always known that, if I want my business to be around in 10 or 15 years, I can’t be afraid to expand,” she says.
Hurt plans to use the funds to travel to Mexico for a second meeting with a potential distributor. For her first visit with this distributor in 2017, Hurt filled her suitcase with bottles of each variety of her wine to offer a full tasting.
“This time, we’re going to use some of our winnings to ship the wine to the distributor,” Hurt says. “We’re going to have a new level of professionalism and leave a much stronger impression.”
Relationship-building is an integral part of securing these kinds of business deals, Hurt says, so making in-person connections is critical.
“It’s rare to make a deal on the first meeting,” Hurt explains. “It’s a process, and being able to make multiple, in-person touchpoints is so important. From a financial perspective, making another trip was going to be a challenge for us if we hadn’t won the Pitch Panel.”
To be successful, Pitch Panel competitors had to make a compelling case for how they would use the funds to take the next big step for their business. This added another level of validation, Hurt says.
“You had to know what you needed to do, have a plan to do it and then prove that you were prepared to use their investment to make it happen,” she explains. “Winning affirmed that I was on the right track with my business.”
As a Chesterfield, Virginia, resident, Hurt appreciates that the export initiative’s focus extends beyond the city of Richmond and into neighboring cities and counties.
“There’s a clear emphasis on promoting the idea that these areas’ economies are intertwined,” she says. “If the goal is to build up a healthy economy, it’s important to support entrepreneurs and small businesses throughout the area.”
The partnership among CURA, GRP and VGR is MREI’s greatest asset in addressing this need. VGR and GRP are nonprofit organizations that work to facilitate economic growth in central Virginia communities. Among them, their services cover the cities of Richmond, Colonial Heights, Hopewell and Petersburg as well as the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Hanover, Henrico, Prince George, Surry and Sussex.
“Hundreds of thousands of people cross jurisdictional lines every day, circulating money around the Richmond region,” says Grace Festa (M.U.R.P.’10/GPA), business development manager and MREI coordinator for Greater Richmond Partnership. “When a local company engages in international sales, they are bringing money from outside the United States into the regional economy. It was imperative to design the MREI with a regional focus because we all benefit together when our companies are successful. Promoting exporting throughout the entire Richmond metropolitan statistical area allows us to have the greatest possible impact.”
CURA’s primary purpose is to help governments, businesses and nonprofits develop and implement programs that revitalize or fortify communities, and MREI is just one of its initiatives. Grant funding and individual support for research, Fasulo says, are necessary for the center’s work to continue.
“As an urban public research university, VCU has a responsibility as a thought leader,” he says. “We conduct research that encourages critical thinking and innovative problem-solving. When donors invest in initiatives like this at VCU, they are helping the university take the lead in finding solutions to our community’s most pressing issues.”
This is just the beginning of an exciting transformation, and Richmonders have much to look forward to as MREI continues to help businesses navigate global markets, Fasulo says.
“We set out to help create opportunities for growth in the local business community, but we can all look forward to watching our area’s economy grow into one that is stronger and more vibrant as it becomes more open to international trade.”
To learn more about CURA, visit cura.vcu.edu. To learn more about the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, contact James Wasilewski, director of development, at (804) 828-6205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.