Nearly 150 people who gathered at the North Carolina Global Engagement Summit this week were greeted at their seats with an item that symbolizes the state’s innovative global trade initiatives.
It was a sweet potato.
What is commonplace in most American kitchens, especially during the holiday season, was virtually unknown a couple of decades ago in Europe and other parts of the world. But Jose “Pepe” Calderon, International Sales Manager for Farm Pak, related how introducing the tuber to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe became a huge boost to North Carolina’s farm industry.
After a four-week promotion in which a British grocery chain hired celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to prepare dishes using sweet potatoes, sales rose an astonishing 700 percent. At a time when Europeans were looking for healthier options for white potatoes, the sweet potato proved to be the jackpot.
Calderon was among 14 speakers who presented at the summit, held at SAS headquarters in Cary, as the state is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive plan for North Carolina to expand its business horizons in the international marketplace. The plan’s goal is to make North Carolina a national leader in international business ventures.
Rick Van Sant, executive director of the Center for International Understanding, which is supported by the University of North Carolina, said that while the state has done well in attracting foreign companies, current initiatives could only be the tip of the iceberg in making the state foremost on the minds of international companies seeking to set up shop in the U.S. Using a data-driven, unified approach to attracting companies would make North Carolina even more successful.
“There’s no question that we should be globally engaged,” Van Sant told the audience. “The question is, how successful do we want to be? There’s lots of low-hanging fruit out there, but if we want to be truly successful, we have to be intentional in what we’re doing. It’s mission-critical of North Carolina to find the dots and be globally connected.”
The speakers at the conference represented a broad range of North Carolina’s interests – business, government, education and agriculture. Many carried similar messages: to compete on a worldwide scale, North Carolinians are going to have to start thinking globally, which includes understanding other cultures and adapting current business models to other influences.
University of North Carolina President Tom Ross talked about his visits to Mexico and China, which he said opened his eyes to the importance of learning more about foreign cultures to students and the rest of the state.
“In the end, the most important thing we do at the University of North Carolina is to prepare students for their futures,” Ross said. “And their futures are going to be in a different kind of economy in a different kind of world than mine was. We need to do our part to prepare them, not only to be creative thinkers, to be innovative, but also to be able to communicate well, to understand and use data to solve problems. We need them to engage globally; we need them to understand what it means to be a citizen of the world, not just their local community or college campus, because their future is going to be in the world.”
Leslie Boney, UNC’s vice president for International, Community, and Economic Engagement, attended the summit and said its goals align with the University’s initiatives to increase its international presence, as outlined in its five-year strategic directions plan.
“In Our Time Our Future, the Board called for UNC to make strategic connections to countries around the world and we’ve been working on that,” Boney said. “But they also told us we should be focused on building the state’s reputation as we did that work. They saw that whatever we did would be more effective if we were working with other players in the state – whether in business, nonprofits or government. This summit starts to describe what that kind of partnership looks like and how we put it into action.”
Ross also introduced Dr. Aziz Sancar, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor who recently won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Sancar described growing up in Turkey and coming to the United States later as a graduate student at the University of Texas-Dallas. When he began looking for jobs in the early 1980s, he said he applied to 50 different colleges, but only UNC-Chapel Hill offered him a job.
State officials who spoke at the summit described the level of foreign investment in North Carolina. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Jean Davis, president and CEO of technology non-profit MCNC, described the efforts to get as much input as possible from a broad variety of North Carolinians about where the state needs to be headed in terms of globalization. That input formed “a blueprint to amplify our work,” Davis said.
“No other state has tried this type of global engagement,” she said.
John Skvaria, the North Carolina Secretary of Commerce, noted that Japan has invested $2.5 billion into the state over the past 10 years, while China also has been heavily involved in doing business here. But Skvaria thinks the state could be doing better.
“Why don’t we have more?” he said. “We’re being reactive, not proactive.”
(Left) Quickfacts: NC Blueprint for Global Engagement and the Global Engagement Summit Program Booklet, (Right) Watch the 2015 NC Global Engagement Summit
He said China has a different business philosophy than America, building for the future while not disrupting the present. For example, he said, Chinese industries are building empty cities right now. Even though about one-third of the population are farmers, the Chinese are anticipating that they will move to these cities and be retrained for industrial jobs while advanced technology will be used to take care of the country’s agricultural industries.
Steve Troxler, the commissioner of agriculture, noted that 95 percent of the state’s agricultural customers are outside of North Carolina, and that the value of farming exports over the past few years has increased by 200 percent – about $5 billion. China is the state’s No. 2 market for tobacco, which remains North Carolina’s top crop.
Van Sant said he hoped attendees took away three things from the summit: that North Carolina has to be “intentional” in building foreign partnerships as it goes from being the ninth state in population to the seventh; to build more global relationships; and to become culturally competent when dealing with foreign entities.
He said the Center – which is rebranding itself as Go Global NC – will spend the next year meeting with stakeholders to further refine the state’s global strategy. He hopes that various stakeholders will be able to provide lots more data as part of the refinement process.
“There’s huge potential,” he said. “There’s a lot going on. The challenge is to become proactive and intentional.”
Written by Phillip Ramati
Published November 20, 2015
*Homepage image graphic designed using resources from FreePik.