This article features hand-picked international business experts who will present at Utah Business Forward. With five distinct tracks covering entrepreneurship, international business, marketing, people & culture and strategy, this dynamic event will be hosted on November 16, 2023, at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Click here to learn more about the event.
In January 2020, just as a then-novel coronavirus was beginning to spread and the global marketplace was a handful of weeks out from total lockdown, Mike May started a new global shipping job.
It would be a tense first year, but not just for May. The virus disproportionately affected older populations, members of racial and ethnic minorities, in-person and physical laborers, and the global south. Most of those hit hardest are crucial to the global economy and supply chain—groups the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre refers to as the “hidden workforce of global production.” May’s industry transformed practically overnight, as did most.
India’s lockdown amid staggering deaths left hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stranded to return home on foot. China’s manufacturing regions shut operations in the wake of virus spikes. The United States government buckled; months into lockdown came reports that there was no comprehensive plan to mitigate or stop the pandemic.
The earthquakes in the global workforce, combined with border closures, led to ships lined up at ports with no way to unload their cargo, derailing supply chains. For more than two years, container vessels were queued in southern California—peaking at 109 ships waiting to access their ports.
The pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of improvisation and understanding nuance in the global marketplace, and international strategists like May took note.
As the business development manager for Air & Sea International, managing supply chain shipments and customs paperwork for companies was May’s specialty. In his first year, May says he would learn a crucial lesson: the global marketplace is far more fragile than he’d realized, and flexibility was key to staying afloat.
“I kinda got to live the whole supply chain crisis,” he recalls. “I got to see things go absolutely crazy, and it’s back now to lower than normal, what everybody’s calling the pre-pandemic normal.”
May says he has learned how crucial it is for companies to have backup plans when conducting business internationally to account for geopolitics, disruptions from extreme weather and other unpredictable issues. Despite the risks, the opportunity for growth is big if companies are smart about navigating the field.
Utilize Utah’s community and opportunities
Getting into international markets isn’t about knowing everything, Utah’s international business experts say, but about finding the right partners abroad and being light on your feet.
COVID-19 is just one example of the lessons learned. As Utah’s economy has exploded, the global marketplace has taken notice. In 2000, the state’s gross domestic product was $92.5 billion, according to data aggregation firm Statista. In 2022, it was nearly $192 billion. Now, many international opportunities have cropped up for companies in the region. With entire offices and organizations dedicated to the issue, like World Trade Center Utah (WTC Utah), the number of grants and potential partnerships abroad grows each year.
According to Jackie Hobson, who works in the marketing and outreach office of the Small Business Association’s (SBA) Utah branch, there are many programs within the state that companies can take advantage of to reach international markets.
“A lot of that international trade money that’s coming in is from small businesses,” Hobson says. “I think partners are huge.”
She listed the WTC Utah and the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity as two of the larger bodies responsible for connecting small businesses to opportunities abroad. She says both offer powerful tools for companies looking to expand their connections abroad because they “bring in the partnerships you need; they’ll do those introductions.”
Hobson says the SBA had made available more than $2 million in STEP fund grants at the beginning of this fiscal year, a number that has gone up in recent years as the federal government appears to be recognizing the growth in Utah’s economy.
“What we do is we provide that grant to the World Trade Center Utah, and then they disburse it,” Hobson says. “And it can honestly be used for tons of different things: help with market research, doing a market analysis to identify the potential opportunities there, making sure the customer base is there. They kinda help you with that whole strategy.”