Go East, young man

The federal government – the biggest “factory” in the world – has subsidized the economic growth of this region through direct employment and large, local outsourcing arrangements. Having worked for Accenture, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Booz & Company, I’ve seen firsthand the pull that these contracts create.
 
Unfortunately, due to the sequester, that pull has been diminished.
 
Since 2010, I’ve worked for a small firm based in Washington, D.C. Unlike so many of our peers in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland, we don’t rely on government contracts. In fact, we do not have a single client inside the Beltway. Instead, we have looked east, accessing the markets of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia – and by doing so created jobs here at home.
 

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Companies like Apple and Exxon – two of the largest corporations in the world – access customers and resources abroad. In fact, as a group, the largest 500 companies in the U.S. receive roughly half of their sales from overseas operations according to Howard Silverblatt of Standard & Poor’s – an issue that is becoming increasingly visible in light of the recent pressure on Apple to repatriate cash. What’s the primary difference between these corporations and many of our local businesses? Our local businesses, in relative terms, have not even begun to tap the potential of the global markets.
 
Following in the footsteps of the world’s largest companies – tax havens aside – will not be easy for Washington area businesses. Building relationships, finding customers, and serving clients abroad creates a number of challenges, but these challenges have been faced by all of history’s economic superpowers. Spain, the Netherlands, and Great Britain – to name a few – all had administrations committed to international trade and populaces willing, and sometimes forced, to travel and endure hardship for economic benefit. I’m not suggesting that all of these countries’ practices are right for us – thankfully the times of colonies and private armies are behind us – but I do think, in light of the sequester, our local businesses will need to look outside of America’s borders for growth.
 
Our federal government is doing its part to support this effort, having set up organizations in our backyard such as the US Import-Export Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to help mitigate the risks taken by U.S. businesses when they venture abroad. So, perhaps the greatest obstacle to continued economic growth in the region is convincing our business leaders to leave home.
 
As Niall Ferguson points out in his book “Colossus,” Americans are distinct from the peoples of the former economic superpowers as well as one that is emerging from its hibernation. The populaces of these countries eagerly left home to pursue careers and lead full lives in foreign lands as attested to by the prospering Chinatowns and abundance of expatriate cemeteries throughout the world. Americans, on the other hand, are willing to travel, but grow weary quickly and want to return home. Luckily, with today’s technology, a bit of travel, a smart phone, and a wireless signal is all that one needs to connect with the rest of the world. So, what is left is to get our local business leaders to make the call.
 
Baynham is a senior director at D.C.-based consultancy and the leader of its metals and mining practice.