Small Baltimore Engineering Business Believes in “Doing Well by Doing Good”April 13, 2012
Doug Barry is an International Trade Specialist in the Trade Information Center, part of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service
Engineer Kimberly Brown started Amethyst Technologies five years ago. Her Baltimore, Maryland-based company now has 24 employees and recently expanded its markets to include Africa with help from the U.S. Commercial Service. Dr. Brown spoke to Doug Barry of the International Trade Administration’s Trade Information Center.
Barry: Your work in Africa is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. It sounds like the U.S. government is a good entree for small companies of a certain type to get into the international marketplace. True?
Brown: Definitely I agree with that statement. It was our first prime contract. And we had different tasks. And our last task was the Tanzania-scope project. So as a small business, we were just trying to do business in Maryland. And we were given the opportunity to provide services to support the U.S. Army in Tanzania and Kenya. That’s really the only reason why we are in Africa now, and we’re pursuing other opportunities.
Barry: Where will you go next?
Brown: We are currently pursuing opportunities in about five countries. Most of those opportunities right now are with foreign governments. We also have been talking to the large NGOs. Because our work supports global health initiatives, we have value-added resources to assist with the President’s Malaria Initiative, with the Global Health Initiative.
Barry: It must be a wonderful feeling to get up every day realizing that you’re contributing to saving lives and improving the lives of, potentially, millions of people.
Brown: Definitely. It makes it all worthwhile. It’s an added bonus to doing business when you’re doing something that is very beneficial, very needed, and it will change lives. Small things make a very large difference.
Barry: What do engineers like you contribute to the finding of cures for malaria and other kinds of diseases?
Brown: We set up laboratories. One of the primary things we do on the engineering side is we ensure U.S. Food and Drug Administration compliance for equipment. We develop software. We get specs for clean rooms, laboratories. So we set up World Health Organization-compliant laboratories for drug testing, developing standards for education, for health care, for transportation and agriculture. So as engineers, we offer something very unique and beneficial to global health.
Barry: What did you hear about the U.S. Commercial Service and its local office, the Baltimore Export Assistance Center, that piqued your curiosity about how the U.S. government could help grow the international side of your business?
Brown: Well, I heard that they can help us identify partners. They can also assist us with identifying what countries we can do business with and what type of business we can do. So as a small business, for me, that levels the playing field, because large businesses which are doing business overseas, they have a whole department that’s dedicated to providing these types of services. And I found out that the U.S. government will help do it for us. My first meeting with the U.S. Commercial Service, I was told that I needed to find a partner. Before that, I thought that Amethyst could just go in ourselves and get a contract or look for opportunity. So they really opened my eyes to: you need to find a partner.
Barry: Did they provide you with a partner, other than the advice that a partner is needed?
Brown: They told me organizations to contact. So in this case, they didn’t actually give me a specific partner, but they gave me leads to identify a partner. That worked out very well, because I’ve identified several partners in several countries. And that is very important, because in many countries, as a U.S. company you can’t own a business; you can’t be the primary majority owner. So you will need an in-country partner. The time involved – again, as a small business, you’re going to need somebody who knows how to do business in that country. And then the connections – you have to know people. It’s great advice that I received from the U.S. Commercial Service that is really making a difference in our pursuit of opportunities abroad.
Barry: Were you a little put off by the fact that it was a government agency?
Brown: I’ve always had very positive results and had great assistance from government agencies. My company receives help from the Small Business Administration. So I never had any hesitance to contact them and am always seeking opportunities to contact government agencies to get resources, especially with doing business overseas.
Barry: Do you think that’s a competitive advantage for U.S. businesses to make sure that they know about the government services available and make full use of them?
Brown: Definitely. As a small business, and even large businesses know, you need to take advantage of any information that you can receive that is appropriate, that is correct and is free or very affordable.
Barry: In working in Africa and with a different culture, have you or your company had to develop a different mindset in order to effectively interact with people from a different culture?
Brown: We really haven’t had many problems in interacting other than language barriers. In Tanzania, everything is in Swahili. So we had to have all our documents translated to Swahili and we hire interpreters. But other than that, it’s really been a very smooth transition, especially in health care. That’s a global language. And everyone understands malaria. And that’s what we’re doing in Tanzania.
Barry: What else are you considering and thinking about now in positioning your company to do more of this kind of work?
Brown: Well, definitely diversifying, listening to the large businesses like GE. I attended an event a few years ago, and the CEO of GE talked about going global. And that always stuck with me, that as a small business we need to do what the large businesses are doing. Creating jobs in the U.S., doing work overseas is our model. So we have been aligning ourselves with partners, public and private partnerships; that’s really what we’re focusing on now.
Barry: Do you have a person that does that full-time or is that you or do you have someone else in the company?
Brown: That’s all of us. Primarily it’s me. But our people who are working in Africa, they often will identify opportunities.
Barry: As you know, there’s a lot of fear and paranoia, paralysis even, when it comes to thinking about selling something to somebody in a different country. And what would you say now to the fearful based on your experience?
Brown: Definitely do your homework. Use the U.S. Commercial Service to research any country that you are thinking about doing business. Find out what the markets are, what are the positives, what are the negatives. And look for in-country partners. And both of those things are resources that the U.S. Commercial Services specializes in helping business with.