Tap Local Resources to Do Business Globally

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Local companies looking to do business outside of the country can find help from several sources.

According to the Ohio Department of Development, Ohio ranked ninth among all states in 2022 exports. Ohio products were sent to 212 countries – 10 of which received more than $1 billion in exports. Canada was the state’s top export destination at 35.4%, followed by Mexico, Japan and China.

Industrial machinery, a key manufacturing segment in northeastern Ohio, was the state’s leading export in 2022, at roughly $8.3 billion. Total Ohio exports topped $57 billion in 2022.

Pennsylvania was not far behind.

The Keystone State generated more than $49 billion in exported goods in 2022, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. More than 88% of Pennsylvania’s exporters are small to medium sized companies.

So how does a local business owner make those connections and learn the rules of the road in a country where language and regulations can be a barrier?

Some answers can be found through the Ohio Small Business Development Center Export Assistance Network at Youngstown State University. Led by Mousa Kassis, director of the Export Assistance Network at the SBDC, and Mariah Carna, an international trade specialist, the program provides resources to businesses in a 13-county region that includes Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

Kassis says this region is home to companies exporting between $10 billion to $12 billion in products annually.

The SBDC has assisted about 200 companies. Many of its resources are free.

One resource offered is the International Market Support Program (IMS), through which the state works with representatives from 125 countries to help Ohio companies explore markets and make connections.

With the help of student interns in the Ohio Export Internship Program at Youngstown State University, Kassis and Carna provide market research, identifying a country that may be attractive or oversaturated for a product. A quarterly newsletter produced by the Export Assistance Network gives key reference information on the top 15 countries where Ohio companies do business.

Many local businesses also take advantage of the International Market Access Grant for Exporters. While the terms of this program change annually, Carna says it currently provides 50% reimbursement up to $10,000 for companies engaging in international trade activities. For instance, if a company spends $20,000 to show its products at a trade show in Germany, the company can get half reimbursed.

Mousa says the program usually covers big ticket items such as air travel on a U.S.-based airline and hotel stays while meeting overseas with prospective customers.

“I would say the majority use it for international trade shows. But there are other things it covers as well,” Carna says, noting the IMS program might find five potential customers, set up meetings and create a travel itinerary. “The company can travel to that market and meet with those customers, and it would be covered at 50%.”

Carna notes that YSU students in the Ohio Export Internship Programs can obtain up to six certificates –  proof of the valuable, employable skills they have learned.

The program garnered the President’s E Award for Exports in 2021 from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In addition to the three main functions of the Ohio SBDC, YSU offers training seminars, helping the employees of companies that export stay up to date.

The Export Assistance Network also can help companies find export financing, credit insurance, trade attorneys, translators, accounting firms and brokers.

“We’re trying to create an ecosystem for globalization,” Kassis says, noting the program combines the efforts of academic institutions, private sector businesses and state financial resources to further Ohio’s global marketplace.

Partners in Columbiana County

One of the initiatives YSU has become involved with is the Global Initiative Hub in Columbiana County.

Working with the Columbiana County Port Authority and Penny Traina, its executive director, the initiative is attempting to bring overseas businesses here.

The Global Initiative Hub opened in October in a space owned by the port authority in Leetonia.

The idea was conceived in 2019, but was put on hold during the pandemic, notes Traina. The first lease was signed by Humtown Products in January.

The hub offers a year of free rent in a furnished office for up to six fledgling foreign companies. The businesses are required to employ a YSU intern for one academic year.

The Export Assistance Network is also helping the Columbiana County Port Authority connect with companies in Europe and Asia so they might use the space and the local workforce.

Following their one-year term in the hub, Traina says the hope is for foreign businesses to stay and pursue space in the port authority’s 42-acre shovel-ready industrial park.

“These are exciting times because here’s academia working with a port authority on economic development,” Traina says. “We’re really thinking outside the box as far as a partnership and collaboration.”

The YSU-based export network and the port authority are also involved with the Ohio Pennsylvania Stateline Export Initiative, which aims to provide global markets for businesses in a 20-county area. The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and the Northwest [Pennsylvania]Commission are also involved.

The Stateline Export Initiative has planned trade missions to Thailand and Vietnam, and helped to make connections between exporters and the Rickenbacker Airport in Columbus.

Israeli connection

The Youngstown Business Incubator is known for assisting tech companies, additive manufacturers and startups. But through its Israeli-YBI program, the organization expands that focus to markets and start-up companies in Israel.

With the assistance of funding from Thomases Family Foundation through the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, I-YBI has linked early-stage businesses in Israel with the Mahoning Valley and helped entrepreneurs to bring their technical expertise here.

YBI is not only familiar with tech businesses, it also has connections throughout the nation, with bankers and investors, and with potential markets, says Barb Ewing, CEO. “Probably the most important thing we can do for any business is to make those connections for them,” she says. 

Through I-YBI, a small cluster of health care related companies have made significant connections. Among them is Gadi Shenhar’s company, Droxi AI, an artificial intelligence medical software company, which set down roots in Youngstown just before the start of Israel’s war with Hamas.

The war and Covid put a damper on some efforts, but Ewing hopes additional trips to Israel will be on the horizon as those face-to-face meetings are still the best way to introduce I-YBI to companies there.

There are four active companies on the I-YBI campus and Ewing says Droxi AI will eventually join them. Another company that I-YBI worked with was too large to be housed at incubator facilities. Ewing says she connected it with the regional chamber to find a suitable place.

Bringing businesses and entrepreneurs to the area is part of the mission of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, as well.

Lisa Long, financial resources development director and CEO designate, points out the federation campus was built to serve 8,000 Jewish people, but only about 1,200 remain in the area.

“We’re here to make sure the Valley is a great place to live and a great place for businesses to thrive for everyone,” says Long.

“We’re not just in it to make the Jewish community better. Our mission is tikkun olam, to repair the world. To do that is to bring Youngstown into its next fantastic chapter.”

With the aim of increasing the population, the federation began working with YBI to bring Israeli companies here and make connections for local companies and students in Israel.

For example, the federation helped Shenhar make the connections needed to obtain green cards for Droxi AI, immigration lawyers and sponsors.

Bonnie Deutsch Burdman, executive director of community relations/government affairs for the federation, says it can help companies relocating here find financing, real estate and construction companies.

Through the Thomases Family Endowment, the federation has sponsored trips to Israel to learn about high tech manufacturing happening there.

“Barb [Ewing] and her team have taken the ball and run with it,” Long says, reflecting on how those efforts brought both the additive manufacturing XJet printer as well as Droxi AI. “And we know there will be even more coming out of that.”

The Jewish Federation has also been working with Brite Energy Innovators in Warren to help that organization  make connections in Israel.

Burdman joined some of the trade missions and says she knows the importance of making those connections for both Israel and the Mahoning Valley.

“Israel is known as the start-up nation,” Burdman says, noting the small nation’s many tech entrepreneurs must always look internationally to develop new markets.

“The beautiful thing about the Mahoning Valley is we’re a small community but we’re mighty. And we pull together when there are tremendous economic opportunities,” she says.

Pictured at top: Mousa Kassis and Mariah Carna serve the region’s exporters at the Ohio Small Business Development Center hosted at Youngstown State University.