WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chile and Costa Rica, considered two of the most competitive economies of Latin America, on Tuesday helped inaugurate the International Business Fellows Matching Program (IBFMP), a new U.S. initiative to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices among the region’s small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Muni Figueres, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States, joined her Chilean counterpart, Felipe Bulnes, at his Washington residence for the program’s official launch.
“This is a very joyous occasion in which there’s no complaining and no criticism,” Figueres said, eliciting laughter from the 30 or so dignitaries in the audience. These included Francisco J. Sánchez, U.S. undersecretary of commerce for international trade, Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Matthew Clausen, vice president of Partners of the Americas.
“As we move further to expand our export base, we must put in place more effective policies to support entrepreneurship, develop small and medium-sized businesses and strengthen their export and investment capability,” Figueres said. “Ultimately, what we want to do is generate opportunities for small and medium enterprises that will improve their prospects for participating in global value chains, which is the new order of the day.”
Under the IBFMP, 30 mid- to executive-level professionals from Costa Rica and Chile will be chosen through an open process by their respective governments and industries. Partners of the Americas will work with these professionals to find meaningful placements in U.S. businesses and organizations.
The six-week fellowships are aimed at helping Latin Americans better understand U.S. business practices in the area of value chains, procurement, manufacturing, marketing and management.
Figueres, who has represented Costa Rica in Washington since August 2010, served as director of CINDE – Costa Rica’s investment and trade promotion agency – from 1982-1986. The daughter of three-time former Costa Rican President José (Don Pepe) Figueres Ferrer and the half-sister of another former president, José María Figueres Olsen, she’s also held key positions at the Inter-American Development Bank, Council of the Americas and International Executive Services Corps.
“For a small country like Costa Rica, which has moved a very far distance from exporting a few commodities in the early 1980s to its present state of exporting high-value-added products and services, it’s crucial to develop domestic conditions that will bring in FDI, and to harness investment for sustainable development,” Figueres said.
“The International Business Fellows Matching Program offers a priceless opportunity for SMEs in both Chile and Costa Rica and will contribute to opening their horizons, expanding their knowledge and empowering them by sharing best practices with their counterparts in the United States. The added beauty of this program is the symmetry that’s going to come out of it. It will also offer American companies linkages to the Chilean and Costa Rican markets,” she said.
Jacobson said the matching program is a tangible outcome of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Chile in March 2011. Co-sponsors of the initiative are ProChile and Costa Rica’s Procomer.
“The idea is to focus on best practices, on what everyone does best, to build more inclusive societies. This is really what President Obama’s partnership for initiatives is all about,” she said. “It’s a race to the top, and we know we compete with each other to ensure our young people are as creative and empowered as they could be.”
Jacobson noted that only 2 percent of U.S. small businesses actually export, which translates into a “huge potential” for growth.
“Small businesses are often where the greatest number of jobs come from,” said Jacobson, the first woman ever to occupy this particular position at the State Department. “This matching program connects enterprises from across the hemisphere, mentoring and creating relationships that will last well beyond the six weeks of someone’s fellowship.”
Added Sánchez: “Good things happen when business leaders get the chance to exchange ideas. Businesses here are ready to share and learn. We are all ready to build on the great economic progress that has been made over the years in this region.”
Clausen, whose Partners of the Americas will run the program on a day-to-day basis, said his agency’s mission is to connect individuals, volunteers, institutions, businesses and communities, and “change lives” through lasting partnerships.
“We’ve seen the power of fellowships. Our experience with previous fellowship programs shows that well-matched exchanges yield impressive returns on investments,” he said. “I won’t be surprised if in five or 10 years we’ll be reflecting on how remarkably business partnerships have grown across the region. We’ve seen it happen before, and I have no doubt that now it’ll happen again.”