Small Business is Huge
When it comes to international trade, it’s all about small business, says CEO Caitlin Cain, who’s leading the World Trade Center of New Orleans’ efforts to educate and advocate for the future.
As a dual United States-Canadian citizen, Caitlin Cain has long looked at life through a global lens. This perspective, backed by previous career stops as regional advocate for the U.S. Small Business Administration and director of economic development for the Regional Planning Commission, have helped lead to her current role as the recently-appointed CEO of the World Trade Center of New Orleans.
Given the vital but inconsistent place international business has had in the long-term economic history of New Orleans, the region and the state, Cain’s role is an important one. There are many competing interests engaged in the import/export world, and the WTC has to succeed as the one place where different agendas can come together to create a unified vision and voice.
Fortunately, Cain has navigated tricky waters throughout her career, working frequently at regional and even multi-state levels. She has been recognized for her successes with awards such as Women of the Year in City Business, Star of the Southwest from the Economic Development Administration, and was nominated as a Fulbright candidate as part of the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars.
Cain took time out from a recent vacation to speak with Biz New Orleans from a rooftop in Marblehead, Massachusetts about the challenges of steering international trade in New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana.
Q: How would you describe the roles, responsibilities and purpose of the World Trade Center?
A: The World Trade Center is similar to a membership-based organization such as a chamber of commerce. It functions as an education and advocacy organization that represents our membership on international trade issues. We advocate on behalf of our membership on policy initiatives, programs of importance to the international trade community, projects of regional significance, and we provide education services to our members on a variety of international trade issues and initiatives.
Q: What attracted you to this position?
A: I’ve spent my entire professional life in economic development and urban planning in a variety of different functions, working at the local level to regional, state and global level, and through all those years I’ve worked with the business community, particularly the small and medium-sized business community. The World Trade Center offers the opportunity to really represent the business community in a way that has global significance, which is incredibly appealing to me as a kind of a global-esque Canadian-U.S. citizen interested in global affairs. From my last position working with more regulatory international issues, this was a great marriage of global policy issues and small business entrepreneurship.
Q: How does that background in economic development and urban planning serve you in this role?
A: I’d like to think that I can understand where the business community is coming from in terms of what’s needed to grow their businesses in a way that recognizes what’s happening at the local front and also what’s happening on the global platform. The World Trade Center is uniquely positioned to respond to both of those. It’s a statewide organization representing statewide membership, but it’s one that understands and has the ability to pivot to what’s happening on a global platform, and to provide information to our membership about what’s trending globally and what businesses need to think about as they try to create export-import markets.
Q: How would you describe the overall state of international trade in our region?
A: International trade is incredibly significant to Louisiana and to New Orleans in particular. We were founded on trade and we possess this culture of trade. There are so many different faces of international trade, and that’s one of the challenges within such a diverse membership organization as the WTC — recognizing all those different faces of trade. But trade is a huge job generator for Louisiana. There are over 74,000 jobs related to international trade in Louisiana, and 85 percent of those businesses that are exporting in Louisiana are small businesses. So trade is big business for the state of Louisiana.
Q: How has trade changed in Southeast Louisiana since Katrina and/or the last few years?
A: We’ve seen an evolution in the different types of trade. I think a great example of that is the liquid national gas sector. The WTC worked to spearhead the Louisiana Energy Export Association (LEEA) — a coalition of the LNG (Louisiana natural gas) exporters — throughout the state of Louisiana. We already have seen a significant shift to Louisiana exporting natural gas globally. LEEA represents an investment of over $60 billion in the state of Louisiana. They represent really good-paying jobs — 20,000 construction jobs, 1,500 permanent jobs that represent the future of the export industry for Louisiana. It’s a story of resurrection and energy. Our membership at the World Trade Center has ticked up significantly since January, and I attribute that to a lot of people being interested in international trade and wanting to engage in it more.
Q: You are the oldest trade center in the country. How many are there total, and how do you compare to some of the other ones?
A: There are over 300 world trade centers globally, and the WTC of New Orleans is part of that global network. Each world trade center is very different. The majority are involved in real estate acquisition, education and advocacy. New Orleans is a little different because we lost our real estate arm with the development of the World Trade Center building as the Four Seasons. What we have done is really pivoted to focus more on education and advocacy. We’re seeing that play out with the formation of new associations like the LEEA and we’re getting involved in much more pronounced educational programs, like educating our membership about NAFTA reauthorization.
There’s also the emergence of Trade Week, which we are rolling out in November. Trade Week is a giant celebration of our culture of trade and will culminate in our annual black tie dinner, where we’ll be giving out awards to small businesses involved in international trade, along with our Gene Schreiber Award to our quintessential diplomat in international trade and our young and emerging leaders award. That will be October 30 through November 3.
One of the other programs I want to highlight is our partnership network, which includes the Louisiana Consular Corps that represents over 56 countries from around the world. It’s an incredibly rich network of expertise and awareness for folks that are interested in international affairs.
We also have our network of other chambers like the Hispanic Chamber, the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council, and all these other international organizations that feed into this culture of trade. So much of the work of the World Trade Center, especially now, is to create purposeful collisions of these organizations.
Q: How are you positioning Southeast Louisiana in international trade?
A: I think Southeast Louisiana, and Louisiana in general, has positioned itself. The LNG community is a great example of this. Louisiana will see itself as a global leader in LNG exports over the next eight to 10 years. We’ll be the third-largest exporter of LNG on the global stage, so Louisiana really already has global position, and that’s very significant also for the other importers and exporters that make up international trade.
International trade in our region is also composed of the technology field — our entire maritime industry, our freight forwarders, our shippers, those folks that are exporting spices and food and beverage and a number of specialty products, all of these people represent trade.
Q: How are we impacted by federal government policy on trade and on international relations in general?
A: That’s a large question. The most important federal policy issue would be the reauthorization of NAFTA. This is kind of looking at NAFTA 2.0 through the Louisiana lens. There are a number of issues that are part of the reauthorization that we are looking at from the WTC’s perspective, and those would include looking at resolution agreements, the buy-American clause, the potential for a more protectionist mentality on imports from Canada and Mexico, and what that means for our businesses that are trying to export their respective goods.
Q: Do you think New Orleans will ever regain its status as “the gateway to Latin America?”
A: I think New Orleans will regain its status as being the gateway to trade, but I don’t think looking at just one gateway is necessarily the right perspective. We are a global society and our products are going all over the world. Yes, we have key trading partners that the majority of our goods are exported to, but when we look at how we should be positioning ourselves, I think it’s important that we be a leader on the global platform. We see this through our LNG exports that are going all over the world. Yes, to Latin America, but also to Europe and Asia.
A number of our other exporters are trading all over the world. So we have certain products that we definitely trade to Mexico, or Canada, or Japan, like our petrochemicals and our resins and our commodities, but as we grow a culture of international trade, it’s important that we consider all the different markets for our products.
Q: Do you see any specific opportunities that we should be capitalizing on?
A: I think the biggest opportunity for us is to treat trade as an economic development sector. We need to understand how significant international trade is to the economic development not just of New Orleans, but to the state of Louisiana. That includes foreign direct investment. We have a number of FDI companies that have invested in Louisiana. International trade has all these tentacles that are really important to understand, because they are related to job creation not just through FDI, but through the supplier network, the value added opportunities. There is no more resilient business than a global business, so if you are going to be a very resilient business, especially in the state of Louisiana, where you’re subjected to man-made and natural disasters, you have to have a global platform.
Q: What are our greatest strengths as a player in international trade?
A: Our culture, our history and our natural features. We have that Mississippi River that links us to the global marketplace. We actually feed the global population as a result of the Mississippi River. All those commodities come down from the Midwestern states and go into the Port of South Louisiana, and they’re shipped out all over the world. When we talk about projects that are significant to international trade, the dredging of the Mississippi River isn’t just important to New Orleans or to Louisiana, it’s important to the world. We are feeding the entire world through that river.
Q: What are our biggest challenges?
A: I would say maintaining the logistical supply chain, like dredging the river, along with transportation projects such as highways and railways and ensuring that they’re as non-disruptive as possible. Transportation planning is very important, looking at public-private partnerships for multi-modal opportunities between the ports, the railways and various transportation hubs. Ensuring that we have a lot of direct access to the airways, which we’ve seen some great successes with recently with British Airways and Copa Airlines. Ensuring that all those logistical hubs are seamlessly integrated is very important to the international trade community.
Q: What role does small business play in trade?
A: A big role. Eighty-five percent of our exporters in the state of Louisiana are small businesses — those with under 200 full-time employees — so small business is big business in Louisiana. Making sure that small businesses get technical assistance, education and the access to capital that they need to succeed is incredibly important, and that’s why the World Trade Center is significant in terms of a node of access to advocacy, awareness, education and our technical assistance providers.
Q: How do up-and-coming New Orleans entrepreneurs begin to get involved with international trade?
A: Become a member of the World Trade Center! The World Trade Center works with a number of partner agencies, including the Small Business Administration and Idea Village, along with less traditional partners and the banking community — all of these are part of the World Trade Center network. So if a small business is interested in learning a little bit more about what trade means and how they can get involved, the World Trade Center is a great front door to answer a lot of those questions.
Save the Date
Louisiana International Trade Week
October 30 – November 3, 2017
The week-long programming includes topics like:
doing business in Indian country
tourism and destination healthcare
digitization and global tech opportunities
The week ends the Louisiana International Trade Jubilee & Awards Nov. 3.
For more information, visit WTCNO.org
Favorite book? There are so many great reads, but some of my favorites include Beautiful Ruins, Life of Pi and Where the Wild Things Are.
Favorite TV Show? I don't really watch TV (Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon being the exception), but I am a Netflix binge watcher. My most recent round of sleep deprivation was attributed to viewing Narco and Turn.
Who do you look up to? Those who persevere no matter the hardship and still maintain a great sense of humor, joy and kindness.
Best life Advice? Live joyfully and with intention, not with fear.
Biggest life lesson learned? I was on a 10-day trek/climb and was both emotionally and physically spent from the journey. My back ached from the weight of the pack, my legs felt like jello and, at a point where I seriously questioned my ability to keep going, a random fellow explorer stopped on the trail, looked at me with raised 'sticks' and stated: "All you can do in life is to keep sticking it (referencing trekking poles). You can't always see the path forward, but eventually you'll arrive.” I did. The view was absolutely stunning.
Hobbies? Travel and exploring remote or less traversed areas; trekking; tennis and/or any outdoor activity/sport. Enjoying wine and cheese, a great book and fabulous friendships. Daily habits? 6 a.m. Yoga (okay, maybe not daily), a long walk, a good laugh, doing something/anything creative.
Pet peeve(s)? Early morning leaf blowers, knick-knacks, the state of my daughter’s bedroom and people who don’t move on a moving sidewalk.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year? Another trekking adventure and simply enjoying life with my daughter and my friends and family.