Maya Hyppolite-Williams, president and founder of Morganna’s Alchemy, LLC of Florida, knew she faced a challenge when she decided to export her six-year-old line of luxury skin care products.
Maya Hyppolite-Williams, Morganna’s
Alchemy president and founder
Hyppolite-Williams is a native of Haiti, and that makes her company, which manufactures and distributes “ecocertified” organical skin care products, a dual combination of minority-owned and woman-owned. According to the Export-Import Bank of the United States, of the 3,791 small businesses involved in exporting, only 503 are minority-owned and 344 are women-owned.
Almost all of Morganna’s Alchemy sales are outside the country, mainly because the long-time chemist — she has been in the skin care industry for 15 years — cannot compete against her giant American competitors.
“I’ve always had to be in the international market, because I couldn’t get my foot in the domestic [market] because of a lack of money,” she told Business without Borders. Now she exports to five countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdome and France, as well as her native Haiti.
It can be a challenge for a woman-owned company to enter the male-dominated export arena, particularly in the often paternalistic business societies of emerging markets. “Being from Haiti, you just get used to the reality that men have the power – women don’t,” she said. “If I had to, I would bring my son along to do the talking because he would have more clout.”
Andrea Ewart, a Washington, D.C., customs and trade attorney and vice-president of the Organization of Women in International Trade, does not mince words when talking about the challenges women face in exporting. “Men play golf, talk sports, and hang out in bars, if you’ll forgive the clichés. For women, access to these networks can be more challenging,” she said. “Hence, the need for OWIT and other groups like ours that help women to create their own networks and access points into different markets.”
OWIT, whose sponsors include Wal-Mart and Toyota Motor Corp., has 26 chapters in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Denmark, Switzerland and Kenya. Ewart said having a network geared specifically to women-owned exporters “can help to take the ‘fear factor’ out of going to a new, unknown country.”
Often, though, far bigger hurdles for woman and minority-owned exporters are raised at home. Conventional lenders can be reluctant to work with small exporters because they typically lack the assets to back their exports. In some cases, the only assets could be the owner’s home. “For women-owned and minority-owned companies, the owners typically don’t have a big house or a lot of net worth,” noted one senior official at the Ex-Im Bank.
This is where the Ex-Im Bank comes in. Small business exports represent a significant portion of the credit agency’s lending portfolio. Last year, Ex-Im Bank approved $6 billion in directly supported small-business export sales. The Ex-Im Bank offers protection to smaller and medium-sized exporters by covering commercial losses due to insolvency, bankruptcy and default. That includes political losses due to war, revolution, cancellation of an import or export license and currency inconvertibility. The Ex-Im Bank defines a small business as one having export sales averaging no more than $7.5 million in the previous three years and having at least one year of a successful operating history and positive net worth.
But the bank is now putting together a more aggressive export support program for women- and minority-owned exporters. This year, the Ex-Im Bank set an all-time record of more than $500 million in export financing for minority- and woman-owned businesses. The bank said its financing has supported more than 400 transactions and an estimated 3,000 American jobs across the country.
“In this tough economy, increasing exports is essential for growth and prosperity,” said Fred Hochberg , Ex-Im chairman and president. “Ex-Im Bank has reached a new height in support of minority-owned and woman-owned companies, but we need to do more.”
Ex-Im Bank insiders said the bank is putting together a special team focused on women- and minority-owned exporters. Given the changing ethnic landscape in the U.S., there are opportunities for immigrants to develop their native markets. “New immigrants know the language, they know their native customs and needs,” said one Ex-Im Bank official. “And these foreign markets like things American.”
Hyppolite-Williams could not agree more. She has enjoyed much of her success in her native Haiti. She hopes to expand on her export success with the approval of a $250,000 line of credit from the Ex-Im Bank that is essentially an insurance policy allowing her to offer credit terms of up to 60 days to foreign buyers. “The Ex-Im Bank has provided my company with insurance to grow and do business overseas with no worries,” said Hyppolite-Williams.
Despite the challenges, opportunities for women-owned exporters are growing, noted Jody Wagner, owner of Virginia Beach-based Jody’s Popcorn. Wagner exports her 21 flavors of gourmet popcorn through the U.S. Navy to the Middle East and hopes to expand into China.
She said being a women-owned exporter is shaping up to be an advantage, given the evolving political and economic climate that is becoming more favorable to non-traditional exporters.
“In some ways, being a women-owned company is a positive,” she said. “Now, many retailers want to do more with women-owned businesses.”