At its weirdest, Austin might come as a mild culture shock for visitors from other parts of Texas — let alone other parts of the globe — but local officials put that openness and creativity on proud display this week for ambassadors from 26 countries around the world.
The ambassadors, in town for three days as part of the U.S. State Department’s Experience America program, enjoyed a broad cross-section of Central Texas culture and business — from a stop for barbecue at Salt Lick to a taste of Texas politics, history, entrepreneurialism and technology.
They capped their visit Tuesday at the Driskill Hotel with a luncheon sponsored by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
“When foreign companies are looking to enter the U.S. market, they think New York, California, and that’s all,” said Adriana Cruz, the chamber’s vice president of global corporate recruitment. “We want them to know, especially if they’re a technology company, the Austin region would be a very good option for them.”
Since most foreign businesses looking to expand in the United States work through government representatives here, Cruz said, it’s natural for local officials to work with the ambassadors and consular staffs to help put Central Texas on their radar.
“As ambassador, I speak to our CEOs,” said German Ambassador Peter Ammon. “They ask me for advice, and such a trip widens my viewpoint. I will certainly speak in glowing terms about Texas.”
Such is the goal for Experience America, a program that began in 2007. It has taken ambassadors from more than 100 countries on tours that covered not only some of the country’s largest cities, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, but also places that don’t always hit the international business radar, including Wyoming and Arkansas.
Each trip includes a large dose of local Americana, but they’re designed to promote economic partnerships as well.
That combination of business and culture has resulted in some interesting ventures. After a previous trip to New Orleans, Ambassador Neil Nadesh Parsan of Trinidad and Tobago saw an opportunity to infuse his country’s steel drum industry with the Crescent City’s rich music scene.
“It’s not just introducing the culture of those cities in the United States, it’s also introducing them to our international companies,” Parsan said.
Parsan said this was his fourth Experience America trip, and his second visit to Austin. He said he brought Trinadad and Tabago’s minister of energy here a couple weeks ago to learn more about the Texas Advanced Computing Center, which was one of the stops on this tour as well.
“Business is built on relationships,” Parsan said. “It is not expected after one engagement that things materialize. It is coming back” that builds those relationships and opportunities.
Austin and Singapore already share deep, longstanding economic ties, especially through the high-tech industry. For example, Singapore is home to Dell Inc.’s headquarters for its Asia-Pacific and Japan regional headquarters.
Visits this week with smaller Austin enterprises, such as GSD&M and Capital Factory, opened up new possibilities for exchange between Central Texas and Singapore, said Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri.
“The cultural bits are fascinating. When I got off the airplane and saw ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ that’s really been something that runs through the whole trip,” Mirpuri said. “But I look at it very much from an economic point of view.”
Mirpuri said Capital Factory founder Joshua Baer reached out to him even before this tour. Baer said he was planning to visit Singapore soon, and Mirpuri said he hopes to get some meetings set up with officials there.
“What struck me very much about the Capital Factory was two things,” the ambassador said. “One was this whole thing of creating ideas, and the other thing was a sense of sharing.”
In a different context, that creativity and openness helps keep Austin at its weirdest. But sharing it with a wider global business audience could help enhance the area’s standing on the international business stage, as well.
“When they have business delegations coming into the U.S., the ambassador helps decide where they’re going to visit…” Cruz said. “What we’re seeing more and more is that Austin gets added to that list.”