Increasingly, African American entrepreneurs are looking beyond U.S. borders to do business. And thanks to technology, the opportunities overseas have never been greater. From voice-over-IP (VoIP) to Web 2.0 applications, for those who dare to venture, the only question is, “How do I get there from here?”
For Ashley M. Hunter, 29, founder of Bahrain-based HM Risk Group, the opportunity came when a client literally forced her to take the leap. Just a year ago, the international commercial insurance broker landed her first client, who wanted her to underwrite his insurance investigations business in Afghanistan.
“I was a small broker in Texas with a background in construction and energy,” says Hunter, who holds an M.B.A. from Texas A&M University. “He was moving with or without me; I had to work quickly to make sure I kept him as a client. I did Web searches, e-mailed, made phone calls, and got it done.” Hunter has since written policies for a wide range of clients, including an $83 million portfolio for Ivana Trump.
During the process, Hunter discovered an untapped market for her services in the Middle East. So she flew to Dubai for a week of meetings with companies, and then made the leap. Her first-year revenues were $250,000, and she now spends 80% of her time in Bahrain.
Like Hunter, model and author Tami Newton left the U.S. to pursue business success. With just $500 in her pocket, Newton landed in Paris during the late ’90s for prêt-à-porter (ready-to- wear) and Germany’s Fashion Week shows, and then decided to move to Frankfurt as offers and assignments rolled in.
Newton has since branched out from modeling, penning her first novel, Männer nach Maß (which translates to Men: Custom-Made); working as a freelance writer; and giving talks on relationships, fashion, and other topics. She is also featured in the book Mainhattan-Manhattan, Lebensgeschicten aus zwei Metropolen (translation: Mainhattan-Manhattan, Stories from Two Metropolises).
Newton says she owes much of her writing and public speaking success to her Website (www.boutiquelechic.com). “People who’ve visited my site usually contact me about freelance writing, book signings, speaking engagements, and other fashion-related assignments. My Website pretty much keeps my profile front and center,” she says.
Hunter adds, “If you’re going to run a business that is worldwide, you have to invest in technology. I use everything from Skype to Vonage to other VoIP services.” Hunter spends roughly $200 per month for international phone charges. She also uses an unlocked iPhone and Fring, a free application that lets her use Skype, Google Talk, Twitter, and other services. And she switches her U.S. SIM card to a local one while in Bahrain (typically $20 to $30).
Newton keeps things simple, preferring to use her Website as her primary point of contact—though she hasn’t ruled out MySpace or Twitter. But she notes, “When optimized and used correctly, a Website is the perfect tool for staying in touch, gathering info, providing info, and tracking interest.”
For Hunter, the biggest cost of entry in the Bahraini market was the business license ($10,000). She rents a small office space for herself and two employees. Monthly expenses include: $2,200 for salaries and $1,000 for the space.
Working abroad is not only about technology, though. Newton advises anyone heading overseas to know the tax ramifications of doing business in a foreign country and understand cultural differences before boarding the plane. Work permits, a working knowledge of the language, and the economic–political standing of the country are also key.
“The more you know, the less likely you are to make unnecessary and possibly costly mistakes,” she adds.
–Additional reporting by Sonya A. Donaldson
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.