Time To Venture Abroad

Exporting is a multibillion-dollar industry that can be extremely lucrative -- if you're properly prepared

Michelle E. Wilson’s star was on the rise. A model since the age of 16, she could be spotted on fashion runways as well as in print ads. But even while basking in the spotlight, Wilson knew that her modeling was only a financial springboard to success in the business world.

The Louisiana native’s entrepreneurial drive was evident from the start. While still a model, she bought a mortgage company and a comic book store specializing in collectibles and memorabilia. She also invested in a friend’s business, importing automobile oil filters from the Philippines.

Wilson has since given up fashion shows for international trade shows. Now 36, she is president of La Femme International Import-Export Inc., a Woodland Hills, California-based firm that produces medical supplies and pharmaceuticals for export to countries on the African continent, Brazil, and Mexico. La Femme looks globally for raw materials and labor, and then sells the manufactured items at affordable prices in impoverished regions of the world. Her company generated about $5 million in 2003; with several large deals in the pipeline, Wilson expects the five-person firm to gross more than double that figure in 2004.

Wilson got into the business after suffering respiratory arrest brought on by mitral valve prolapse, a congenital heart abnormality. This condition, in the severe form suffered by Wilson, can lead to swelling of the cardiac chambers as the malfunctioning mitral valve allows blood to flow backward into the heart. “I died and was actually brought back,” she recalls. “The doctors called my parents and wanted me to say my goodbyes.” Wilson recovered, however. But her medication caused her to gain 65 pounds, ending her modeling career. Not letting adversity stop her, she turned her energies to realizing her business goals. Having found alternative sources of low-cost drugs, she sought to create an export business bringing similar benefits to others.

Wilson is just one of many business owners who are actively tapping into the global economy. According to an October 2003 Department of Commerce report titled Small & Medium-Sized Exporting Companies: A Statistical Handbook, 238,284 U.S. firms were exporting goods in 2001. Think this is a game for the big players alone? Think again. Firms with fewer than 20 employees made up 69% of this number and earned combined revenues of $182 billion. These small firms also represented 98% of the growth in the exporter population between 1992 and 2001. There’s big money to be made — but as with any business, proper preparation is required.

The good news: getting started isn’t as hard as many think. The fact is that while gaining access to foreign markets presents numerous and varied challenges, the U.S. government offers resources and aid for entrepreneurs interested in breaking into these markets. The reason for the assistance is simple: “It’s great for the bottom line of the U.S.,” points out Jerry Mitchell, senior commercial officer for the Commerce Department in Mexico. “It brings in export dollars, it helps our trade balance, it creates and keeps jobs in the U.S., and

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