The National Consortium for Undergraduate International Business Education (CUIBE) wrapped up its final day at Boise State University with a panel discussion moderated by Idaho Lt. Governor Brad Little. Panel members included the CEOs of Micron and Simplot and the international marketing manager for Rekluse Motor Sports.
I felt a bit of a flashback as I sat in the Skaggs Hall of Learning at the newly opened Micron Business and Economics Building. The setting brought me back 20 years, when I sat in a similar classroom in San Diego on my way towards a master’s degree in international affairs.
My San Diego classroom was fairly new at the time, but pales in comparison to the Hall of Learning. Boise State’s new facility seats more than 400 and is decked out with the latest technology. Brown tables at each seating level wrap around the auditorium. Press a dark plastic compartment easily accessible from each ergonomically correct chair and electric sockets spring up to power a laptop or iPad. Audio speakers dot the ceiling, as do Wi-Fi network access points with their steady blue lights.
Up front, a lectern is flanked by two projection screens so PowerPoint presentations and videos can be shared with the audience, comprised today of students, educators and Idaho business people. Before the session began, these screens flashed slides that highlighted the importance of international exports to the Idaho economy. Thanks to the screens, we learned that foreign-controlled companies employed 13,700 workers in Idaho in 2010, and that one-sixth of Idaho’s manufacturing jobs are dependent on exports.
The panel was billed as an “International Business Summit” and the session felt geared to students who hope to build an international career. Hence my déjà vu.
But when I went to graduate school, I didn’t recall the CEO of a $6 billion company like the J.R. Simplot Company talking to me and my classmates about the importance of international markets to their operations. William J. Whitacre delivered a thirty-minute keynote speech about the challenges and opportunities Simplot faces throughout the world. He devoted quite a bit of that time to Simplot’s operations in China.
Simplot’s business there goes beyond potatoes and French fries to serve the growing numbers of McDonald’s restaurants and Chinese consumers. Simplot also exports Pacific Northwest grass seed to the Asian country through its Jacklin Seed brand. Whitacre said all the turf grass at the Beijing Olympics was from Simplot. The company also owns two steak restaurants in China as well as the feed and cattle operations to supply those operations.
Mark Durcan, the CEO of Micron Technology Inc., said Idaho’s entrepreneurial spirit and history in agribusiness helped him and other founders of the company understand what it took to survive in a commodity business like memory chips. “We learned about what it meant to be a low cost provider, what it meant to plan for the future, and the importance of scale and growth.”
Both Whitacre and Durcan thought that Idaho’s quality of life and their company’s reputations attract potential employees. Durcan said, “We have no trouble getting the best and brightest to our door.” And Whitacre added, “It’s really easy to recruit to the state of Idaho.”
The most striking advice to students came from panelist Joe DeGano, marketing manager for Rekluse Motor Sports. His Boise company makes clutches for racing motorcycles. The company employs less than 40 people and exports makes up 30 percent of the business.
DeGano delivered what sounded like Zen Buddhism koans. He said, “Act as if you have nothing to lose,” when students have an internship opportunity. That way they’ll contribute in an effective way to the company.
He said, “The most important thing to know is that one does not know.” DeGano said that inspires the ability to learn and discover what is best to do at a particular time and place.
When I was a student, I had the world, literally, at my door to explore and discover. The students at Boise State have a similar opportunity to follow their interests and passions outside of Idaho. They also have the option to stay and work for a local company that does business overseas.
In my own way, I took the advice DeGano had just shared. I moved to Seattle to work for a consulting firm in the technology industry. I had never been there before and the tech sector was new to me at the time. I then moved to Washington, D.C. where my tech background helped start a career in international trade policy.
I benefited greatly from leaving the West Coast. I represented the United States in trade disputes and negotiations that took me to countries in Asia and Europe. But I gave all that up and ended up in Boise for a quality of life that I felt was fast disappearing in other metro areas.
It would be great if these enthusiastic young international business students stayed around to work for Idaho companies. For that to happen, more local firms will have to offer salaries and benefits at least on par with what’s available to them elsewhere. It’s worth it.
Scott Ki is a staff writer at Idaho Business Review.