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Small Business Development Center's global involvement helps businesses internationally

Rodriguez in Barranquilla, Colombia, with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in December 2012. Rodriguez in Barranquilla, Colombia, with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in December 2012.

The USF Small Business Development Center is well-known for the work it does locally, helping budding entrepreneurs and longstanding small businesses alike grow and succeed.

But the experts at the Small Business Development Center are also helping local businesses in another way: by helping businesses all over the world succeed.

Eileen Rodriguez, the regional director of the USF Small Business Development Center, travels several times per year to various countries -- whether for trade missions with elected officials, or to help countries set up their own SBDC systems. Both she and fellow USF SBDC Consultant Selma Canas are among NASBITE (National Association of Small Business International Trade Educators) Certified Global Business Professionals

"Small business is the engine of the economy," Rodriguez said. "That's not just in the United States -- that's everywhere."

Rodriguez said her global expertise has helped her better advise clients in the Tampa Bay region, especially those looking to expand into international trade.

"When people want to export, they've maybe only been to that country on vacation or they've never been there before at all, but they really don't know how business works," she said. "I don't think most people understand how different it is. People think, 'Business is business,' and it's not."

Rodriguez in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in July 2014 with Ruth Urry, US Embassy, and Mr. Sigfrido Lee, Vice Minister, Ministry of the Economy. Rodriguez in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in July 2014 with Ruth Urry, US Embassy, and Mr. Sigfrido Lee, Vice Minister, Ministry of the Economy.

Rodriguez has traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and recently Guatemala, helping these countries set up their own small business assistance systems. Even the smallest details like, "when do workers take their lunch break?" can be important, Rodriguez notes. In Latin America, many people still take an afternoon long lunch break -- they are out for three hours starting at two, come back to the office, and are working until 8 p.m.

"The timetable is different, never mind all the other important things on how they conduct business, do you need a contract, that sort of thing," she said. "When I travel to these other countries I get an idea of how business is conducted there."

Going to other countries also reminds her of the benefits that companies enjoy in the U.S., especially from the government, Rodriguez said. To illustrate the point, Rodriguez references Guatemala, where more than 75 percent of businesses are small and medium-sized -- but the majority of those businesses are not registered as legal entities, and thus are not paying taxes. The distrust of government in many of the countries she visits contributes to economies not becoming full-fledged players in the global marketplace.

"Government agencies want us to stress that they really need to formalize their companies," she said. "It's going to be difficult for businesses to break out of that cycle, but that's why we're there."

Empowering the small business community abroad makes sense for the U.S., Rodriguez said. The stronger the companies are, the more people they employ. And, she said, stronger foreign companies are in a better position to purchase U.S.-made goods and services. All of this works towards making the US economy stronger.

The international travel is demanding, but the benefits these missions provide to the local and global business communities make it all worth it, Rodriguez said.

"There's a core group of us nationally that do this kind of work," she said. "We're really the go-to people at the national level. It's incredibly satisfying and it's very interesting."