Denise Thomas was named CEO of World Trade Center Arkansas in July.
A California native, Thomas has a bachlor’s degree in fashion design and marketing from American InterContinental University in Arizona. She began her economic development career in 1998 at the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce in Florida. There, she worked with the U.S. Small Business Administration to create a networking hub for entrepreneurs. Thomas was later appointed to oversee that chamber’s division of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Thomas moved to Arkansas in 2002 and joined Walmart Inc. as a senior recruiter. She came to World Trade Center Arkansas five years later and was one its first staff members. She is the first Black woman to become CEO of a World Trade Center in the United States.
What exactly is World Trade Center Arkansas’ mission, and how does it work?
Simply put, we help Arkansas businesses expand into the global marketplace in order to grow bilateral trade with the Natural State. The primary ways we assist those companies is through new market research, inbound/outbound trade missions and consultation with our trade experts.
One of our most powerful tools is the State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) grant, which is provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration. We award it to eligible Arkansas small businesses to fund export initiatives like trade shows, exhibitions, consulting, website translations, marketing and so on.
We’re also affiliated with the University of Arkansas, so we’re at the forefront of trade education. Our trade directors are often requested to lecture to UA classes and local business groups. We also have an immense and dynamic internship program that has been a launching pad for students into the professional world.
If companies want to export products, what things should they keep in mind? What should they do or not do?
Doing your homework is a must.
There are hundreds of little details: legal and/or special concessions or limitations on your product, packaging requirements, label requirements, licensing requirements — just to name a few.
The best thing anyone can do is focus on one or two countries of interest first and do your homework on the legal requirements for entry. For example, something as simple as not knowing that a specific dye may not be imported into the country of interest can be a costly mistake. Not taking the early initiative can cause you to fail before you start. The biggest and most common mistake in trade is not doing thorough research.
What advantages does Arkansas have on the world market? What are our disadvantages?
Arkansas’ best advantage is its relatively small size. We are agile and able to react quickly to trends and changes. Arkansas’ largest export industries have a direct impact on our economy because we have direct-to-market relationships that have been established for years. This does give us a huge advantage while also fostering a positive environment to build strategic relationships within these industries.
However, our size may also be our greatest weakness. We’re not looked at first for trade opportunities by larger companies, and the bigger states tend to get the attention. We have to work on marketing our best traits, two of which include low living costs and access to several wonderful natural amenities for a workforce.
What does it mean to you personally to be the first Black woman leader of a WTC in the U.S.?
It is an honor and a privilege to be a part of such a prestigious organization. … My personal mission is to promote ethical trade practices and showcase how the World Trade Center Association and the UA can be a positive thought leader on the world stage.