Over the past seven years, 126 Georgian businesses – mostly small ones – have received support from Ex-Im, making the state the 11th largest recipient of the bank’s support. (Georgia is the 8th most populous state.)
The bank has a dozen regional offices, including one in Atlanta. With approximately 400 employees, Ex-Im relies on the Department of Commerce, which has many other foreign agents around the world. In the agency’s budget, officials estimated that the Ex-Im this year will provide support for $9.6 billion in spending, supporting about 59,000 jobs.
Lewis said she grew up immersed in small business. His parents ran two – Lewis Mart and Lewis Van Lines Moving and Storage.
Lewis, the first person of color to run the bank, was recently in Atlanta to receive an award at Emory University, where she earned a law degree.
During her career, she has worked in the public and private sectors. She was previously Director of Congressional Affairs at the German Marshall Fund in the United States and worked at the US State Department and the White House, as well as for a number of law firms and the US Chamber of Commerce.
She spoke to the AJC during her visit to Atlanta. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AJC: Welcome to Georgia. I wonder, how do you relate where you come from to what you are doing now?
lewis: Being from a small town, whose parents were small business owners, I am fully aware of the challenges, but I would also say the great opportunities that entrepreneurs and small business owners have to create jobs .
The mission, fundamentally, of the Export-Import Bank is to support American jobs and encourage the export of American goods and services. It’s one of the tools in the President’s toolbox around our economic security to help American businesses maintain our competitiveness.
AJC: How does insurance work for exporters?
lewis: Basically it’s Ex-Im providing (support). Their work is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. We provide insurance against the risk of non-payment by this foreign entity. If they don’t pay and they work with us, Ex-Im steps in and covers that.
AJC: Do you have a metric, a reference to measure what you do?
lewis: We use the signpost which is in our charter. He talks specifically about making products and services available, especially to small businesses. Make more available in China, in Africa, in projects with clean energy.
We began to consider more work with state and local leaders, with minorities, women, veterans, LGBTQ communities – all traditionally underserved areas. We have come to understand that mayors, governors and county executives are the primary economic drivers of development in their communities. So we try to make more partnerships with them and the organizations that serve them.
AJC: Has the Russian war in Ukraine had an impact on what you do?
Lewis: We have a commitment to Ukraine. The Prime Minister was in Washington a few weeks ago and we let them know that Ex-Im Bank supports Ukraine. We were able to reaffirm a $3 billion commitment, making funding available, that we signed last August. We are convinced that American companies can play a central role in rebuilding Ukraine.
We believe Ex-Im funding can be used to bring a number of their projects to life, particularly around building bridges and digital infrastructure, clean energy facilities and much more.
AJC: Do you steer exporters one way or another, to certain companies or certain regions?
Lewis: We can tell them where things are going, where things are happening. (We’re talking) about being sustainable, AI, biotech and semiconductors.
What we’re trying to do is be more strategic. Part of being (in Atlanta) this week is raising awareness for the Make More in America initiative. Even here in the United States, there was a broad understanding that COVID pandemic and all the events that followed revealed the flaws in our supply chain. It showed that we had insufficient manufacturing capacity. It showed that our American industrial base had been eroded and it showed how China and other countries, how aggressive they had been in their work around the world.
The idea is to make more in America and export more from America.
I think we are in a different era now, and at Ex-Im Bank we need to diversify our portfolio. It’s just a good time for me to be at Ex-Im. I hope this will be a great legacy that we can all leave behind, ensuring that American businesses, large and small, are able to compete, but also, we want them to win.
Reta Jo Lewis
Education: University of Georgia (AB), American University (MSAJ) Emory University School of Law (JD)
Current position: Chairman and President, Export-Import Bank of the United States