Should the Obama Administration take Mexico for Granted?

Why is the US Congress always occupied with east-west issues such as with Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Ukraine, while practically ignoring its neighbors south of its borders (i.e. Mexico)? To place it into perspective, consider the number of times Secretary of State, John Kerry or even President Barack Obama have met with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. …maybe once or twice per year which barely compares to the hundreds of stops made in the Middle East alone.

The term ‘shuttling between capitals’ to negotiate trade deals and peace treaties with the US seems never to apply to Mexico or Central/South America, and yet Mexico is the US’s second largest trading partner moving over USD$500 billion in goods and services across its borders. With so much hanging on the balance, especially with immigration reform and border security between both countries, is it prudent for the US to take its neighbors south of the border for granted? …and what can Mexico say differently to place its agenda on a priority list for high level officials in Washington?  

Foreign Affairs Forum
At a recent forum at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City called, Mexico as a Global Player sponsored by the Foreign Affairs publication as part of a series on Mexico titled, Mexico’s Muscle, Revealing the Strength, the Minister of Economic Growth for the State of Mexico, Adrian Fuentes Villalobos, along with a cadre of supporting experts from both countries, sat on various panels where they proposed the idea of a NAFTA Version 2.0 (North American Free Trade Agreement). This enhanced version of the 1994 NAFTA agreement would seamlessly combine Canada, US, and Mexico into a North American partnership, one based on shared job creation and prosperity building.

Over the past twenty years, NAFTA used up most of its political capital in Washington and depending upon who you ask has rendered mixed results. The Huffington Post, for example, underscores the net loss of 1 million American jobs plus a net US trade deficit of USD$181bn, while Mexican-sponsored research groups show a contrasting view that highlights the creation of 6 million jobs between both countries along with a 500% increase in trade capacity. Despite their differences of opinion, one indisputable benefit was the development of a manufacturing hub for heavy industry located in the center of Mexico.

What was once a sparsely populated territory has now been transformed into a series of industrial parks that when viewed from 30,000 feet high appear organized like the floor of a modern plant. Top multinationals such as GM, Chrysler, GE, BMW, Boeing, Nescafe, DuPont, and Embraer, to name a few, have established a presence in the region with their key suppliers located nearby. As testimony to their commitment and confidence in its future prospects, many companies are continuing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to accommodate their imminent rapid growth. Foreign investors including global banks have had a key role in boosting Mexico’s FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), which has doubled to USD$35.2bn in 2013 when compared to the year before.

For a country that has carefully mapped this massive expansion and has been responsive to the strategic needs of global manufacturers, one would expect that by all reasonable standards, Mexico’s achievements thus far would have earned it international recognition, and yet, when it comes to members of the US Congress, nothing could be further from the truth. For a slew of political reasons, elected US officials have conveniently stuck to two key issues when discussing US-Mexican relations, immigration reform and border security. With good reason, members of the panel spoke of their efforts to change the dialogue with the US but have done so with little success. The US Ambassador from Mexico to the US, Eduardo Medina Mora, described his personal hidden frustrations as he described his daily reminders to members of Congress on the many potential benefits Mexico can offer to the US. Clearly, the two pending bills have greatly polarized US-Mexican relations, which has resulted in a decoupling between Washington politics and the multinationals operating in Mexico.

The newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto recognized his country’s political shortcomings early on after being sworn into office and in a series of extraordinarily bold moves pushed through four noteworthy bills to help bring his country closer to a US framework. These include:

  1. An energy reform bill that for the first time allows foreign direct investments to improve the country’s energy portfolio and infrastructure.
  2. A telecommunications bill that has broken a long-held monopoly among cell phone and television operators.
  3. An education reform bill that among other challenges will reward teachers on the basis of merit.
  4. A labor bill that makes it easier for companies to hire and fire employees.

In each case, President Enrique Peña Nieto had to take on powerful labor unions and business tycoons to successfully dismantle their influential centers. His efforts won him praise both domestically and internationally. His ingenuity and leadership earned him the respect from his country peers at the G-20 economic meetings. However, despite President Peña Nieto’s notable achievements, Mexico still has never been recognized as a priority by either the Obama Administration or members of the US Congress. Not all was lost. In response to Mexico’s relentless requests to gain access to high level officials in Washington, the White House finally acquiesced in May of 2013 to form the HLED platform, which stands for, you guessed it, High Level Economic Dialogue. Truly an unimaginative acronym and more than likely a US stalling tactic, the HLED limits Mexico to one annual meeting with cabinet-level officials in Washington.

According to one of the panelists, what Mexico needs is a revised narrative, one that addresses key mutual benefits that elected US officials can pitch to garner the support of their constituents. Just asking the US to change their dialogue away from immigration reform and border security, may not be enough. I believe something more is needed and have taken the liberty to lay out a few suggestions below (see appendix) that could help a Mexican delegation send the same intended message to the Obama Administration but, hopefully, in a more compelling manner.

I would be remiss not to mention the current threat from drug cartels in Mexico and the illegal immigration of Central and South Americans that travel through Mexico to reach the US border. No doubt it is one of the key concerns that weigh on elected officials’ minds and the American people. However, as history has shown us repeatedly, a strong economy is a far greater deterrent than an over-extended border protection scheme. By boosting medical tourism along the US-Mexican border, expanding the State of Mexico’s manufacturing hub, and educating both US and Mexican youth to meet increasing STEM job demand, drug cartels will be forced to circulate elsewhere.  As for non-Mexican immigrants, they should find employment in their own respective countries caused by a spillover effect triggered by NAFTA Version 2.0.

Hopefully the acronym HLED will some day soon be changed to read The North American Partnership or TNAP – (NAFTA Ver. 2.0). There members would agree to meet at least monthly with US cabinet officials. Maybe then, Mexico will know it is no longer being taken for granted.

###

 (APPENDIX)

A Revised Narrative for the Mexican Delegation

In an effort to change the narrative presented at the event, I have listed three key strategic points that on their own merits should help gain the attention of US political leaders.

I. Establish tiered industrial zones within Mexico’s manufacturing hubs that focus on a balanced trade-off between a range of country content ratios of finished products (i.e. US versus Mexican content) and corresponding tax policies.
Currently, the Mexican delegation claims that the US content for products manufactured in the State of Mexico is 40%. If the State of Mexico developed trade-friendly policies that applied favorable tax rates based upon US content, then further  tiered them for companies with lower US content, US leaders would view the gesture favorably and be forced to respond accordingly. For this scheme to work, however, Mexico should maintain a bi-lateral, transparent, third-party auditing process to ensure the policy is attracting the right kind of companies. At the end of the day, the same US companies who enjoy the maximum benefits will become the Mexican delegation’s greatest advocates in Washington. They will do a more effective job selling Mexico’s North American partnership to members of Congress and the American public than anyone else.

II. Open dialogue to develop trade policy between medical tourism in Mexico for US baby boomers in exchange for STEM education assistance for Mexican youth.
Just south of California, Tijuana has become the capital of the world for medical tourism with over 1 million annual visitors who generate over USD$1bn in economic benefits to the area. With the predicted shortage of doctors in the US, the retiring of 77 million baby boomers, and the introduction of Obama Care, the US may no longer have the manpower to take care of its aging population’s medical needs. Rather than leaving this situation to chance, US leaders would do well to help develop affordable pathways for the most common procedures by leveraging the abundance of Mexican doctors. Another potential idea would be to use approved Mexican medical procedural rates as a basis for insurance policy reimbursements, hence giving policyholders real options rather than just high deductibles.

In exchange for Mexico’s cooperation, the US can agree to help develop stronger STEM education curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) for its young adults who comprise over half of the Mexican population. Clearly Mexico’s immediate needs lie in educating their youth to fill a growing demand for engineers, whose efforts in turn will also help fuel the US economy, especially if the US content of manufactured products remains around 40% as stated earlier in point number one.

III. Highlight the expected reduction in border crossings over the next 5 years  based on a trending reduction in fertility rates in Mexico and improvements in  job prospects for Mexican youth.
Data shared at the event claimed that by 2020, Mexico’s fertility rates will decline from 2.67 children per child-bearing mother today to 2.2, which is comparable to the US current rate of 2.06 and the ‘replacement level’ of 2.1. The Mexican delegation should circulate these findings along with studies highlighting the reduced need to protect the US border from future Mexican immigrants because there will be fewer interested candidates. The billions saved trying to protect 51 guard posts along the longest border in the world (2,000 miles) could be allocated elsewhere including for launching Mexico’s vision for NAFTA Version 2.0.

© 2014 Tom Kadala

Winning by Failing, the new Entrepreneurial Paradigm Shift

Why is it that startup companies that fail never make headline news? A likely reason is that few readers are interested, and yet, over one-half of new startups fail during their first year of operations. To make matters worse, their unfortunate founders are often subjected to heavy losses, fines, foreclosures, and humiliation, just for trying to fulfill their dreams. Why then, do societies worldwide come down so hard on these well-intended individuals, especially when they represent a potential source for job creation? Are entrepreneurs who fail, outcasts or overlooked assets? 

Successful startups or inventions do not just surface out of thin air. Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of modern times, once claimed that he never invented the light bulb but rather confirmed 2,000 ways of how not to make a light bulb. Edison knew that his inventions hinged on repeated experiments, the vast majority of which would fail. Why then did he consider his failed attempts more valuable than his inventions? Was it because he viewed his successes and breakthroughs as an afterthought? In a new world order where inventors have had to become entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs, inventors, could Edison’s approach to ‘inventing/winning by failing’ offer us some new insights?

Imagine if…
Imagine if, instead of shunning entrepreneurs who failed, societies embraced their expertise (such as the many ways not to make something work) by efficiently reintegrating their experiences/experiments into an ongoing process of discovery and invention? Take this idea one step further. Imagine if, these entrepreneurs were motivated to work together by co-owning shares of an organization that was partially funded by the profits of the companies whose ideas/inventions did succeed.

While most entrepreneurs would support this type of arrangement, the traditional establishment of venture capitalists, private equity investors, politicians, and large established companies may not. But, as technology advancements continue to enable entrepreneurs to accomplish more with lower funding requirements, investors and their cohorts may, at some point, be wise to reconsider their old business models.

Evidence of Edison: A Five Country Review
To see, if indeed, entrepreneurship is trending toward an inventor’s model, I met with key leaders from 5 different countries including an academic institution, (Ecuador, Chile, Kenya, Mexico, and MIT) and compared their respective entrepreneurial initiatives. My choice of countries coincided with a slew of conferences and meetings that I attended between the months of August and September of 2012.

With each person I met, I inquired what policies, if any, they or their respective governments/institutions were actively pursuing to promote local entrepreneurship. If they were entrepreneurs, I asked about their experiences and expectations. Over time their collective comments developed into an interesting mosaic, which reflected their wide range of experiences promoting entrepreneurship. Less experienced countries sought lofty goals and often highlighted successful models elsewhere. Assuming this trend, one might conclude that the country/institution with the most experience could thus be considered the industry trendsetter.

Least Experienced – Ecuador, Chile, Kenya
A countries with the least experience promoting entrepreneurship such as Ecuador are usually held back by their own overburdening bureaucracy and an economy largely operated by a handful of family-owned businesses. Chile partially addressed these issues by legislating laws that designated a protected area (legally and physically) for its new startups. Their plan also included shared support systems (i.e. office space, Internet connection, etc.), and funding for an aggressive international mentorship program. Kenya’s government built out an Internet infrastructure that today connects over 40 million Kenyan users. They also approved the use of a mobile phone digital currency called M-Pesa that together has mobilized local entrepreneurs and investors.

Mid-Way – Mexico
At mid-way, Mexican thought-leaders are grappling with more sophisticated issues such as integrating venture capital funding. Key to their strategy is a coordinated effort among Mexican government officials, local venture funds, and public universities (i.e. Tecnológico de Monterrey) to identify the next ‘Steve Jobs-like’ entrepreneurs (or, in their words, ‘super entrepreneurs’’) who are capable of building the next ‘Apple-like’ industry on Mexican soil. To attract greater investor interest, the Mexican government recently approved a USD$120 million ‘fund of funds’ to encourage more venture fund managers to work with their most promising startups.

Most Experienced – MIT Media Labs
The highest level of experience also tagged as the industry’s potential trendsetter in my sample was MIT’s Media Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Under the direction of Joicho Ito, an accomplished investor and colorful visionary, MIT’s Media Lab operates about 350 concurrent student-related startups.  Ito explains that his primary focus is to develop a team’s collective agility rather than the prowess of one exceptional individual. Startup founders find each other, are free to innovate together as they see fit, and, when ready, present their ideas for funding by conducting a proof-of-concept such as a small pilot or survey. Funding is limited to no more than $100,000 per team. Teams that succeed may pitch for more funding (with a formal business plan), while those that fail are encouraged to join another team.

Teams are expected to conduct many small pilots and leverage their data analytics to identify timely opportunities. Ito’s unwritten rule of denying a second round of financing has forced team members to become more agile with their decisions.  As expected, however, failures do happen and are not only common at the Media Lab, but most importantly, revered. According to Ito, students who learn to fail several times, actually win by learning the art of risk taking. Given several chances to take risks within a short period of time has proven to render more ‘breakthrough ideas’ as well as develop a more seasoned crop of team leaders/entrepreneurs.

Conclusion
This brief five country evaluation simplifies the entrepreneurial process into three distinct levels and suggests that sequential levels place the most experienced country/institution as the potential trendsetter, in this case MIT’s Media Labs.

Assuming my analysis is true and MIT’s Media Lab succeeds at creating companies responsible for new industries in the coming years, then one might guess what advice Thomas Edison would have given to governments and institutions if he were alive today.  According to Edison, future entrepreneurial programs would do better if they focused more on efficiently recycling lessons from failed attempts than on sifting through hay stacks of candidates in search of a few needles of success.

Hopefully Edison’s likely advice will turn on a few more light bulbs in the minds of our global leaders!

###

Appendix

I have included an Appendix for those of you interested in more details and interesting tidbits from my interviews with each country/institution for this article.

———————————————–
Ecuador, Chile, Kenya, Mexico, MIT
———————————————–

Guayaquil, Ecuador
Considered a hidden city by investors in-the-know, Guayaquil recently conducted a national roadshow, http://www.nationroadshow.com/guayaquil/en, that began in New York City. In my brief interview with their mayor, Jaime Nebot, he expressed his views on entrepreneurship for his city in two words. ‘Not now!” Ecuador, like other Latin American countries are controlled by a handful of influential family groups who operate the country’s key businesses. For young Ecuadorian entrepreneurs, the chance of succeeding is both intimidating and inhibiting, not to mention, the 8 month lead time needed just to register a company and fulfill all of the public sector requirements. Venture funding exists primarily for launching new businesses within already established ones. Most new businesses are proven concepts transferred from other countries rather than breakthrough technologies that could offer spectacular returns. For now, Mayor Nebot is focused on attracting established international firms to Guayaquil that have the wherewithall to weather his country’s stifling bureaucracy.

Santiago, Chile
At a recent conference on M&A activities in Latin America held at the offices of Baker & McKenzie – (www.bakermckenzie.com) in New York, a cadre of legal experts described Chile’s financial economy as brisk. Unlike Ecuador with its family-owned monopolies, Chile’s formerly family-owned firms have been institutionalized and therefore easier to merge and acquire. Despite these advances, entrepreneurialism in Chile has had its challenges. Young Chilean students who might have taken to entrepreneurialism sooner prefer careers in finance, medicine, or law.

About two years ago, the government of Chile approved funds for a revolutionary program called Startup Chile (www.startupchile.org). Hoping to change the mindset of its youth, Chile’s government is offering entrepreneurs from around the world a USD$40,000 grant to spend 6 months launching their startups in one of two buildings located in downtown Santiago. The program attracted seasoned global entrepreneurs who served as mentors to Chile’s young hopefuls.  Chilean entrepreneurs today account for over half of the startups in the program. One of the participants I interviewed at a local meeting in New York, described the environment at the incubator in Santiago as serious-yet-fun, inspiring, rewarding, and very international. Founders often work with one partner on premise and form virtual teams-on-demand using shared referred resources sometimes located in other countries.

Nairobi, Kenya
A banking phenomena called the M-Pesa has emerged in the unlikely city of Nairobi, Kenya. M-Pesa is a cell phone currency operated by Safaricom (www.safaricom.co.ke) that has transformed local economies in a manner that few could have imagined possible and that other countries have had difficulty emulating. Similar to PayPal’s online capabilities (www.paypal.com), M-Pesa funds appear as a balance on a cell phone account that can be drawn and transferred at the time of purchase from one cell phone to another. Its resounding success has created fertile ground for Kenyan entrepreneurs and has attracted investor groups including a local bank. As expected, Kenyan entrepreneurs have formed their own version of an incubator/consulting operation called iHub, (www.ihub.co.ke) where local techies and investors can congregate. Despite having many fundamental issues to resolve, Kenya’s success in lubricating its economy with a digitized currency is truly noteworthy. Credit is largely due to the Kenyan government who played a crucial role in building out the infrastructure needed to connect over 40 million cell/Internet users.

Mexico City, Mexico
At a recent conference held in New York by the Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce – Northeast Chapter, (www.usmcocne.org) on Mexican innovation, entrepreneurship, and venture capital financing, two panels of key influencers shared their views.

There I learned that 99.8% of the firms in Mexico produce just over half of the country’s annual GDP (52%).  Most revealing was that the remaining 0.2% of Mexican firms are in the hands of the ‘super-rich’ who collectively account for the other half of the country’s annual GDP. With half of the country’s GDP in so few hands, venture capitalists and similar funding sources have seized the opportunity to disrupt the status quo with a new crop of technology-based firms that could deliver ‘Apple-like’ growth and a similar eco-system of supporting companies.  Their ‘plan of attack’ as expressed at the conference, was principally focused on identifying ‘Steve Job-like’ candidates who would agree to work tirelessly, communicate effectively, innovate constantly, and function amenably with their venture capital support teams. They referred to these individuals as ‘super entrepreneurs’.

To fill the pipeline with potential candidates, one of Mexico’s largest academic institutions, Tecnológico de Monterrey, operates a Technology Center for Entrepreneurs (www.itesm.mx). The center currently manages a total of 1,500 startups per year. Startups that show exceptional promise graduate to the university’s accelerator program and may eventually compete for venture capital funding. This step also includes assistance from internationally recognized non-profit organizations such as Endeavor Global (www.endeavor.org), also present at the conference. Graduates from the exclusive Endeavor Global program work with leader/mentors along with their peers to gain additional market access and intel.

Mexico’s Venture Capital (VC) industry is small in comparison to the US but is making meaningful strides.  They have approved legislation granting VC’s with limited access to its hefty pensions. In addition, the government has recently approved a $120 million fund called the Entrepreneur’s Fund or ‘fund of funds’ to encourage more local money managers to address the needs of their up and coming squadron of ‘super entrepreneurs’. The government’s support is crucial and timely for Mexico, since its crop of qualified candidates are more global in scope than their predecessors and  could easily decide to move their businesses to another country for support and funding.

Cambridge, MA (MIT)
At MIT’s student incubator known as the Media Lab in Cambridge, MA (www.media.mit.edu), Joicho Ito, an accomplished investor and colorful visionary, oversees over 350 concurrent student-related startups.  On the surface, the incubator program appeared similar to the incubator/accelerator initiative at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico. However, a closer inspection showed that  their similarities ended at the front door.  At the Tecnológico de Monterrey, startup instruction is centered around the rigors of writing and rewriting a comprehensive business plan that might, one day, be used for funding consideration at a venture capital firm. In contrast, MIT’s Media Lab postpones the business plan writing exercises until funding has been approved.  Heretical in his approach, Ito explains that his primary focus is a team’s collective agility rather than the prowess of one exceptional individual or a business plan subjected to the rigidity of an outline and presentation. Startup founders find each other, are free to innovate together as they see fit, and, when ready, present their ideas for funding by conducting some form of proof-of-concept such as a small pilot or survey. Funding is limited to no more than $100,000 per team. Teams that succeed may pitch for more funding (with a formal business plan), while those that fail are encouraged to join another team.

Teams are expected to conduct many small pilots and leverage their data analytics to identify timely opportunities. Ito’s unwritten rule of denying a second round of financing has forced team members to become more agile with their decisions.  As expected, however, failures do happen and are not only common at the Media Lab, but most importantly, revered. According to Ito, students who learn to fail several times, actually win by learning the art of risk taking. Given several chances to take risks within a short period of time has proven to render more ‘breakthrough ideas’ as well as develop a more seasoned crop of team leaders/entrepreneurs.