A Conversation with Reta Jo Lewis, President of the Export-Import Bank of the United States
Launched during the Great Depression, the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) helps finance and facilitate American businesses exporting their goods and services overseas. In fiscal year 2021, EXIM authorized $5.8 billion in loan guarantees, insurance, and direct loans to support approximately $9.2 billion in U.S. export sales.
As President and Chair of the Board of EXIM, Reta Jo Lewis oversees the agency’s entire work portfolio. President Lewis has over 25 years of leadership experience in international affairs, legal affairs, public policy, trade and regulatory affairs, and subnational diplomacy. She was confirmed by the US Senate on February 9, 2022, and sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on February 16. President Lewis is also the first African-American woman to hold this critical position.
I had the pleasure of speaking with President Lewis about her career and her vision for EXIM shortly after her swearing in. I am grateful to him for taking the time and here is a summary of our discussion.
Rhett Butt: You are the first woman of color to lead the EXIM bank – tell us about your journey up to this point.
President Lewis: I am incredibly honored by the confidence President Biden has placed in me to lead the Export-Import Bank at this important time for the US economy. Especially as we just completed our celebration of Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, my nomination and confirmation is a testament to President Biden’s progress and commitment to advancing equity and inclusion at all levels of government.
Growing up in Statesboro, Georgia with parents who were both small business owners and dedicated civic leaders, I saw and experienced the struggles and passion of small business first hand. Alongside my four siblings, my parents instilled in us the value of hard work from an early age. We quickly understood the meaning of community and learned the vital role small businesses play in making towns like Statesboro great places to live. Those lessons my parents taught me – and Georgia – are still on my mind.
I spent much of my career at the intersection of economic security and national security in Washington, D.C. Prior to coming to EXIM, I held leadership positions at places like the Chamber of Commerce United States, the United States Department of State, the White House, the United States Marshall Fund and the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. Throughout these experiences, I have worked to connect the best of America with the world. I supported American businesses and built international partnerships shaped by American values, and worked to expand inclusiveness in foreign policy. By coming to EXIM, I pledge to do my best to help our country’s businesses and workers compete globally.
Rhett Buttle: Can you describe EXIM’s mission and role in the economy, particularly as we seek to rebuild the economy?
President Lewis: EXIM is a US government agency that supports job creation by financing US exports of both goods and services. We mainly offer loan guarantees, direct loans, working capital and insurance products. We fill the gaps left by private financing vehicles so U.S. businesses can earn more sales and ultimately be more competitive in a crowded global marketplace.
For 88 years, EXIM has played a vital role in promoting economic opportunity for American businesses and our workers. After World War II, when former Secretary of State George Marshall sketched out the political outlines of what later became the Marshall Plan 75 years ago, he did so with EXIM as an irreplaceable part of the solution. The agency went on to help rebuild Europe, fund groundbreaking renewable energy projects in places like India and Peru, and support local small businesses seeking new markets every day.
Today, I am convinced that the future of EXIM and US exporters is filled with similar promise. I’m excited about the opportunities ahead of us, and I firmly believe that EXIM can—and should—play a vital role in helping to build a better America. We must work to expand our business to historically underserved businesses, strengthen collaboration and partnerships with state and local authorities, and fulfill our congressional mandates by funding clean energy projects and advanced technologies like semiconductors. , and in places like sub-Saharan Africa.
Rhett Buttle: What is the direct impact of EXIM’s work on small businesses across the United States?
President Lewis: EXIM financing helps small businesses in all 50 states open new markets, find new sales, and reduce the risk of selling internationally. Small business transactions represent the vast majority of our work. On average, over 90% of the transactions we process and 30% of our total portfolio support small businesses. Whether a company exports its own products independently or contributes to a larger global supply chain, helping small businesses succeed by accessing new markets and sales opportunities is central to the mission of EXIM. The agency is also focused on helping minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses succeed in exporting.
One of President Biden’s initiatives that I’m particularly passionate about is focused on strengthening America’s supply chains. In response to a recommendation made in the Executive Order on US Supply Chains, EXIM’s Board of Directors recently approved the Do more in America initiative. This initiative expands EXIM’s traditional loan and loan guarantee offerings to provide key opportunities to ensure that goods and services – especially those essential to national and economic security – are made in the United States. . The fact is, we need to do more in America, and we need to be able to export more from America.
Do more in America expand EXIM’s existing offerings to specific types of export-related domestic manufacturing projects, ultimately helping to build resilient and diverse supply chains and facilitate the relocation of more jobs Americans. These new financing tools will not only serve as essential complements to other actions the U.S. government is taking to improve supply chain resilience, but they will increase the competitiveness of U.S. export credit on the global landscape.
Rhett Butt: The Covid-19 pandemic has hit major streets hard across America. How has this affected the ability of small businesses to export goods?
President Lewis: The pandemic has undoubtedly hit main streets in every corner of the country. Businesses have had to find creative ways to tap into new product lines, source in different ways, find new customers and more. One thing we remind small businesses in times of volatility like this is that exporting can be an effective strategy to diversify and build resilience. Companies that export tend to perform better than those that don’t, and this is especially true in times of market turbulence.
Additionally, EXIM remained committed to providing relief to US exporters throughout the pandemic. Last spring, our Board of Directors voted to extend COVID-19 relief measures, including providing flexibilities in our working capital guarantee program, our supply and others. These measures have helped provide small exporting businesses with important financing opportunities and greater certainty as they weather the pandemic-related disruptions.
Rhett Buttle: What is your vision for EXIM as chairman and president to support business owners?
President Lewis: I want to put EXIM back in the game and ensure that American businesses, large and small, see EXIM as a partner in their journey to success. The agency has been through a lot, but today we have an incredible opportunity to turn the page, evolve and modernize in a major way, and renew our commitment to helping American exporters win the 21st century.
Many of our stakeholders have provided us with a roadmap of what success looks like. My job is to move the agency down this path so that every day we fulfill our mission and meet the expectations that Congress, the President, and our exporters have placed on us.
Rhett Buttle: Is there anything else you would like to add?
President Lewis: To all the big American companies reading this who need financial help to produce more, export more, and sell more – think EXIM.