Where do I begin to tell the story of our Trade Mission to the beautiful nation of Colombia? It had been in the planning stage for over fourteen years. It began when a political figure named Oscar Gamboa, who works for the government, came to our office in Washington, DC and met with Charles DeBow. There would be numerous communications with Oscar and others but we never solidified anything as we were preoccupied with African nations. Then last year at our Trade Mission to the Dominican Republic, Juan Camilo, a consultant for the Colombian President, and Luis Playonero, President of the newly formed African American Chamber of Commerce for Colombia (Camara Comercio Afro Americana de Colombia) came to get a firm commitment from us to visit their nation and formally kick off their new chamber. We pledged to do it.
We would later decide on which exact date and began forming the content and itinerary. Juan would be the champion on their side and Chuck would be the driver for the NBCC. We decided to do it in May, 2014 despite that being the Rainy Season for Colombia. This is when they get more rain than any other period but that didn’t scare us because we learned when we went to Costa Rica that the term meant some rain each day but no serious storms by any stretch of the imagination. Thus, we flew to the nation on Sunday May 18. We formed a team of 24 people and they put a promising Itinerary together. They met each and every one of us at the Bogota International Airport – a monster.
Bogota is a city of 7.5 million people similar to the size of Chicago or Los Angeles. It is high in the mountains with an altitude of 12,000 – more than double the height of Denver, Co. You can immediately feel it when you land. At first it is a little annoying having to take deeper breaths but after a day it starts feeling normal. The very first thing you see are Blacks walking around everywhere. Colombia has the second largest Black population in South America – next to Brazil. However, Blacks in Colombia certainly are in more prominent positions than our Brazilian brothers and sisters.
It immediately became clear to us our Colombian brothers and sisters meant straight business. The federal representatives we began meeting immediately started showing us projects that are coming up and invited us to join in and also tell all of Black America there is opportunity for them. They want our experience, portfolios and "muscle" to pair up with their aspiring Black entrepreneurs and move forward. The government is quite willing to do what it has to do to make this a success and a permanent relationship between Black Colombia and Black America which will make both nations stronger and secure.
Most of our Colombian brothers and sisters knew us well as they have either traveled extensively or even lived a few years in America. More than a few had degrees from American colleges and universities. We were challenged and had to start a sharp learning curve. They knew this and were patient. We had meetings in the Executive Building for the President of Colombia – wow!
The highlight of the first two days were meetings with our friend, Oscar Gamboa , who is now a front line advisor to the President and Jaime Miranda who is High Presidential Counselor for Competitiveness. We had a frank two hour session and they made it clear: It is time for Black American businesses to link up with their counterparts in Colombia. Keep in mind both of these men answer directly to the President. Jaime ended the discussion with "I mean now! Do you want me to put it in writing?" I replied, "Just to hear you say it is all we need".
Just when you think it cannot get better, we flew off to the City of Cali. Cali is a city of 2.2 million people and home to their new Black chamber. Cali is 70% Black, vibrant and beautiful. We stayed at a fabulous Intercontinental Hotel. All meetings were held on the property. We had a formal execution of our Memorandum of Understanding and were received by an impressive group of Press. The highlight came at our business matchmaker. They were expecting 150 of their entrepreneurs to come and meet with our participants for about three hours. We were overwhelmed with over 350 Colombian entrepreneurs who came and stayed for more than five hours.
Mining, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, hospital supplies, engineering, construction management, fashion, etc. are some of the deals that are now in process. Our hospital supply business is staying over a day to close a sale on one of his products to a major hospital (724 beds). One of our mining guys has extended his stay for two weeks. The dearest thing to my heart was to see a Black female engineer from Cali hook up with our Black female engineer from Chicago.
It was a hit! Things will never be the same. Success is so sweet.
Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.