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Russia: U.S. Small Business Owners Head for Russia

Washington, 6 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian-U.S. business ties tend to involve major corporations with names recognized around the world. But a group of small business owners from Washington hopes to change that as part of a first-ever U.S. small business mission to Russia. The mission leaves today for Moscow.

The delegation of ten entrepreneurs, accompanied by an official of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), will spend ten days in Moscow and St. Petersburg meeting with Russian government officials and entrepreneurs in similar or complementary businesses.

The group came together when they met while attending the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business that was designed to encourage small business development, as well as fight for their concerns in government deliberations. It was attended by 4,000 entrepreneurs from across the United States.

The head of the group of Washington entrepreneurs, John Robinson, chief executive officer of Black Diamond Enterprises, says the idea of the mission to Russia was to emphasize the importance of small business in the international market place.

"I'm very excited to be part of this important mission," Robinson told a press conference Thursday. "Our fellow small business entrepreneurs in Russia have challenges to share with us and we have experience to share with them."

Robinson pointed out that many small business owners in Russia started as black-market operators, so had to be innovative problem solvers to keep their businesses functioning.

Delegation member Marylou Foley, who owns a tour company for tourist and business trips to Russia and other former Soviet states, says she wants to get two-way traffic going.

"We've been working with Russia and the Soviet Union before that for 20 years, but almost all the traffic has been Americans going to Russia," she says. "We want to encourage Russians to travel to the United States for business and pleasure -- there are lots of opportunities."

However, she says, for many of those on the mission, this is a first visit to Russia and it will be more of a "get acquainted" session, learning about the Russian market, meeting Russian small business owners with whom future deals might be arranged.

Calvin Lewis, who heads a data communication software company, says he's going to be "looking to do business."

However, he acknowledged, he and his company still have some apprehension over Russian enforcement of intellectual property rights.

"All companies like mine, both large and small, must be sure that intellectual property rights are protected before we can start doing business with computer software," he says.

The founder and head of a small manufacturing and supply company in Washington, James Powell, says it will be his first visit to Russia, but that he will be interested in finding partners who, like himself, can be innovative and are ready to make a small enterprise work.

Powell achieved some local fame when, as he puts it, he "took a piece of string" and found a simple way to make a better floor mop. The small, early success has led to a growing local business called Powell's Manufacturing industries. He says he imagines there are entrepreneurs like himself who are interested in a partnership.

Todd Ruelle, who runs a company which overcame great odds to put a small fleet of natural gas-powered taxi cabs onto Washington streets a few years ago, says he hadn't expected to do much actual business until he got a telephone call from Moscow on Thursday from a man offering to sell him 20 cars which could easily be converted to natural gas.

"I guess we're already doing businesses," he said.

The business owners will also meet with officials of the Russian State Committee for the Support and Development of Small Business (GKRP) as well as with the Chamber of Trade and Industry.

The delegation will begin a formal program in Moscow on Monday, traveling to St. Petersburg by overnight train Wednesday night. The mission concludes its visit on Saturday, September 14.

The Russian GKRP and the U.S. SBA signed a memorandum of understanding last July and officials say this is the first small business group traveling to Russia under that pact.

SBA administrator Philip Lader says he and GKRP chairman Viatcheslav Prokhorov agree that small business formation is important for the growth of both countries' economies.

Small business in the United States accounts for 50 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 54 percent of the work force.