Recent face-to-face discussions across the Atlantic are already paying off for three St. Cloud-area education and business leaders.
Among the 50-plus Minnesotans to join Gov. Tim Walz on his seven-day trade trip to the United Kingdom and Finland were St. Cloud State President Robbyn Wacker, Center of International Studies Associate Vice President Shahzad Ahmad and Waite Park business owner Mohamed Farah.
"The partners we talked with are very interested in action steps. It wasn't just symbolic," Wacker said Monday, three days after returning to the United States. "I felt like the governor's folks did a really good job of getting us in front of the right people. We already have a connection to discuss a partnership in a master's program with Birkbeck University."
The trip focused on increasing state exports, developing new business opportunities and strengthening existing ties. Both the U.K. and Finland are important trade partners: the U.K. was the state's eighth largest export market in 2020, according to the governor's office. More than 70 U.K.-based companies operate at more than 180 business sites in Minnesota, with more than 60 Minnesota companies operating at 150 business sites in the U.K. And total trade between Minnesota and Finland was valued at $58 million in goods in 2020.
The delegation had four tracks of concentration: medical technology and health; environmental technologies; agriculture and food; and higher education.
Farah, who has owned Kaah Transportation in Waite Park for almost a decade, joined the medical technology group. The company provides medical transportation for clients in central Minnesota and the Twin Cities by partnering with the state, counties and insurance companies to bring clients to medical facilities or treatment centers statewide.
"The mission of the trip was to take Minnesota to the world and bring the world to Minnesota," Farah said.
On the trip, Farah met with foreign owners of similar medical transportation businesses, as well as the contracting department for England's health care system. He also visited a simulation center for medical equipment technology in Helsinki.
"We're going to implement some things learned to improve services, and to expand and grow business and hopefully keep the contacts and the networks," Farah said. "You never know — it may be an opportunity."
The higher education delegation included representatives from a handful of public and private universities in the state, but Wacker was the only university president on the trip.
"I've found in this work, too, when the [university] president is there, it signals that we are serious," she said. "We are able to say we're supportive of what the state of Minnesota is trying to do in terms of economic development, how education has a key role to play in that."
Wacker and Ahmad met with leaders from Birkbeck, University of London, Queen Mary University of London and University of Helsinki in Finland. Wacker also spoke with industry leaders from Minnesota and the U.K. about the university's ISELF building, which is a multidisciplinary and student-centered facility that provides hands-on training in partnerships with local businesses.
The ISELF program, Wacker said, is unique because it involves undergraduates who often are hired by local companies for which they've helped create solutions. Students at the facility have helped a local company with GPS technology and created a simulation lab to train staff at a long-term care facility working with dementia patients.
"What was powerful was President Wacker — as the leader of a higher education institution — spoke to the workforce development and the kind of employees [that] will be available to these companies when they come to Minnesota," Ahmad said.
Wacker said they also laid the groundwork to create more "2+2 programs" where students study two years at their home university and two years at a partner university overseas. It's a different program compared to a study abroad semester that might delay a student's graduation. This program creates a pathway for graduation in four years.
"What we are really focused on is a clear degree pathway for Finnish and English students to come to St. Cloud State and get those degrees," Wacker said.
Ahmad said he was proud to be part of Minnesota's delegation because the state is leading the way in planning new trade missions during the pandemic.
"It's much needed to be able to give a boost to global businesses and trade — and education is definitely part of that trade," he said.