AMERICA ALWAYS WANTS YOU
Let’s first recognize that the choice of any US president does matter a lot for Belgium. It will impact short term all who deal directly with the US: business, politicians, travelers, and of course, entrepreneurs and students with their own American Dream. It will impact everybody in the longer term indirectly in more ways than one. The US is simply too important a global player, barring black swans, for decades to come. Just think of major global policy choices Biden can make on day 1, like re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement, opening trade again, or re-starting currently closed visa programs. As a student, or as a start-up, after this article you can find out how BelCham will help you get (back) here, as soon as Biden/Harris can allow it again. To paraphrase the powerful Obama campaign slogan: Yes, (soon) You Can (again).
Biden or Trump? All Belgians living in the US got this agonizing question from their friends and family back home over the last months. Every 4 years, the anxiety around presidential elections in the US peaks. Since the Trump election and his last 4 years in the White House, the world is watching even more closely. Biden was declared the winner so far, yet Trump has not conceded. A peaceful and swift transition is unlikely. Given all this continued ambiguity, how should Belgian companies and students think about the US going forward?
THE US STILL MATTER Pundits will challenge: why do we care? Does the US still matter more than Asia? It is a good question. I have experienced the rise of Asia first hand over the last 3 decades. However, I would still encourage every student and business person to first understand the US. I would encourage everyone with an American Dream to still find a way to follow it, however hard it may seem short term. Here are just a few more facts from various diplomatic sources for context:
- There are about 35.000 Belgians in the US.
- Pre covid and Trump, the US was the fastest growing country for Belgians to emigrate to.
- Belgium is the number 10 investor in the US in terms of foreign direct investment (almost 100Bn US$ in 2018). Belgian companies now employ an estimated 150.000 - 200.000 people in the US.
- Belgium is the number 14 export country for the US, and among the top 10 with a trade surplus with the US.
- The top 40 US companies in Belgium employ at least 75.000 people.
- Last but not least, Belgium has an incredibly rich and emotional history with the US. As just one example, let’s always remember who came to our rescue multiple times in the last century? Ask our tourism agencies how important US visitors are. Check the KU Leuven library building on Ladeuzeplein.
ALL ABOUT THE ECONOMY? A lot of the discussion of the last months and weeks has been about what this US election was all about. The economy? Covid? More? Trumps’s campaign argued 4 more MAGA years, with no specific plans on what that would mean. Biden argued Build Back Better, with many more detailed plans. For the American people, speaking with my marketing hat on, the 2020 choice was probably one of the most difficult ones of the last decades. Instead of a clean brand choice like in 2016, between an incumbent (Clinton) and a challenger (Trump), this time Trump/Pence was the incumbent (but with continued challenger DNA), and Biden/Harris was the surprising challenger (with incumbent DNA, yet rejuvenated). Covid made the communication of the choice for either ticket even tougher, despite the record amounts of money raised on both sides to convince the 2 key constituents: their loyal national base, and the all important swing voter in battleground swing states.
Unseating incumbents is always tough to accomplish, in any field. When it happens, as in 2016, it is usually because of complacency or arrogance. This time, both campaigns were warned about each other. In the KU Leuven VRG/Ekonomika panel on Election Day, we argued whether this election was, as always, in the first place about the economy. For a large majority, that is what always matters most. According to a September 2020 Gallup poll, and despite the pandemic, 56% of Americans felt they were actually better off under Trump than 4 years ago. Trump had de facto accelerated an already booming second 4 years of Obama. Economists will argue correctly Trump de facto boosted the economy short term with a very costly tax plan and with America First protectionism. But in this election, in mathematical terms, the economy was the necessary condition to win, not the sufficient one. This was, as the Biden campaign successfully argued, about more than the economy, stupid. It was about the Soul of American Democracy.
The American people have now spoken. Governing will likely remain messy because of the inherent American complexity: a possibly divided Congress (pending on the 2 remaining Georgia senate races), and many divided houses on state level. There is plenty of room for interpretation on what is now really possible. The world will keep following the ongoing discussion with interest, but the point for Belgium is this: whatever hand the American electorate and its idiosyncratic election system will finally deal us, we should play that hand pragmatically and calmly.
AMERICA WILL NEVER BE BELGIUM Belgium should deal with the short term, and keep an eye on the long term. We do this for every other major country we deal with around the world, so why not with the US? I don’t mean this to be a recommendation for cynical Realpolitik, but in a way we need to know our relative place and check any feelings of self-righteousness. If you don’t like the US, or don’t like its leadership and its choices because it doesn’t match your values, then don’t do business there, don’t travel there, don’t watch Netflix, or try to have a professional dialogue for change with them.
Belgium does not choose the US President, even if listening to the media it sometimes sounds like we should have the right to. To Americans, Belgium’s convoluted electoral system and questionable governance history (covid?) can hardly be presented as a role model to emulate. Living and working in the US never was, and never will be like visiting Disney World either. Living and working in NYC is not the same as having a great time for a week in NYC. It is a hard fight every day, and it will remain so under Biden/Harris. America will never be Belgium. Many of the values you grew up with will be tested. However, if you have an open mind, and embrace the US in all of its diversity, the risk/reward equation is there too.
INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITIES For Belgians, the US remains an incredible first call of opportunity to leverage in the geopolitical landscape, closer than Asia will ever be for many reasons. Allow me to extend the card playing analogy. Belgians believe they are expert card players. The Belgian company Cartamundi is the global leader in card games (and more). As it happens, end last year Cartamundi acquired USPCC, the United States Playing Card Company. Its core brand is one with a deep tradition and history Belgians would actually love: Bicycle. It is an American icon you can find in many households, dating back to 1885, between Budweiser (1876), and Coca-Cola (1885). The Cartamundi move was made with an eye not only on the long-term value of the US market itself, but as a game changing leverage for the position of Cartamundi in the world. Just as AB InBev, Lotus/Biscoff, UCB, Bekaert, Solvay, Sonaca, and others did, and will keep doing. Just as scale ups like Collibra, Showpad, Odoo, and many others did, and will keep doing.
Let’s show we can play multiple rounds, and win the long game even if you occasionally lose a couple of rounds. Strategy “trumps” luck over time (pun intended). America always embraced the people with a pioneering frontier spirit. America Always Wanted You, and Still Wants You, more than ever.
Former President - BelCham
Former CMO AB InBev
CHRIS BURGGRAEVE is een internationale marketeer die top marketingfuncties heeft bekleed bij P&G, Coca Cola (als Group Marketing Director Europe) en AB InBev (als Chief Marketing Officer). Deze ervaring combineert hij intussen als adviseur, investeerder, ondernemer, bestuurslid en academicus. Chris is een voorvechter van sterke partnerships tussen marketing & finance. Dit brengt hij tot leven in zijn eerste boek genaamd ‘Marketing is Finance is Business - how CMO, CFO and CEO cocreate iconic Brands with sustainable pricing power in the new Galactic Age’.
Hij is ook een echte pioneer: Chris speelt een actieve rol in de snelgroeiende globale cannabis business, en wordt naar alle waarschijnlijkheid de eerste CMO in de ruimte (via Virgin Galactic).
Chris woont en werkt in New York City sinds 2009. Hij was bestuurder en voorzitter van BelCham (the Belgian American Chamber of Commerce) van 2010-2018, en is Adviseur in Economische Diplomatie voor België (2014-). Sinds mei 2018 kreeg hij ook de Amerikaanse nationaliteit.
LET BELCHAM HELP YOU!
Forging a path to the USA often takes a little creativity and a lot of legwork, so let BelCham be your guide. From students and young professionals to seasoned entrepreneurs and C-suite, there’s a place for you in this vibrant community on the other side of the Atlantic. The good news? President-elect Biden agrees, and has already pledged to support global mobility and opportunities in the USA, from as early as day one (January 20, 2021). While the global pandemic continues to play a role, it seems that several of the existing practical [visa] road - blocks and travel restrictions will be removed sooner rather than later. Let’s get to work!
If you’re interested in kickstarting your career opportunities or beefing up your CV with an international experience, consider an internship or traineeship on a J1 visa in the USA via BelCham. At its core, the J1 visa facilitates a cultural exchange, allowing you to live and work in the USA up to 18 months! Here are some way to prepare:
1. Get clarity on what you’re looking for!: Use this “down time” wisely – identify what kinds of opportunities are most interesting to you and why, where you can bring added value to a company, start compiling a list of companies you’re interested in contacting and work on tailored motivation letters to them.
2. Determine your timelines! In general, BelCham recommends that you give yourself approximately 4-6 months to find an internship. Any earlier and companies might not be thinking that far ahead, any later, and it might be hard to find companies who can move that fast. Remember that larger companies tend to recruit earlier than small companies and plan accordingly.
3. Network Network Network! It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. We love LinkedIn as a starting point. Let your network know that you’re looking and that you’re interested in connecting with people who are currently working (or have previously worked) in the USA. Never underestimate the power of an informal chat. Not only does it give you a chance to perfect your pitch, but it also expands your network to the people they know.
Once you’ve identified some interesting companies, reach out to current employees to learn more about their career path and why they chose to work at that company (don’t ask them if they can get you a job!). When it comes time to apply, they might even be able to refer you.
4. Create a profile on BelCham’s career platform: Go ahead and take a look at our job board at https://jobs.belcham.org - you can browse companies within our community (plus you can make a profile on our talent network!). Don’t focus too much on the positions posted, but rather on the companies as many times they will not advertise their internship opportunities.
5. Contact the team! In the simplest terms, we will guide your search process – from feedback on communication to companies you’d like to contact to interviewing advice, facilitate your required J1 visa and paperwork, and be a part of your US support system while you’re here. BelCham is a membership based organization, and we have a special rate for Young Professionals (under age 30).
For 101 years, BelCham’s mission has been to educate, support and connect the transatlantic business community. BelCham provides Belgian businesses with meaningful connections, curated programming and bespoke services (including talent matching and coworking space) in support of their success overseas. If you’re a company planning to scale to the USA or grow your operations in the US, reach out to the BelCham team to make sense of this market, learn how to enter and grow more efficiently, and leverage the power of the connected network to increase your competitive advantage!
Valerie Van den Keybus, Co-MD email@example.com