Trade News Highlights Wisconsin’s Global Role

WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes

We’re only partway into March and already there’s been a lot of good economic news for Wisconsin.

First, new year-end export figures show our state continues to expand its presence on the global stage. Manufacturing exports hit a record in 2022, totaling $27.3 billion in sales to 207 countries and territories. This was an increase of 10.3%, or $2.5 billion, over 2021, and 33.6%, or $6.8 billion, over 2020.

The top three product categories point to Wisconsin’s strength as a powerhouse for advanced manufacturing: Industrial machinery, up 23.6%, electrical machinery, up 21.6%, and medical and scientific instruments, up 12.2%. Together, these three categories account for about 44% of the state’s manufacturing exports.

Even with supply chain and workforce challenges affecting our state and the world, Wisconsin exports have continued to show impressive and consistent growth in recent years. And agriculture, another economic driver for Wisconsin, saw similar gains with farms and ag-related businesses exporting a record high $4.2 billion in sales to 142 countries and territories last year.

WEDC is at the forefront of efforts to help Wisconsin businesses extend their worldwide reach through programs like ExportTech, International Market Access Grants, and in-person and virtual trade ventures. We’re also teaming up with the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection’s International Agribusiness Center to promote ag exports through the Wisconsin Initiative for Agricultural Exports plan.

Deputy Secretary Sam Rikkers and I had the chance recently to see firsthand how these efforts are paying off.

In late February, I spent several days in South Korea strengthening connections we had first forged with local business and government leaders during a WEDC trade venture last fall. While we were there this time, I signed a memorandum of understanding with the Wisconsin Alumni Association of Korea (WAAK), which promises that proud Badger graduates in Korea will work with us to promote trade and investment opportunities in Wisconsin.

Korea is Wisconsin’s ninth-largest export destination, and WAAK is one of the Alumni Association’s most active chapters, and its members include top leaders in business, academia, and government. The current president of the WAAK is Seog-hoon Kang, the head of the Korean Development Bank, who told me how excited he is to build new partnerships between our two regions.

While I was in Korea, Sam was on a trade venture to Mexico, Wisconsin’s second-biggest export partner, joining five state businesses in visiting Monterrey and Mexico City. He met with Mexican companies that either already operate in Wisconsin or are considering opening facilities here, economic development organizations, and business groups representing key industries — all with the goal of expanding opportunities for Wisconsin businesses in Mexico and attracting investment to our state.

What we both found on our travels is that Wisconsin products are recognized worldwide for their quality, durability, and advanced innovation and Wisconsin businesses are known for the excellence of their workers. In short, our state’s global brand remains strong and is getting stronger.

The strength of that global brand depends in part on Wisconsin businesses’ continued innovation and our support for entrepreneurs. And that’s where the last bit of good news comes in.

WEDC was recently informed that the U.S. Treasury Department is awarding Wisconsin $79.1 million in State Small Business Credit Initiative funds. Of that $79.1 million in new federal money, $50 million is earmarked to create the Wisconsin Investment Fund, a new venture capital fund under WEDC’s direction.

This is a critical investment in Wisconsin’s culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. For years, WEDC and start-up advocates have sought such a fund so Wisconsin investors can help emerging businesses scale up with local support – instead of having to head to places like California and Massachusetts, where much of the nation’s venture capital is concentrated.

Additionally, Governor Evers has allocated $75 million in state funding for the venture capital fund as part of his next state budget. Taken together with the federal funds, our state has an opportunity to supercharge its support for innovation at a time when the world is increasingly looking to Wisconsin. I’ll have more details on the Wisconsin Innovation Fund in my next column, but in the meantime, let’s continue to look forward to more good news!

Missy Hughes is Secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state’s leading economic development organization.