Georgia native returns to tout exports, receive Emory honor

A Statesboro native, a graduate of the University of Georgia and Emory Law School, Lewis was recently named chair and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The bank backs up exporters with insurance and loan guarantees.

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A Statesboro native, a graduate of the University of Georgia and Emory Law School, Lewis was recently named chair and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The bank backs up exporters with insurance and loan guarantees.

Reta Jo Lewis is the first person of color to lead Export-Import Bank.

Reta Jo Lewis grew up in Statesboro, the daughter of small business owners.

Lewis, 68, said small businesses are drivers of the economy, engines for jobs, and she’s taken that family business perspective with her to the halls of Washington, where she now leads the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

The institution, known as the Ex-Im Bank for short, is a federal corporation that helps finance and insure deals made overseas by U.S. companies.

“We understand that economic security is national security,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are really right there working alongside them when they work with these foreign entities. We want to make sure that the experience all the way around is successful.”

Foreign trade can be risky. The bank, founded in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, provides insurance and guarantees to companies, reimbursing much of their losses if things go wrong.

In the past seven years, 126 Georgia companies — most of them small — have received Ex-Im backing, making the state the 11th largest recipient of the bank’s support. (Georgia is the 8th most populous state.)

The bank has a dozen regional offices, including one in Atlanta. With about 400 employees, Ex-Im piggybacks off the Commerce Department, which has many more foreign officers around the world. In the agency budget, officials estimated that Ex-Im this year will provide back-up for $9.6 billion in spending, supporting an estimated 59,000 jobs.

Lewis said she grew up immersed in small business concerns. Her parents ran two — Lewis Mart and Lewis Van Lines Moving and Storage.

Lewis, the first person of color to head the bank, was in Atlanta recently to receive an award at Emory University, where she earned a law degree.

In her career, she has worked in both the public and private sectors. She was formerly director of congressional affairs at the German Marshall Fund to the United States and has worked at the U.S. Department of State and the White House, as well as for a number of law firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

She spoke to the AJC during her Atlanta visit. Her remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

AJC: Welcome back to Georgia. I wonder, how do you connect where you came from to what you are doing now?

Lewis: Being someone who is from a small town, whose parents were small business owners, I am keenly aware of the challenges, but I would also say, the great opportunities that business leaders and small business owners have in providing jobs.

The mission, basically, of the Export-Import Bank is supporting American jobs and encouraging exports of U.S. goods and services. It is one of the tools in the president’s toolkit around our economic security in order to assist U.S. businesses to maintain our competitiveness.

AJC: How does the insurance work for exporters?

Lewis: Basically, it’s Ex-Im providing (support). Their work is being backed up by the full faith and credit of the United States. We provide the insurance against the risk of non-payment by that foreign entity. If they don’t pay and they are working with us, Ex-Im steps in and covers that.

AJC: Do you have some metric, some benchmark for measuring what you do?

Lewis: We use the guidepost that is in our charter. It specifically talks about making products and services available, especially to small business. Making more available in China, in Africa, in projects with clean energy.

We’ve begun to look at more work with state and local leaders, with minorities, women, with veterans, with LGBTQ communities – all the areas that have traditionally been underserved. We have come to understand that mayors and governors and county executives are the key economic drivers of development in their communities. So we are trying to do more partnerships with them and the organizations that serve them.

AJC: Has the Russian war in Ukraine had an impact on what you do?

Lewis: We do have a commitment to Ukraine. The prime minister was in Washington a couple weeks ago and we let them know that Ex-Im bank supports Ukraine. We were able to re-affirm a $3 billion commitment, making financing available, that we had signed last August. We do believe that American companies can play a central role when it’s time for Ukraine to rebuild.

We think that there’s Ex-Im financing can be used to bring a number of their projects to life, especially around building bridges and digital infrastructure, clean energy facilities and so much more.

AJC: Do you steer exporters in any way, toward certain businesses or particular regions?

Lewis: We can tell them where things are trending, where things are happening. (We talk about) being sustainable, about AI, about biotech and semi-conductors.

What we are trying to do is be more strategic. Part of being (in Atlanta) this week is to raise awareness around the Make More in America Initiative. Right here in the US, there was a wide understanding that the COVID pandemic and all the subsequent events exposed the holes in our supply chain. It showed that we had insufficient manufacturing capacity. It showed that our U.S. industrial base had eroded and it showed how China and other countries, how aggressive they had been in working throughout the world.

The idea is to make more in America and export more from America.

I think we are in a different era now, and at Ex-Im Bank we have to diversify our portfolio. It’s just a great time for me to be at Ex-Im. I hope that this will be a great legacy that we all can leave, making sure that American companies large and small, are able to compete, but also, we want them to win.


Reta Jo Lewis

Age: 68

Hometown: Statesboro

Education: University of Georgia (A.B), American University (M.S.A.J.) Emory University School of Law (J.D.)

Current position: Chair and president, Export-Import Bank of the United States

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Ex-Im Chair Reta Lewis and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at recent conference of U.S. mayors

Credit: cus

Ex-Im Chair Reta Lewis and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at recent conference of U.S. mayors

Credit: cus

Combined ShapeCaption
Ex-Im Chair Reta Lewis and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at recent conference of U.S. mayors

Credit: cus

Credit: cus

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