New DEED commissioner says big returns can come from small ideas

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Can Baby Elephant Ears wave the state’s economy into a brighter future?

Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Katie Clark, with a smile, suggests lessons can be learned.

DEED Commissioner Katie Clark.
Photo supplied by DEED.

Clark, 31, was recently appointed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton to lead the state agency. She previously served as executive director of the Minnesota Trade Office.

Last year, state exports totalled about $20 billion.

But Clark believes state businesses have more to offer than currently found on foreign shelves.

“We absolutely do,” Clark said.

Clark points to the remarkable success of an Isanti County mother, Alicia Overby, who managed to parlay a noisy problem into a multi-million-dollar business.

When advised by a health care provider that one way of getting her colicky baby to stop crying might be propping the baby up — Overby had been running the vacuum cleaner to control the crying — Overby designed a special pillow to help hold up Baby Finn.

“In talking with some of her friends, she developed a product that she calls Baby Elephant Ears,” Clark said.

Now Baby Elephant Ears are being exported to a handful of countries.

“And this is just a mom in Isanti, who had an idea, and develop the idea,” Clark said.

Yes, it’s a remarkable success story, Clark explained.

But it also shows potential.

Clark heralds the trade office as offering business technical assistance for delving into foreign markets.

For instance, the office has nine trade representatives, each focusing on different regions of the world.

It recently launched a program, Export by Design, that allows businesses to develop a customized export strategy and market-development program.

The administration has stressed the importance of trade.

Earlier this year, Dayton, accompanied by state business leaders, travelled to China on a trade mission, visiting Beijing, Shanghai and other locations.

“I think any market with a growing middle class is market that has great potential for export,” Clark said.

Indeed, in 2011, China accounted for some $2.3 billion in Minnesota export sales.

China is the No. 1 destination for state agricultural exports, the second market overall for Minnesota exports.

But companies need to be cautious, Clark explained, in entering new marketplaces.

DEED is the state’s main economic development agency, promoting business recruitment, workforce development, international trade and community development.

Clark, who worked at Target Corporation, National Wind, and as Dayton campaign-finance director, views a central focus of the agency as helping the state remain on the competitive edge.

“We provide a variety of programs and services,” Clark said.

“But I think the most important work that we’re doing is all under the umbrella of positioning Minnesota to be globally competitive,” she said.

Insomuch as the state is currently facing a budget deficit — the November budget forecast is expect out soon — Clark does not foresee DEED receiving a wash of new funding.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet,” Clark said of new resources being thrown into just one area of DEED and achieving exponential results.

“It’s a mixture of services that need to work effectively together in order to make all of that happen,” she said.

Clark anticipates touring the state in upcoming weeks, and expects, too, to be spending time at the State Capitol when lawmakers return for the new session in January.

On a personal level, she’ll judge the job she’s doing by the effectiveness of her agency.

“I want to focus on running an effective and efficient agency,” Clark said.

And she wants to make sure DEED employees know that they’re doing the great job that they are, she said.

Clark replaced former DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips, who left the agency to pursue opportunities it the private sector, according to the Dayton Administration.

“Ms. Clark shares my commitment to hard work, organizational excellence, and exceptional public service,” Dayton said in statement when appointing Clark.

DEED has about 1,500 employees and a $421 million budget.

State business officials view the trade office as having done a “nice job.”

“I think that’s why Katie Clark is there (as commissioner) today,” said Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, stressed the importance of economic development.

“I think there’s a need for an agency like DEED,” he said.

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