Coming home: Q & A with Ryan Russell of the U.S. Commercial Service

Ryan Russell never thought he would come back to Pittsburgh. He wanted to pursue a career in international affairs, something he felt wasn't possible to do here.

“My hopes were to find an opportunity to continue traveling in a professional capacity, and I felt the likelihood of that was far greater in Washington, D.C., than in Pittsburgh,” he said.

To fuel his passion, Mr. Russell spent a decade traveling the world. He lived in Vietnam and Germany and received a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University. He learned four languages and was a foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department.

But in the end, the Steel City called him home.

He is now an international trade specialist with the U.S. Commercial Service, a branch of the Department of Commerce, in Downtown Pittsburgh. His primary job is to help U.S. companies make international business connections — and one of its biggest business sectors is energy.

Because so many foreign countries look to the U.S. for emerging technologies, Mr. Russell believes there are many opportunities to develop strong company partnerships. “I see a lot of interest in fracking technology and shale gas exploitation,” the 38-year-old said. “There are a lot of really good opportunities for mining companies in Chile and Peru.”

Living abroad has helped Mr. Russell develop a sense for different styles and cultures. It has also helped his current career in terms of understanding how foreign officials and companies operate. While countries such as Vietnam are open to new ideas, others such as Germany tend to be less flexible.

“Vietnam is very optimistic, very forward-looking,” he said. “Germany is a well-established, more closed off society.”

Mr. Russell can converse in Romanian, German, French and Vietnamese — something he learned while working for the State Department.

Being able to translate a product description into a potential business partner’s native language can go a long way.

“I can speak German, but if I had the opportunity to read about a product in English, I would chose English,” he said.

Q: When you say you picked things up in other countries, what sorts of things?

A: Some of the changes in habits are probably more subtle than others, but I definitely approach business interactions differently. For example, I learned when receiving a business card to really take more time to read and study it to respect the giver, rather than simply putting it into my pocket right away. This is a common business custom in many parts of Asia.

It has also certainly changed the types of food we prepare at home and seek out — Vietnamese cuisine is still one of our favorites. Then there are smaller things like proper dinner etiquette. In both Germany and Vietnam it was quite taboo to leave your shoes on when going to someone’s home and that is something we have adopted even in our own house.

Q: What is one misconception people have about your agency?

A: I think some companies don’t look at exporting in general because they feel it may be too difficult. However, there are a lot of resources, and plenty of people are interested in helping. 

Ignoring exporting as an option may mean forgoing excellent opportunities in other markets. If there’s a market here it makes sense for there to be a market outside of the U.S., as well. After all, 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside of the United States.

Q: What are some of the challenges facing your agency right now?

A: Just finding time to help companies reach all of their exporting objectives. I think everybody would like the day to be a bit longer to do more things we would like to. We’re a relatively small staff and the world marketplace is a large place.

Q: What is one characteristic everyone in your line of work should have?

A: Curiosity and flexibility. I say curiosity because I cover a range of industries and I’m by no means an expert in all of them. You have to be willing to research and understand what companies are doing and trying to provide. You have to be a good listener, as well, really being able to put into context what they’re trying to achieve.

Q: If you could go back in time and talk to your 5-year-old self, what would you say to him?

A: I‘d say the world is a smaller place and getting smaller and to not pass up the opportunities to go see it.

Madasyn Czebiniak: or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak

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