The Indian government consulate for the Southeast, operating from a mansion on Sandy Springs’ Glenridge Drive, has the standard passport and visa office. But the main reason the consulate opened shop there in 2012 was to do business.
The northern Perimeter area has 13 foreign government consulates, and many more unofficial “honorary consulates,” that play a little-known but key role in helping small businesses do international deals.
“I jokingly say Sandy Springs is the only city with its own foreign policy, because we do have a significant number of consulates here,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.
Countries with consulates in Paul’s city include India, Colombia, Costa Rica and Nigeria. And it’s not an accident—Paul’s predecessor, the late Mayor Eva Galambos, pushed hard to convince the Indian consulate to open in Sandy Springs.
“Eva’s mindset, and it certainly still drives me today, is the world is no longer insular,” said Paul. “You’ve got to be able to look beyond your borders…If you’re not forming relationships around the world, you’re getting left in the dust.”
Nagesh Singh, India’s consul general in Atlanta, said his country had business on its mind, too.
“As the Southeast started emerging as a manufacturing hub…we started noticing the growth here,” he said of the choice of a Sandy Springs consulate.
The booming Southeast economy also gets the attention of countries that are already longtime trading partners, such as Mexico, the second-biggest international buyer of Georgia goods. Mexico has long had a metro Atlanta consulate, now operating from Chantilly Drive, just across I-85 from Brookhaven and Buckhead.
“It’s no secret the Atlanta region has become a multicultural and diverse market,” said Javier Díaz de Léon, Mexico’s consul general and a Sandy Springs resident.
Díaz and Singh said their consulates’ business work usually involves helping small companies navigate rules, regulations and tax systems. And it goes both directions—foreign companies coming here, and vice versa.
“The large corporations, the big boys, have their own ways of doing that,” Díaz said. “But we do help a lot of medium [and] small businesses.”
Multinational companies like Coca-Cola and UPS also connect with the consulates, the consul generals said, but more for direct talks about government policy rather than nitty-gritty business help.
While the consulates act as a resource for business information, they don’t do it alone. They often work with international or cultural business associations. Díaz, for example, frequently works with the Buckhead-based Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents mostly large corporations, and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Georgia, which represents mostly small businesses.
Conexx, a private America-Israel business networking organization serving the Southeast, frequently works on Perimeter business connections.
“Basically, it’s a triangle,” said Conexx President Guy Tessler, describing the joint work among his organization, the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, and the Israeli government’s Economic Mission in New York City. Working together, he said, they can efficiently find the proper business partners among the hundreds or thousands available in the U.S. and Israeli economies.
That “triangle” recently went to work in creating an innovative Sister City relationship between Sandy Springs and the Western Galilee Cluster, a group of local governments in Israel.
Paul specified that he wanted the Sister City to be more than the typical cultural exchange. He wanted an ongoing economic development partnership focused on medical technology, tourism, and information technology and cyber security.
Conexx helped find the right region of Israel with the right sort of industries to match Sandy Springs. Government leaders from Sandy Springs visited the Western Galilee last year, and some of the Israeli area’s leaders visited here earlier this month, stopping at such places as Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital. But besides that traditional form of exchange, “task forces” of officials from both sides are staying in touch for ongoing connections.
The outcomes can be surprising. Paul said that during a stop at The Weber School, one Israeli mayor noticed the linoleum floor—a common product here, but unusual in the Western Galilee. The mayor was interested in the durable material, and it turns out some of it is manufactured in Georgia. “It’s even mundane things like that,” Paul said.
Doing business can require some cultural interpretation, and local consuls said they wished they were asked for help with that more often from both sides.
Tessler said that Americans and Israelis can misunderstand each other over terms the Americans may take as a polite brush-off and Israelis interpret more literally. “The simple phrase ‘It’s interesting’ has caused many headaches and need for interpretation,” he said.
Singh noted that doing business in India can be tough enough for Indians, as there are 29 national languages, each spoken by at least 20 million people. “I’m more comfortable speaking with you than [with someone] in southern India,” he said.
Likewise, Southern hospitality can be a surprise to Indian immigrants who are more familiar with north communities or ones in California. Singh said that when he and his wife took a walk after moving to Buckhead, they were surprised that drivers waved at them. “’Who are these people?’” he recalled wondering. “Then I realized it’s a normal thing to do.”
“Better cultural understanding of each other’s habits and ways is almost 50 percent of the job done,” Singh said, “whether it’s the political sphere or the economic sphere.”