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Q&A: Learning How to Go Global

Prior to forming her own engineering firm, Lisa Cookmeyer worked at a large global firm in New Orleans. Then Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005 and caused one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the U.S.

Cookmeyer and three business associates began talking and discovered they all wanted to go out on their own. In May 2009, the quartet became international business partners and created Trigon Associates LLC, a women-owned engineering, management and consulting services business that specializes in large capital construction infrastructure projects such as water, wastewater and roads. Cookmeyer is the CEO of Trigon, which has 13 employees in the United States and 20 overseas. The company is helping manage a $750 million (U.S.) infrastructure program in Palestine for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

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From banking to local labor laws, know how things work from a legal standpoint of doing business in that country, like building leases.

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Cookmeyer offers her own advice about running a global business.

What does the name Trigon mean?

Cookmeyer:  I know it's a bit unusual. The name refers to our three core principles: quality, commitment and client service. 

How did you handle the currency value differences?

Cookmeyer: We had some challenges in understanding the payment methodology and if we should pay in U.S. dollars or a local currency. If there are huge currency fluctuations, we will take hedging into consideration.

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How have you dealt with the language barriers?

Cookmeyer: Luckily English is widely spoken in the engineering field. But it is important to have someone who knows the local language, which is Arabic, when dealing with local firms, local contractors and others who live there. One of my business partners is originally from that area and is able to provide assistance, as well as our local management staff who have studied or worked in the U.S. or U.K. over the course of their careers.

What is one of your biggest challenges?

Cookmeyer: Producing documentations for public hearings and meetings. For USAID Mission projects, everything is required to be in a dual language format because many of the local residents don't speak English. We have to accurately translate brochures and have translators for public meetings. It can be a real challenge finding a translator who is proficient enough.

How did you find the right international interpreter?

Cookmeyer: We tried a few by recommendations. We had several iterations to get the right fit. I would recommend working with somebody, preferably a local agent, who knows the area well and also has a good command of English. It's important you have confidence in their ability to translate so they can work as a go-between to identify good translators.

What advice do you have for other small business owners?

Cookmeyer:  Do your homework to understand the details of what you are getting into. From banking to local labor laws, know how things work from a legal standpoint of doing business in that country, like building leases. The local labor law was a huge mystery to us. We were able to work with local attorneys to understand the requirements in Palestine. They are quite generous by American standards with their sick time, vacation time and 70 days of paid maternity leave. It's better to know that upfront when you are pricing a job, because if you don't, you aren't able to incorporate those costs into a project.

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