Maybe it’s something as simple as an iconic new tower, or perhaps it comes down to organizing more frequent and effective international trade missions.
Either way, Atlanta needs to do a better job garnering international recognition for what is easy to see when you’re already here: a diverse, global city that is coming into its own.
That was the candid assessment of outgoing diplomats representing two of the city’s top economic partners: the United Kingdom and India.
Atlanta is somewhat a victim of its own success, becoming influential and connected before it got old, said U.K. Consul General Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, who said the city is the economic center of what amounts to America’s new “emerging market” — the Southeast U.S.
A relatively young city, Atlanta lacks the generational cachet of New York, Chicago and Boston or the glitz of Los Angeles, said Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, consul general of the United Kingdom.
“It has still got to play catchup and it’s got to also work almost twice as hard to put itself on the global map,” he said.
That also means leaders can’t let skepticism about global trade and criticism about suspected “boondoggle” trips dampen their desire to travel — even if it means flying coach and staying in hotels that are a bit less posh, said Mr. Pilmore-Bedford.
They have to make a better case that trade, in the end, leads to jobs, he said at a World Affairs Council of Atlanta discussion billed as a “Farewell to Atlanta” for the two men and their wives, who have become close friends.
“You cannot just stay home and not be out there promoting your city. You have to be out there doing it,” said Mr. Pilmore-Bedford, who will depart in about three weeks.
He also argued that city and state leaders should shoot to generate more press coverage, especially in international business news outlets like the Financial Times.
In India’s case, some states surrounding Georgia have been more aggressive in putting “boots on the ground,” sending high-level delegations to court Indian investment, said Nagesh Singh, consul general of India, who is set to leave in July.
“Georgia needs to wake up, and when I say Georgia I mean Atlanta as well,” he said.
The state focuses heavily on Europe and East Asia and has 11 trade and investment offices overseas, but it has not sent a gubernatorial mission to India in recent years, even as competing states have upped the ante.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American, traveled there in late 2014 on a trade mission, a few years before gaining her current ambassadorial post to the United Nations. (Mr. Singh said one Indian textile investor picked her state in part because the governor gave him her personal mobile number and said she would help clear any hurdles.)
Alabama politicians have also been receptive to India, which has major investments in steel and other industries in the state. Last year, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant visited the country on an economic development trip. In March, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas (outside Mr. Singh’s six-state territory) met with India’s prime minister to drum up more energy exports.
It comes down to understanding that while it’s possible to “time travel” between the 19th and 21st centuries when moving throughout India, it’s also not just a country of “cows and curry” anymore.
“I tell (companies) it’s the last mega market,” Mr. Singh said, noting India’s growing middle class, young population and the way that growing penetration of smartphones is changing daily life.
While complimentary of the city overall, Mr. Singh has at times been flabbergasted by how parochial Atlanta can be, especially given the global sophistication of its business community.
He has been questioned by high-level state leaders about how he learned English or whether India even has preschools. A local school principal told the consul general that he’d never traveled out of the state, let alone the country.
This “information gap” must be fixed if Atlanta is going to truly assert itself as a major player, and the onus isn’t only on educators: The massive Indian diaspora in Atlanta also has to do a better job engaging with the local community and telling the India story — a tough thing to do coherently in a massive country with a multitude of languages and cultures. By some counts, Atlanta alone has more than 200 Indian community associations.
And all this is not to say that Mr. Singh hasn’t seen increased interest and engagement from Georgia.
The state’s exports there more than doubled in 2017, thanks in part to defense ties. And financial technology firms are chomping at the bit to access the Indian market.
“They are among my biggest interlocutors,” Mr. Singh said.
Still, the city can’t “rest on its laurels” or put too much stock in its leadership position in industries like electronic payments and film. Georgia may tout a tax regime that has helped fuel its rise as a massive film hub, but there are equally ambitious competitors out there around the world, Mr. Singh said.
Both Headed to India
The diplomats both had words of wisdom for one another as each of them prepares to head to India.
For Mr. Singh, it’s a homecoming to Delhi, the capital, while Mr. PIlmore-Bedford will become deputy high commissioner — roughly equivalent to a consul general — in the South Indian industrial hub of Chennai.
Mr. Pilmore-Bedford jokingly warned him that home assignments are hardships and that Mr. Singh should get ready to readjust to normal life after losing the perks of expat living. (He said he’d be happy to have Mr. Singh join for a visit in Chennai if he needs a reminder of the good life.)
But more seriously, he urged him not to discount his three years of first-hand experience in the U.S. while working at India’s foreign ministry.
“You’re coming straight from this country; don’t underestimate how important that is when helping people understand the United States,” Mr. Pilmore-Bedford said.
Mr. Singh said this British diplomat will be quickly struck by the sheer mass of people in India, as well as its complexity. Patience is a key virtue in a land of ambiguity and contrast.
“We’ve been to Mars on the first shot at $70 million, and yet 200 million people in India who still can’t read and write. We have the third largest number of billionaires in the world, but still there are 200 million people who live below $2 a day. It’s a very complicated country,” he said.
Mr. Singh was confident that his British colleague would succeed, joking that Atlanta’s Indian community might just like Mr. Pilmore-Bedford more than Mr. Singh.
An example of their interactions: The British consul general has hosted a Diwali party at his residence annually since his arrival more than four years ago. The Brits and Indians have also battled it out in an annual cricket match for the last three years.