Donald Nay, right, director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center for the Southeast, recently hosted Francisco J. Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade at the U.S. Commerce Department, in Atlanta. 

After serving a stint in the Peace Corps in the Philippines in the 1970s, Donald Nay stayed there to work with a U.S. program resettling Southeast Asian refugees displaced by the Vietnam War. 

Soon after they arrived, trading would begin. Laotians sold woven baskets, while Cambodians brought in captured monitor lizards. The Vietnamese baked French bread and fixed sandwiches, and native Filipinos peddled pigs, creating a makeshift but bustling market scene. 

It left an indelible impression on Mr. Nay, who would go on to a more than 20-year career promoting American business abroad. 

“You just couldn’t keep down this DNA urge to make better, and make better through trade and business,” Mr. Nay said during a speech at Kennesaw State University‘s Symposium on USA-Asia Partnership Opportunities April 19. 

Now posted in Atlanta, Mr. Nay has served across Asia as well as in a Washington role overseeing commercial offices in the region, where he has watched the principles of free enterprise transform societies. 

Throughout the 1980s, failed socialist policies made Vietnam’s biggest export “boat people,” as refugees fled the hard life in their country for better opportunities, Mr. Nay said. 

But liberalization in the early 1990s and the American decision to normalize ties with the country in 1995 changed all that. Poverty has been greatly reduced, and Vietnam is enjoying rapid growth, gaining frequent mention among the ranks of the most promising emerging economies.

“This all has to do with just giving the people the ability, the opportunity and the environment to work and gain the rewards for their work,” he said, noting that he later spent five years working at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, his last posting before coming to Atlanta. 

China is another example. Mr. Nay visited the country in 1981, during the rollout of premier Deng Xiaoping‘s free-market reforms. Few cars were on the roads, and even in the major cities, people rode bicycles while wearing drab Mao suits. 

Mr. Nay didn’t get a chance to return until 2010, and he saw a country enlivened by entrepreneurism. 

“Literally, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I couldn’t process it. It was just too much for me,” he told an audience of business leaders and academics during the symposium, which was held at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead

Mr. Nay drove home his point with a final image. He was posted in southern India from 1999-2003, the time about which Thomas Friedman wrote “The World Is Flat,” the book on how digital connectivity and outsourcing were making geography irrelevant for multinational companies. 

India had just come out from under its infamous “license raj,” an era of repressive bureaucracy that tamped down private innovation and commercial activity. Mr. Nay witnessed the evolution of the Indian information technology industry recounted in Mr. Friedman’s book and said it showed how dynamism occurred “when government got out of the way.” 

Mr. Nay is director of the United States Export Assistance Center in Atlanta, where he works to help companies around the Southeast break into new markets. 

He can be reached at

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...