How UMKC students are bringing Chinese investment to KC through Enactus

UMKC Enactus president Megan Darnell, front left, and members of the college's team competed at the Enactus United States National Exposition at Bartle Hall.
UMKC Enactus president Megan Darnell, front left, and members of the college's team competed at the Enactus United States National Exposition at Bartle Hall. Enactus United States, University of Missouri-Kansas City

For nearly a decade, long before President Donald Trump's threats of tariffs, University of Missouri-Kansas City students have been working overseas in various Chinese cities selling one product: Kansas City.

In the last few years, they've had backing from Kansas City.

Officials from the city's Economic Development Corporation has been to China with the UMKC students multiple times and are planning to visit several cities in November, said Narbeli Galindo, director of international affairs for Kansas City.

On Friday, June 8, three government officials from Kansas City's sister city, Xi’an, China, will be coming here.

The students are participants in Enactus, an international college competition focused on social impact projects. The U.S. competition in May was sponsored by Hallmark and held at Bartle Hall.

The China project, which was one of the regional finalists and presented at the May competition, aims to forge trade relationships between Kansas City and China and spur economic development, said Megan Darnell, president of the UMKC organization.

“We are extremely proud of Kansas City, and it is no longer flyover country," Darnell said.

Galindo, whose job falls under the umbrella of the EDC, has been to China with the UMKC Enactus team. The first trip was relationship building, she explained. The second showed the city was serious about doing business.

When the coalition returns to China in November, Galindo said they'll be putting together a group of investors interested in Kansas City.

"This is a time we can start talking about specific business markets," she said, adding that the EDC is also working with a Chinese company that plans to hold an event in Kansas City in November to help companies export to China.

UMKC’s Enactus team and Kansas City officials met with business and government leaders in Changsha, China. Courtesy of Enactus United States, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Though Trump has repeatedly lamented the U.S. trade deficit with China and threatened to impose tariffs on imports of Chinese goods, Galindo said trade with China presents an opportunity for Kansas City companies.

"Because the more they export, the more they export into the Chinese market, the more we're going to see them grow here," Galindo said.

Darnell, a self-identified "crazy avocado baroness," has seen this at work. She said she and her boyfriend import avocados from his family's farm, which started 50 years ago and produces 52 million avocados a year.

“I think that's where the world’s heading," Darnell said. "Despite anything else that may have been talked about, the world is getting smaller, and I really feel like we are at a pinnacle point where there is a lot of growth in the international sector.”

In addition to producing social impact ideas, Enactus also allows companies to recruit young talent.

Enactus Hallmark.jpg
Hallmark president Dave Hall meets students at the Enactus Expo career fair at Bartle Hall. Enactus United States, Dave Hall, Hallmark Cards, Inc.

Sabrina Wiewel, chief customer officer and senior vice president for Hallmark, said the company has four Enactus alumni among its ranks.

"I think with Hallmark’s commitment to this city in being one of the biggest employers of the city, we feel like we need to be close to these kids and make sure they want to stay and work right here in our hometown," said Wiewel.

Zia Lohrasbi, who was on Heritage University's Enactus team, said he was recruited last year at the competition in Kansas City. His team was presenting its slate of projects and a Hallmark executive was in the audience, he said.

"They gave me a golden ticket, and that was really cool by itself because I was like, 'What? A golden ticket? Am I going to go to like a chocolate factory or something?'" Lohrasbi said. "That was essentially for an interview."

After three interviews — including one with his current manager — he was hired.

It took "maybe like a couple hours — tops," Lohrasbi said.

After competing on Pittsburg State University's Enactus team, Alina Sigitova said Hallmark put her in a "pipeline" for consideration and hired her a couple months later.

"They actually think of Enactus students going forward and seek out Enactus students," Sigitova said.

Wiewel said the "'Shark Tank' for colleges" competition made students better recruits.

"Some of their businesses have become full-on venture capital backed," Wiewel said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.