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Episode 9:  Today, Dr. Omar Ayyash, President and CEO of the World Trade Center Kentucky interviews Matthew Barzun who served as the United States Ambassador to Sweden and to the United Kingdom.  Omar and Matthew originally met while Matthew was working at CNET, many years ago.

Meet Ambassador Matthew Barzun

Matthew has a significant entrepreneurial background.  He was involved with a commercial internet company called CNET, in San Francisco.  He and his wife, Brooke, eventually moved to Kentucky (where she grew up).  Eventually Matthew got involved in presidential politics.  He worked with John Kerry’s campaign.  Later, he worked with Barrack Obama’s campaign.

Matthew was appointed US Ambassador to Sweden, during the first Obama administration.  He later returned to chair President Obama’s re-election finance efforts.  During the second Obama administration, Matthew was appointed US Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Currently, Matthew is back in Louisville and involved in media.  He’s working with Louisville Magazine ( and with a London-based new media venture called Tortoise.

Ambassador Barzun spoke at an April 2023 Global Executive Forum, for the World Trade Center Kentucky.  Here are links to 3 video excerpts from that presentation:

Matthew also wrote a book title:  The Power of Giving Away Power: How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go.

Omar begins to transition the discussion into today’s topics.  The World Trade Center Kentucky has a long history of helping Kentucky companies to navigate the international trade arena, on both the export and import sides.

Dr. Ayyash Interviews Ambassador Matthew Barzun on International Trade

Key Similarities and Differences between how the UK and Sweden Approach Global Trade

Matthew is most struck by the similarities between these English-speaking countries.  They are fundamentally open to trade and have a proud tradition of it, just like we do in the US.

The US Foreign Commercial Service, a part of the Commerce Department, helps US companies with exports and imports.  Matthew comments how other European countries, along with Sweden, look as the enormous size of the US population.  It’s a bit overwhelming.  He goes onto note that those countries should think of the US as a collection of individual states, each having unique qualities, characteristics and governing systems.  By engaging with individual states, a foreign company may find it much less intimidating.  For instance, Sweden has roughly 9MM people, which is about the size of North Carolina.  Kentucky’s 4.5MM people is approximately the size of Norway.

Dr. Ayyash comments that the WTCKY partners with the US Commercial Service.  In fact, there’s an office in Louisville, as well as in Lexington.

Challenges and Opportunities for Kentucky Companies Looking to Expand Internationally

If one were to look at the global environment, there is a lot happening and much to be concerned with, but that shouldn’t stop us.  Matthew encourages a mindset focused on the hard work we can do in the area of trade with our European partners.

When Matthew was the Ambassador to the UK, he recounts how people commented that the US and the UK do hard things together, because we are friends.  In fact, what’s more relevant is that we are good friends, because we’ve done hard things together.  That goes for Sweden, as well.

Matthew describes how you develop a friendship “by going directly for it.”  For instance, we count on trust, respect and understanding to facilitate trade between countries.  However, if you were to tell someone to trust you, respect you or to be friends with you, there’s a good chance they might be less inclined to do so.  These are achieved indirectly; usually as a by-product of having done hard work together.  When you go through something challenging with someone, the result can often be a relationship.  It works on a personal and on a business level.

Omar comments about how we often forget that many of Kentucky’s international trade journeys originally began with, and resulting in, friendships.

Advice from a Mentor

Matthew explains some advice he once received from a mentor of his, Owsley Brown II (his late father-in-law).  Mr. Brown ran the Brown-Forman Corporation and was its chairman.  Mr. Brown described the 3 steps it takes to make bourbon, and it relates directly to our conversation.

The first step is fermentation.  This is where the good ingredients are combined and they begin to bubble up to make something bigger.  If you stop there, the product is never fully realized.  Step two is distillation.  It’s the process by which you convert the bubbling mass into something much stronger.  However, to get bourbon, a third step is required.  Step three is maturation.  This stage involves time and the experiencing various seasons, some hot and some cold.  It’s how bourbon achieves its color, character and complexity.  The result is something truly beautiful.

These three phases are important to international trade, and how we should approach it.  Consider which phase you’re in at the moment.  Are you getting people together to see what bubbles up?  Are you in the process of distilling down that potential into something stronger?  Are you in the maturation phase, because you’re going to go through a series of good times and bad times (i.e. gratitude/resentment or a bull market/bear market cycle).

It’s the latter that describes the expansion and contraction of the relationship, which yields the color, character and complexity that we cherish with our relationships with trading partners.

Applying Principles of Empowerment and Delegation to International Trade and Business Expansion

Matthew describes an exercise he likes to use.  Gather a group of colleagues together and ask them to draw what they visualize when they hear the word, “idea.”  Almost everyone will draw a lightbulb.  Many of those drawings will feature similar elements, such as small lines going out from the bulb illustrating brightness or shining.  It’s deep visual cliché many of us carry.

However, Matthew points out that the problem is that this lightbulb is rarely shown plugged-in.  It’s just floating around.  In Matthew’s book, he describes how an idea is an unlit lightbulb.

If we want a lightbulb to shine, we need 2 things:  a source of energy and a connection.  This is the essence of the book.  Where do you turn for energy and a sense of connectedness?

All too often, our habits in international business are a mindset that actually kills and eliminates energy and severs connections.  We need better habits enabling us to light up the room together.

Omar observes how we need more connection, especially having gone through the pandemic together.  Emerging markets have done a better job recovering because they were forced to find ways of establishing connections and leadership.

Matthew builds on that idea by stating how nothing is less energy-producing and connecting that entitlement.  You could substitute the word patronizing.  Unfortunately, it happens way too often.  It results in turning people away.  On the other hand, we are at our best when we are curious, humble and knowing that we have to rely on others in life.

This brings us back to Matthews initial assertion that we need to experience hard things together, if we are going to accomplish great things.

How Have Matthews Roles in the Private and Public Sectors Shaped His Perspectives?

Matthew begins by stating we shouldn’t try to make things into things they are not.  Government is not a business.  Academia is not a business, nor is it government.  Non-profits aren’t academia, businesses or government.  That’s okay.  There is overlap, but they are different.  What makes those cultures and mindsets distinct ought to be preserved.

Matthew goes onto describe the tension between government and business.  Sometimes the government establishes rules as if it hates business.  Sometimes business approaches the situation as if it hates rules.  He recommends that government leaders and business leaders gather to do the hard work of mending and amending rules of a game we all love.  That concept extends to international trade, as much as it does to democracy.  Have we lost the ability to do this kind of work?

Consider these question, what’s the opposite of winning?  Most will say losing.  So, what then is the opposite of winning and losing?  Many will assume the only answer is doing nothing.  A few will recognize another answer, which is simply, playing.  Just because we aren’t winning or losing, it doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything at all.

Friendships or relationships aren’t won.  You do hard work together and go through experiences and it’s the by-products of this “playing” that yields our deepest enjoyment, trust, respect and understanding.

When that reservoir of trust, respect and understanding runs dry, it up to each of us to have constructive engagement trying to get a difficult thing done.

Future Predictions from Former Ambassador Barzun

If we get the pattern and tone of our language, and body language, right, amazing things will happen.  We make each other miserable when we don’t.

Matthew closes with a story about Vint Cert, the co-founder of the Internet.  Matthew met him, while serving in London.  During the question and answer portion of Cert’s presentation, he noted that everyone keeps addressing the Internet “as one big thing.”  In reality, it’s billions of different connections.  Most think of the Internet as a noun.  At its inception, it was a verb.  It was an abbreviation for “inter-networking.”  One might ask, “Would you like to inter-network with me?”  It was akin to asking someone to dance.

In the beginning, it was an interpersonal, intimidating request, because you didn’t know what the answer would be.  It was a leap of faith.  It’s a fitting way to describe what the WTCKY is doing.  Engaging in international trade is similar to asking someone if they’d like to dance.

It’s been a pleasure to have the opportunity to engage with Ambassador Matthew Barzun. We hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the video excerpts of his Global Executive Forum presentation, provided earlier in the episode’s show notes.


To Learn More About Matthew Barzun:




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