On Wednesday, a diverse swath of Richmond's business community and executives from a variety of Virginia industries met downtown for a presentation by Antwaun Griffin, who is originally from Richmond and now serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary for U.S. Operations at the International Trade Administration in Washington, D.C.
Griffin and his colleague, international economist Morgan Barr, gave an hour-long presentation to members of the Virginia International Business Council on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an initiative of the Department of Commerce that would broker an international trade deal between the United States and 11 countries: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, Chile, Brunei, Singapore and New Zealand. Griffin explained how the agreement, which is not without its critics, would benefit Virginia businesses in several sectors, including chemicals, forest products, textiles and apparel, information and communication technologies and health products. According to the TPP website, the agreement would "eliminate all foreign import taxes on industrial and consumer goods." A report passed out at the presentation cites "$6.7 billion in goods exports from Virginia businesses to TPP countries in 2014," or roughly 35 percent of Virginia's total exported goods.
After fielding questions and answering several individual queries, Griffin sat down with us to talk about his path from Richmond to Washington, his best advice for Richmond's young people and what's changed in the city since he left. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
On his Richmond roots and coming home:
"I grew up here, graduated from Armstrong High School and left the city around 2005. Now, I show up here from time to time as a visitor from Washington. I get to see a part of Richmond I wouldn't get to see otherwise. My family is still here; I ran into my cousin on the way [to the presentation]. I come home every few months, on holidays ... or as my grandmother would say, "Not often enough." ... I would like to return eventually; I own a home in Church Hill I've never slept in." (Laughs.)
Antwaun Griffin poses at the Omni Hotel in downtown Richmond, Feb. 24, 2016. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
On Richmond's booming business scene and the local development projects:
"Richmond's craft beer scene is huge. I was in San Diego about a month ago, where there are masters of craft beer [Mega-brewery Stone Brewing Co. is headquartered in San Diego], and they were talking about Richmond! About everything going on right now that's elevating Richmond's craft beer scene. It's going to create a lot of jobs. And I see all the development of these little neighborhoods like Scott's Addition, places that didn't look at all the same when I was here. I also think it makes a lot of sense for companies looking to conduct trans-Atlantic business to consider Richmond. Richmond will be a hub for European export."
His advice to Richmond youth:
"Take your education seriously.That's what I'd say to them. And not just from the standpoint of textbooks and tests. It's really important to get outside of your community, to broaden your perspective of the world outside Richmond. Take the opportunity to engage with people outside of your own community. One of the things I benefited most from was engaging with different people outside of my immediate environment."
On how Richmond is perceived by non-Richmonders:
"I think, traditionally, a lot of people viewed Richmond as this sleepy Southern town. But that view is now being defied by Richmond's growing, diverse community. The arts and entertainment here are second to none. The restaurant scene ... just the rapid development of the area is amazing. There's a lot of runway in front of the city; it deserves attention."
On Richmond's future:
"As we've gotten more diverse, we've gotten more forward-looking. But there are still some of the same old mindsets around. Like the argument on the Maggie Walker monument. That's the type of prolonged debate that Richmond gets mired in, that doesn't move the city forward. How to pay for transportation, how to fix crumbling infrastructure, education — that's what the energy should be put toward."