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Maquiladora Entrepreneur Spreads Partnership Message

Cecilia Ochoa Levine, President, MFI International Manufacturing

As a child growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, Cecilia Levine's English vocabulary didn't include "entrepreneurship," but she certainly could see the difference it made in people's lives. What she couldn't see then was how entrepreneurship would provide her with the tools, resources and passion to improve the lives of thousands on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

The second of nine children, Levine was strongly influenced by her father, who started at age eight as an office boy for the cotton manufacturing business he eventually owned, and grandmother, who ran her own business building and renting houses. Levine's father encouraged his children to help others by example. She remembers the loans he made to employees and small farmers and the business advice her grandmother freely provided to customers. "Sometimes I would be with her and listen," she recalls. "I found it fascinating how rewarding her life was."

Levine went to high school in the U.S. and attended the University of Texas at El Paso. Since 1990, she has been president of MFI International Manufacturing, a contract manufacturer with plants in the U.S., Mexico and Asia whose clients have included major companies such as Kimberly Clark, Hasbro Sara Lee, Matel, Ergodyn, Pierre Deux and Evenflo

The Maquiladora Concept

Levine explains that her success as an entrepreneur is largely indebted to the maquiladora concept, sometimes referred to as "twin plants," which originated in the 1960's. Under a maquiladora arrangement, Mexico allows raw materials and components to enter duty-free or in-bond for subassembly. When products exit Mexico for final assembly, packaging or distribution in destination markets, Mexico levies duties only on the non-NAFTA value added in Mexico.

Levine's familiarity with the concept grew considerably after her divorce from a Midland, Texas oilman and move to El Paso, where she parlayed her experience sewing for charities to start Ceci, Inc. Levine created prototype designs and hired three seamstresses in Ciudad Juarez to produce them.

Early on, however, the company might never have succeeded if not for a former business partner of her ex-husband's, George W. Bush, who used to stop by Levine's house to enjoy her home-cooked Mexican meals.

Levine's fledgling business had a contract in 1985 to make two million knapsacks and purses in Mexico and sell them in the U.S. When she ran into problems obtaining required permits from the U.S. Department of Commerce, she called Bush, whose father was then vice president.

"He understood that this contract would also create jobs in the U.S., so he asked me to visit Washington to fully explain the problem."

Captivating Students

Levine, fifty-six, married Lance Levine and joined her company with his in 1990. Grateful to the entrepreneurs who pioneered the maquiladora and friends who helped her along the way, she now devotes about 80 percent of her time to civic and nonprofit endeavors, with a special focus on giving to entrepreneurship.

That includes flying and driving several hours from El Paso to Waco every semester to talk to Dr. Bill Petty's entrepreneurial finance class at Baylor University. Petty first heard about Levine from one of his students, who happened to be her daughter, and wanted to ask her immediately to come and share her story with his class.

"She's the only person I bring in that I just allow to tell her story," he says. "She captivates students and epitomizes everything I teach all semester. Above all, she emphasizes what great opportunities we have in the U.S. She also explains that you don't necessarily have to start with a lot of money--there's always a way to get it done--and the importance of team building."

Petty says it's not unusual afterwards for students to call for advice and even pay her a visit. Back in El Paso, Levine is now in her second year as entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Texas, where she works with professors on curriculum and speaks to groups. "I am gaining more myself than they are," she says.

Global Bridge-Building

Levine is devoted to helping business incubation at every level, from micro-startups to international commerce. Close to home, MFI runs shelter operations for people like Rosa, who has her own sewing business. MFI provides Rosa with contract work, equipment and administrative support. As Levine sees it, "It gives an entrepreneur hope when they own their own company, and it allows them to concentrate on what they do best."

As chairman of the World Trade Center El Paso-Juarez, Levine spearheaded small business efforts to open doors to foreign markets by arranging trade missions to Taiwan and China where MFI has offices. She is a director of the Dallas and El Paso, Texas, branch of the Federal Reserve Bank and founder of the U.S./Mexico Strategic Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating partnerships between the two countries. The Alliance is developing a high-tech bridge and port facility as a prototype for future border ports of entry for the federal governments of the U.S. and Mexico.

"She's always worked very closely with the Small Business Administration, not only in El Paso but at top levels in Washington, D.C.," says Adrian Madrigal, public information officer for the SBA El Paso District Office. "She worked with our former administrator, Hector Barreto, to implement the Small Business Development Center concept in Mexico. She is currently helping us plan an international trade conference. There's nothing she gains personally from this other than the satisfaction of knowing that she's helping the international community."

From Levine's perspective, investing in efforts to improve the cross-border business environment will help solve big problems for both countries.

"Hispanics are entrepreneurs," she says. "When you come to Mexico, you see a billion little stores. With reforms, Mexico will compete better globally and the problems the U.S. has with immigration will improve significantly."

© 2007 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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