Fifteen years after closing its state-run export office to save money, Gov. Bill Haslam decided to bring back an office of international trade to put Tennessee businesses back on the world stage.
But Haslam's appointment this spring to head the revived office initially drew some unwanted domestic attention from within his own party.
Republican Party leaders in Stewart and Williamson counties blasted Haslam's naming of Samar Ali, an international attorney and former White House fellow, to head the international trade office. A resolution adopted by the Stewart County Republican Party said Ali is a Muslim and "an expert in Shariah Compliant Finance which is one of the many ways Islamic terrorism is funded."
"She is also a one-time Obama appointee and her family has a long history of supporting the Democrat Party," the resolution said.
Ali, who grew up in Waverly, Tenn., and was once student president at Vanderbilt University, said such attacks were "hurtful." But she called them "silly" and untrue. The 30-year-old lawyer said she has been pleased by the support of the Haslam administration and others across the state as she tries to expand the international reach of the state's products and services.
She says she is focused on expanding the state's trade offices around the globe and working to boost exports from Tennessee by 10 percent in each of the next five years.
"I really believe that adversity does introduce you to yourself," she said during a recent visit to Chattanooga. "I joined this administration because I really love Tennessee and believe in Gov. Haslam's vision and leadership."
Haslam administration officials have stood by Ali and her trade efforts despite her critics.
Clint Brewer, assistant commissioner in the state Department of Economic and Community Development, called Ali "one of the brightest leaders of her generation from this state."
"Her extensive work experience in international business makes her eminently qualified to serve the people of the Volunteer State," he said.
Ali earned both an undergraduate and law degree from Vanderbilt University where she was the first Arab-Muslim student president and spoke out against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
"I left Tennessee when I was 25, but no other place felt like home -- it's in my soul," she said during the recent visit. "My family, which is very important to me, is here, and I want to be a part of something that I believe in. I had three months of some people who were upset with my background. But I decided that that wasn't going to erase my good memories and why I came back and why I was here."
Ali is here to boost both exports from Tennessee companies and investments in the state from foreign firms. She is working to open new state-funded trade offices in Britain, Mexico, Germany, China and India to help Tennessee businesses export around the globe.
Tennessee's efforts are being aided by a 3-year federal grant, which rose this year to $610,000, to support the trade offices, trade missions and a new Tennessee Trade Academy.
Ali believes such programs can help businesses of all sizes to sell more of their goods around the globe and boost the state's $30 billion-a-year of export sales.
"American-made products have a world-class reputation most anywhere in the globe," Ali said. "We've been all over the world in the past few months, and you see how our products are seen as durable, long-lasting and valuable. There are certainly people in China and other countries that want to buy American-made goods even if they cost more because they believe they are the best."
Tennessee closed its international trade office in 1997 under then Gov. Don Sundquist to focus on other state programs.
"When you're not on the playing field, you don't have much of a team," said Jim Frierson, a former chief of staff to the U.S. trade ambassador during the Reagan administration who is serving on a newly formed advisory committee for the state's international trade office.
Bill Hagerty, the state commissioner for economic and community development, lived in Japan while working for a private investment firm and sees international trade as a key driver in Tennessee's growth. Ali's office works both to promote exports and to entice more foreign investments in Tennessee.
"The governor has said that job creation is his No. 1 goal and exports help create jobs," she said. "Putting money to help foreign investment and increasing foreign exports is going to create more jobs."