In a major foreign policy speech at Cairo University in June 2009, President Barack Obama talked about a “new beginning” in U.S.-Muslim relations. It is easy to view that distant time cynically. The Arab World has gone through the “Spring” and, according to many, is now back to deep winter. Twelve years, $1.5 trillion, and at least 50,000 dead after President Bush took America to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, few would argue that the threats of terrorism and Islamic extremism have diminished, or that the Middle East is a safer, more prosperous, happier place than it was before we spent all that treasure.
But as with most things in life, America’s relationship with the Muslim world is not black and white. And there is actually one clear area of progress. It’s an idea—an experiment, really—that was born in that same Cairo speech by President Obama and championed by his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton: To use America’s extraordinary credentials as a cradle of entrepreneurship to try to help spur a revival of the Arab (and broader Muslim) world’s once legendary spirit of innovation.
In the years following Cairo there were many ways the U.S. Government tried to do this—some successful and some not. Clearly, however, one of the legacies of this President and Secretary Clinton will be that the Obama Administration began to focus the spotlight on the power of entrepreneurship to create jobs and create hope for millions of people—especially women or those not born to privilege—for whom starting their own business or social enterprise is the best option.
The first Presidential Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) occurred in Washington D.C. in April 2010. Those of us who worked on this event shared a sense of doing something very special. This past week, President Obama spoke at the Sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit in his ancestral home of Kenya. In between, GES meetings have occurred in Istanbul, Turkey; Dubai; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and most recently, Marrakech, Morocco. While there has certainly been “many a slip between lip and cup” in terms of execution on American government promises from previous summits, it is undeniable that this initiative has had enormous impact. It has done what the U.S. government does best: Catalyze players around the world toward a common purpose.
There are today hundreds of new organizations—in the U.S. and abroad—focused on spurring entrepreneurship in both developed and developing countries. There are tens of thousands more people—especially young people—engaged in entrepreneurial ventures around the world. Many view the single largest obstacle to entrepreneurship expansion to be the cultural stigma around starting a new business—with a few notable exceptions, like the U.S. and Israel, the risk and opportunity cost of launching a startup is too much for many to overcome. Fortunately, the fact is that events like GES raise the profile, credibility and coolness factor around entrepreneurship, making it not only acceptable, but also desirable, for all.
Though it doesn’t make headlines in the same way as sensational stories, President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s movement to address the root cause of political instability—joblessness—is something America should be proud of. Congratulations to all who are rowing in the same direction on this hugely important initiative.