Tackling global woes by empowering young entrepreneurs

California summit brings together hundreds of young business minds and investors to build a socially conscious world.

Global Entrepreneurship Summit
Entrepreneur Archel Bernard, presenter Dena Takruri and Richard Stengel discuss GES and global issues [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera]

Palo Alto, United States – American official Richard Stengel is known for many things throughout his diverse career, including working with Nelson Mandela on his definitive autobiography and as the managing editor of Time magazine for many years.

Now, acting as the US State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Stengel sat down with AJ+ presenter Dena Takruri on Wednesday to discuss the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES).

The gathering brings together more than 1,000 young innovators, investors and government officials with the goal of establishing socially and environmentally conscious businesses around the world.

President Barack Obama launched the GES in 2009 in Cairo. It has also been held in Kenya, Dubai, Morocco, Malaysia, and Turkey. This year’s it is in the Silicon Valley in California, where technological innovation reigns supreme.

Richard Stengel, US State Department Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

AJ+: What is this three-day summit all about?

Stengel: The Global Entrepreneurship Summit grew out of President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 where he said let’s figure out how we can have better relations with the Muslim world, with youth around the world.

And entrepreneurship was sort of a silver bullet for solving all kinds of the world’s problems: health problems, medical problems, economic challenges, community challenges. I actually think young entrepreneurs – way more than government – are the way to solve some of these problems because they’re faster, more passionate about it, more innovative. That’s why we convened this – 700 young entrepreneurs from 181 countries around the world together with each other, and 300 angel investors who might want to invest in their products, ideas, or their companies … We want businesses that are actually making some money, but doing good at the same time.

AJ+:This is a project of the US State Department. What kinds of conversations go on between the US government and countries that may not want necessarily to be supportive of these initiatives?

Stengel: Realistically, not every government is as hospitable to entrepreneurism as the United States. We try to create a level playing field around the world so there’s a rule of law, that you can go bankrupt without ruining your life and family. But there are certain parts of the American business environment that we think should be universal, including  basic legal opportunities for people to start businesses and not being penalised for going bankrupt or losing money. 

 Global Entrepreneurship Summit kicks off in Silicon Valley

One of the things you see here in the Silicon Valley is people start things and fail multiple times before they create something that’s successful. Look, it may not work the first time, but try it again.

AJ+: Since Obama’s 2009 speech about hitting re-start with the Arab world, so much has happened, the Arab Spring, there’s a tremendous amount of unrest in the region. Was it still a worthy effort?

Stengel: It’s still a worthy effort because we so support a kind of progressive view in the Muslim world getting countries into the 20thcentury, not only with rule of law, but women’s rights, opportunity for women and youth. Women are under-represented as entrepreneurs around the world, under-represented on boardrooms. My boss, Secretary [John] Kerry, always says ‘You can’t win the game if you have half the team on the bench.’

So many of the world’s challenges are actually in the Middle East region right now. We want to have better relationships with those countries, and with Muslims around the world. We want to connect young Muslims in the region with young Americans here and with young people around the world. That’s a very worthy goal.

AJ+:The reality is there’s a lot of scepticism out there. There’s a lot of pessimism among young Muslims in the Middle East. How to you react to that?

Stengel: There is a lot of pessimism and one of the things I think is unfortunate is where people feel like the United States has to solve all the problems. Sometimes we get blamed because you’re not fixing this and you’re not fixing that. Part of President Obama’s idea of foreign policy is partnerships, not the US going it alone. Most Americans believe we benefit not only from relationships with Muslim countries but also Muslim immigrants to America.

AJ+: How do you respond to criticism that the GES is really an exercise in American soft power?

Stengel: I agree it is, I’m a soft power advocate and American soft power to me is one of the most positive things in the world, whether it’s Beyonce and American pop culture, American ideas – these values we talk about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of speech. I think American soft power is a very positive light that people should look on that potentially benefits them and their country.

The BDS question at US universities

AJ+: We are talking here is about how to proactively use business to bring about change. There’s also the argument that one can withhold business to affect change. I know a lot of people have asked about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. What is the position of the State Department on that?

Stengel: That isn’t something we encourage. But of course this is people’s free expression. If people object to policies they make their own choices about that. The larger idea that we encourage is allowing people to choose their own destiny wherever they live around the world. There are people who live under harsh, repressive governments, and we talk to those governments about allowing free speech, freedom of assembly, allowing freedom of expression, so these are very important values. [BDS] that’s not something we support, but we support the right of people to be able to do that kind of thing. Non-violent resistance to ideas is something that free people should be able to do wherever they live.

I worked with Nelson Mandela on his book A Long Walk to Freedom. We became very close he’s the godfather to one of my sons. Nelson Mandela to me is a great model because what he campaigned for was the right of his people to decide their destiny, to be able to vote … which never existed before. He would say all of these things are universal values – the right of suffrage, right to express your opinion, freedom of religion – all of those things are not just American values, they’re universal values and he spent his life – sacrificed his life – for these values. 

AJ+ presenter Dena Takruri and Richard Stengel appear behind an Al Jazeera promotion of its 'Hear the Human Story' campaign [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera]
AJ+ presenter Dena Takruri and Richard Stengel appear behind an Al Jazeera promotion of its ‘Hear the Human Story’ campaign [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera