The final day of The Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) held last week at Stanford University opened with the cast of HBO’s hit comedy “Silicon Valley” dramatically leaping into the audience to rapturous applause from over 700 entrepreneurs from 170 countries. Before they left the stage, the group of comedians told the audience they would show them how to make the perfect pitch.
[blockquote author=”Ben Powell, Agora Partnerships” pull=”pullleft”]These emerging leaders need more support than even great investors can provide – they need to be part of engaged, strategic communities that can level the playing field for them.[/blockquote]
“Here it is,” one of the cast makers said, “my company… will make the world… a better place! That’s it!” The joke played to Silicon’s’ valley tension between wanting to make money and do good – it’s the running joke of the whole show which was best described in a recent New Yorker article.
It seemed most people at the Summit – the majority of whom do not live in Silicon Valley – weren’t in on the joke. Maybe that’s because at this conference, most entrepreneurs are actually making the world a better place. For them it was less a Hollywood laugh line than a survival imperative.
The entrepreneurs in attendance represented a different kind of entrepreneur – one driven by the same anti-establishment spirit of Silicon Valley, but one forged in much more inhospitable conditions. They come from places where capital and support are scarce, where entrepreneurship is not valued, where failure is not tolerated, where people are suffering tremendously, and where the playing field is in no way level, especially if you are young.
Today, our system makes it far easier to raise capital to help make life marginally more convenient for wealthy customers than to make life significantly better for regular people who suffer from lack of services and support. Looking to build a company that delivers booze to your house in 45 minutes or less? Investors are eager to help you solve that problem. Looking to find a way to provide solar lights to the 500,000 families in Guatemala without access to electricity? Your road is a lot harder (but not impossible: Kingo is solving this problem).
Shifting the economy onto a path that is more stable, inclusive, and sustainable will require the best and brightest to work on challenges that truly matter to the world. This powerful truth could be called the major theme of the GES.
It started with Secretary Kerry’s remarks at the opening reception where he tied the role of entrepreneurship to fighting extreme terrorism and building open and stable societies. The theme continued until President Obama’s dramatic message to a packed house of entrepreneurs from across the world:
“America believes in you. And we believe that you have the talent and the skills and the ambition not just to pursue your dreams, but to realize them; that you can lift up not just your own families, but communities and countries, and create opportunity and prosperity and hope for decades to come.
Who were the entrepreneurs the White House chose to invite on the stage with Obama? The list is illuminating:
- Mai Medhat, of Egypt, started an event company that today it’s a key pillar of Egypt’s emerging entrepreneurship ecosystem.
- Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, of Rwanda, uses waste to develop eco-friendly fuels in rural Africa.
- Mariana Costa Checa, of Peru, co-founded Laboratoria, which teaches coding and computer skills to young women from low-income backgrounds and helps them get jobs in the tech sector.
The problems these entrepreneurs are tackling – collective organizing, clean cooking, women’s economic empowerment, respectively – are massive problems across the world. At their core, all of these entrepreneurs are working on one problem – how to increase human agency. Their businesses increase the ability of their customers to exercise their own will and influence their own destinies. That is a problem worthy of the sacrifices these entrepreneurs are making.
This is how Laboratoria’s Mariana Costa Checa responded to Obama when he asked her to tell him about her business:
“We tried to identify young women who haven’t been able to access quality education or job opportunities because of economic limitations, and train them to become the most awesome developers they can be, and connect them with employment opportunities in the tech sector.
Something that I realize is that when our students join our program, most of them are completely unaware of their potential and they come thinking that it’s going to be really hard to break this vicious cycle of low-skill employment, underpaid employment, or just domestic work. But they soon start learning to code, and it’s just such a powerful skill set….And six months after joining, they’re ready to go out and join the workforce…They start supporting their families. And I think most importantly, they start realizing that anything is possible if they work hard enough for it.”
This is how change happens – a person gets excited by an idea, imagines how it could make the world better, and then directs their energies into bringing it to life.
I was excited to see Mariana up on the stage because her company was one of the 11 companies at the conference supported by Agora Partnerships, the entrepreneurship support organization I run whose mission is to help entrepreneurs accelerate the shift to a sustainable and inclusive economy. What Mariana didn’t say on stage was that she has recently launched a second social enterprise – she became a mom just two weeks ago, a deeply committed, badass mom.
She and the other founders on her team are the kinds of role models the world desperately needs – they have impact that goes far beyond the businesses they are building, and the problems they are solving are truly worthy of their efforts.We need more people to feel that anything is possible if they work hard enough for it. When the human race believes that anything is possible, we start fixing things.
Mariana was not alone – it was encouraging to see just how many entrepreneurs had a similar vision of tackling huge social problems that impact ordinary people. The organizers, panelists, investors, and ecosystem builders present all seemed to understand intuitively that in these times of increasing inequality, instability and fear, it is precisely those entrepreneurs focused on making the world better that we must support.
These emerging leaders need more support than even great investors can provide – they need to be part of engaged, strategic communities that can level the playing field for them.
Over half the world is under 30 and most of these people have precious little resources to draw on. Channeling their energy and hope into productive entrepreneurship is one of the most important things we can do for the world. Which brings us to the final thing that was so remarkable about GES: that it was co-convened by the U.S. State Department on behalf of the White House. Supporting entrepreneurship has been a growing and under-reported focus of the Obama Administration and these government intrapreneurs deserve great credit for pulling the conference together.
Perhaps the role of the U.S. government should not be so surprising if we look back at history and remember that America’s most influential entrepreneur, most influential diplomat, and most global Founding Father happen to be the same person. The spirit of Ben Franklin was alive and well at GES. He would be the first to argue that America must support the world’s entrepreneurs in order to bring about peace, social progress, and individual freedom and to congratulate the Obama Administration on a job well done.
Photo source: Laboratoria
For more on ImpactAlpha’s coverage of the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, see: