Entrepreneurship summit attendees. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State
It was an unprecedented gathering of Muslim entrepreneurs in an unlikely place: America’s capital.
More than 200 men and women, handpicked from 50 countries, return home Friday after a week of events that began with a Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship. It’s all part of a pledge President Obama made during his speech in Cairo last year to deepen and broaden American ties to the Islamic world beyond the theaters and context of conflicts.
“We are all bound together by certain common aspirations,” the president told the gathering on Monday, while hinting at the myriad challenges facing so many Muslim communities and nations. “To live healthy lives, maybe to start a business, without having to pay a bribe to anybody. To speak freely and have a say in how we are governed, to live in peace and security and to give our children a better future.”
The Obama administration announced programs to expand entrepreneurship, business ties and educational exchanges, a strategy also intended to improve America’s image in the Islamic world and combat religious extremism.
In the gathering were stellar leaders and models, large and small. There were social entrepreneurs like Tri Mumpuni, one of dozens of female delegates. In the sprawled mostly un-electrified islands of the Indonesian archipelago, her small non-profit organization works at the grassroots level to install small community owned hydroelectric plants. She has convinced rebels and terrorists that it’s much more lucrative to build turbines than weapons, she said.
At the other end of the spectrum was Sudanese telecom billionaire Mohammad Ibrahim. He funds the annual $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize for good governance awarded to an African leader. The award was not given in 2009, incidentally. Not a single candidate was considered worthy of it.
Governments — large, bureaucratic and corrupt in so many countries represented — must go from controlling to enabling, said Arif Naqvi, head of Abraaj Capital, the largest private equity firm in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. That region has a growing a “youth bulge,” with an increasing number of young unemployed people, the Pakistan native noted.
“We need to be creating more than 100 million jobs in the next 15 years just to keep our unemployment constant,” Naqvi said.
Small enterprises will be key, most delegates agreed. No one expects the week’s events to be anything more than the beginning of a long process of building a culture of entrepreneurship. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which has loaned $8 billion to 8 million borrowers, said entrepreneurship moves the mindset from job seeker to “job giver.”
Whether the conference itself had much impact on America’s image on the “Muslim Street” is open to question. Most delegates seemed to need no introduction to the United States; many have an American or European education in their background. Even though signs at the conference were printed in both English and Arabic, I did not once hear a public comment, question or exchange in Arabic, Urdu or Bahasa Indonesian. The handful of delegates who needed translation assistance spoke French.
Let’s face it, we “won the lottery,” said a delegate from Syria referring to the high achievements of most of this rarified group.
A follow-up gathering will be hosted in Turkey next year, President Obama announced.