While the notion that you must be in Silicon Valley to be a successful startup is thankfully less common these days, all eyes were on the region last week, and for a very good reason. U.S. President Barack Obama gathered more than 1000 international entrepreneurs and investors at Stanford University for a landmark summit that included some of the biggest founder brands in the space.
Hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Silicon Valley highlighted America’s entrepreneurial spirit and also allowed American investors and entrepreneurs to see the talent, solutions and opportunities that exist around the world – and appreciate that good ideas come from everywhere. It was also timely to demonstrate how globalized the start and scale world is at a time when grassroots political movements are challenging the benefits of globalization at home.
As President Obama’s administration comes to an end, it is hard to deny that this administration has carried entrepreneurship as a flag for American diplomacy, making entrepreneurs its best allies in building bridges to other nations. The president sharing the stage with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, at Stanford last week was reflective of this mindset.
The main message to the world has been that entrepreneurship can flourish in any country, and that efforts towards that goal would yield results for the collective benefit of all economies.
With elections on the horizon this November, many thought it would be the White House’s last GES, but it was only the last one hosted by the current president. The legacy will continue. President Obama announced that GES will take place in India next year.
Policy Challenges Ahead
Beyond Zuckerberg, President Obama was joined by a number of well-known founders of other companies like Google, Uber and Airbnb. Appropriately for a government convened event the president and other moderators like Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and chairman of the Case Foundation, asked entrepreneurs directly what policymakers could do to help. As Case mentioned, while there are comprehensive initiatives working on this like Startup Nations, questioning startups about where they needed help in 2016 from government is now more commonplace as elected officials work to be relevant to the startup revolution in their countries. So what did the entrepreneurs tell the president?
The most important message in my view came from Zuckerberg, someone from whom I would like to have heard more. When the president asked him what he thought was most important for governments to do to enable more “Facebook-like success stories,” Zuckerberg was crystal clear focusing on the importance of connectivity as a basic service, much like healthcare. Making affordable access to basic internet services available to every person is now one of today’s driving motivations for this rock star entrepreneur and ambassador for the American spirit of entrepreneurship.
Internet.org by Facebook is now testing initiatives to overcome issues of accessibility and affordability in internet access around the world. Its “Connectivity Lab” is working on ways to beam the internet to people from the sky via a variety of technologies developed via partnerships, including high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft, satellites and lasers. While the notion of connectivity as a force for positive change is not new (think GrameenPhone), the power of the idea of access to Internet connectivity as a basic service is yet to be fully appreciated.
As Zuckerberg’s team dreams of connecting the world, they invent and deploy new technology that can yield entire new products and industries for a variety of purpose. In fact, the team behind Internet.org has been reported to say that once the technology is built, a lot of it will be open-sourced so that others can commercialize it. Another important implication of this endeavor is that it pushes the frontier for groundbreaking policy thinking.
In the 1990s when South Korea was developing its innovation and entrepreneurship strategy it smartly elected to pick just one of hundreds of goals – broadband connectivity for all of its citizens. South Korea has benefited from this in so many ways and, as Zuckerberg said, getting the remaining 4 billion people on the planet access should be the our primary strategy for accelerating global economic growth.
Beyond internet infrastructure, there were other responses to the president’s question at the GES. A common refrain was that while great ideas are born in the most unexpected corners of the world, as exemplified by delegate entrepreneurs from across the five continents to the GES, access to capital and opportunity are not the same everywhere, even within the United States where inter and intra-ecosystem disparities persist.
As can be expected at a major celebration event for global entrepreneurs, it was also suggested the next administration will be measured against progress beyond raising awareness. For example, the battle to close the gender gap in entrepreneurship opportunities continues. The GES+ Emerging Youth and Women Entrepreneurs organized by the Global Entrepreneurship Network reminded the audience that investing in women entrepreneurs not only fuels economic growth, but also drives innovation to address the critical challenges communities are facing worldwide. Moreover, we know that when women entrepreneurs succeed, they are more likely to move the needle on achieving greater gender balance in their ecosystems, as they then become mentors, investors and role models.
One optimistic message from the Valley last week was the confidence expressed by new firm founders that more of the world’s most pressing challenges can be solved by involving entrepreneurs in building solutions and strengthening ecosystems in the process. Many ideas were aired throughout the GES, including by Dell and the Kauffman Foundation who, with support from the U.S. State Department, conducted an interactive policy hackathon that tasked teams of entrepreneurs, investors and policy experts to design solutions to pressing global policy challenges. The winning team proposed the development of an app that would help address current and future refugee crises by providing translation software and bridging the gap between employers and high-skilled refugees. The team argued that refugees should be “seen for their potential, not as a liability,” and that governments “should be investing money in refugees from the beginning, encouraging them to act” in the workforce.
Another session that engaged entrepreneurs in crafting solutions was the Ecosystem Hackathon – brainstorming ways for communities to grow and strengthen their entrepreneurship ecosystem. Guided through a hands-on, interactive process by the Kauffman Foundation along with 8Works Consulting, participants came up with solutions in four categories – connectivity, culture, top-down enabling bottom-up and measurement.
The other silver lining is the increased availability of data that can guide smarter policymaking. Take the Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index (WE Cities), released at the summit, which measures a city’s ability to attract and support high-potential women entrepreneurs who want to grow their business. When the first rule is to do no harm, we have to provide more reliable data to decision makers in government if we are to enable them to help with issues entrepreneurs have voiced.
The Work Will Continue
As chair of the Spark coalition and president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, with support from leading partners, including the Kauffman Foundation, I know many remain committed to carrying a vision of one global entrepreneurial ecosystem forward, helping ensure that leaders from the public sector can join efforts with the private and civil sectors in building stronger startup and scale up communities. For example:
Entrepreneurs remain the engine of the global economy. As fears of declining international collaboration crystalize in political developments like the recent Brexit vote, the perspective of a world of porous borders is even more important than ever. A presidential impeachment in a large economy like Brazil, the unusual presidential elections in the United States, Brexit and the increasing suspicion of refugees and immigrants in all parts of the world are indeed alarming. To entrepreneurs, however, they are nothing short of opportunities. When someone creates uncertainty and changes the rules, all bets are off and entrepreneurs go to work. They see monoliths to challenge and new opportunities for new business models.
Entrepreneurs’ voices therefore will carry more weight as political battles lay ahead for our nations. President Obama should be credited for his extraordinary contribution over the past few years to empowering and preparing those voices to be constructive innovators in the tumultuous times ahead. Movements such as Global Entrepreneurship Week, where people in 160+ countries celebrate their entrepreneurs each November on a global stage, and events like the one we saw last week at Stanford, will be vital to empowering this positive generation that has more answers and fewer complaints than the public at large.
I know for my part, I will put more vigor into enabling the next major global gathering of entrepreneurial minds in March 2017 at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa. Come and help us support those taking a global view to improving the lives of their fellow citizens.
Photo credit: Flickr
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