Obama Announces July Trip to Kenya to Talk Entrepreneurship

Female entrepreneurshipThis morning, President Barack Obama announced he will travel to Kenya in July to lead his annual entrepreneurship summit. Leading up to the event, I will invite comments on possible policy themes the President might address as leaders from around the world look for more precise and impactful measures for increasing rates of new firm formation back home. 

Today, I pick up a theme from the recent Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Milan – the importance of women entrepreneurs to economic growth whether in an African village or in the Valley.

One of Silicon Valley's most prominent venture capital firms recently hit the news for reasons other than successful investment — a suit alleging gender discrimination in the workforce. The case has captivated the region and renewed questions about the lack of diversity not just in the technology industry, but in the entrepreneurship community at large.

Alicia Robb, a Kauffman Foundation senior fellow and visiting scholar at UC-Berkeley, led an insightful discussion on high-growth women's entrepreneurship earlier this month at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress examining problems of gender diversity within the ranks of startups. She was joined by Ruta Aidis, who leads the Women's Entrepreneurship Research Forum and supports Dell Inc.'s efforts to better understand the unique challenges women entrepreneurs face in starting and scaling their businesses.

"The playing field isn't level," Ms. Aidis said. "Women entrepreneurs face challenges their male counterparts do not."

For example, while the U.S. leads in global rankings of women's entrepreneurship, the data points to a glaring absence of women founding new enterprises in the high-tech sector. This, she said, is due to a variety of reasons but the root causes are structural and cultural.

Rebeca Hwang, the cofounder of Rivet Ventures, an early stage venture fund that backs startups targeting female-centric markets, is doing something about this and highlighting the huge yet largely untapped potential that female consumers represent. Even half a century since women entered the workforce, she said, we see many opportunities that male-dominated venture funds simply miss. 

She explained that when entrepreneurs, male or female, target women consumers who represent more than half the U.S. market, they must first overcome the understandably male-oriented worldview of male-dominated venture funds. 

And, in response to a question during the lively Q&A session, she described how her fund is able to seize opportunities that male-oriented funds do not because their biases do not allow them to see beyond the different style of pitching used by women entrepreneurs.

One other question that sparked an in-depth discussion was the so-called "confidence gap." In response, Zdenka Loncar, Croatia's Assistant Minister for Entrepreneurship, told the audience that studies show confidence starts at home, during childhood. 

Girls, she said, are just as talented as boys and that when given the same opportunities, women achieve at the same or higher rates than men. If there is a confidence gap, she said, it's a reflection of upbringing, not an inherent distinction.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, a global consensus has only recently emerged around the importance of entrepreneurship and new enterprise formation to economic growth and stability. 

Policymakers now sit face to face at the table with entrepreneurs, co-founders of accelerators, researchers and an array of other leaders and feeders from local startup communities in a more equal collaboration around achieving common targets. It was important at the GEC in Milan to bring the voice of women to the table. It will also be important for President's Obama's team to do the same at his government-convened summit in late July.

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet's own personal story was an inspiring addition to this conversation in Milan. As the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, she has relied on her experiences in crafting policy reforms to foster new small firm formation in the U.S. The emerging consensus around entrepreneurship, she said, offers governments an incredible opportunity to work together to change the world for the better. 

Her experience starting and scaling new businesses serves as an example of how in today's globally connected world, anyone anywhere — including the daughter of two hard-working migrant workers — can achieve things that seem outside the realm of possibility.

One African Minister who inspired many last week in Milan will be pleased about today's news of the President's decision to visit the continent to promote entrepreneurship. 

"More than anything else we must create a good environment because the people of South Africa are very creative and industrious and they are able to make their living for themselves," said Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa's eloquent Minister of Small Business Development. 

She went on to explain how her government is supporting new entrepreneurs through a program that runs nine entrepreneurship centers (one in each province), a technology program and an incubation support program that "for us is very important because that's where you assist people who are in small and medium enterprises to get the skills, to be nurtured, and to learn how to manage their businesses."

President Obama's Administration is unlikely to need much prodding on including a focus on women's entrepreneurship. Much of the work that the State Department and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes have led on advancing entrepreneurship overseas has stressed women and youth.

President Obama admittedly has plenty of critiques for his policies to promote U.S. economic growth. However, with more than 50 nations already emulating his "Startup America" initiative, policy work in support of fostering new high growth entrepreneurs around the world will never be the same again. 

In the lead up to the July summit, I encourage readers to suggest policy issues (you can use the comments section of this blog) the President should make sure are discussed in July. 

His personal leadership of this summit offers a unique opportunity once and for all to ensure that those in charge of economic policy around the globe never again view entrepreneurs as merely a side ring at the circus but rather the most powerful driver of new jobs, economic prosperity and innovation and political stability for all.

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jonathan ortmans
Jonathan Ortmans serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating the most advanced and effective means of fostering public discourse on major issues of the day.