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Washington Rolls Out Red Carpet for Global Entrepreneurship

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

This afternoon, President Obama addressed the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship organized by the Department of State and the Department of Commerce following his promise in Cairo last June. The event is designed to promote entrepreneurship in Africa, the Middle East, and South, Central and Southeast Asia as a tool for economic and development policy and to fulfill the President’s commitment to broaden and deepen ties between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

Entrepreneurship as a field in economic policy appears to have earned its credentials.  A U.S. President convening over 200 leaders from more than 50 countries on five continents for a gathering entitled A New Beginning: Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship indicates that entrepreneurship is no longer viewed as a side ring to the circus but rather as a core priority for nations looking to build economies and expand human welfare.
In fact, if the festival of events in the nation’s capital this week is anything to measure by, I might even go so far as to suggest Washington, DC itself has woken up to the powerful role entrepreneurs will now play in both driving global growth and fostering international stability. Beyond the official events and receptions, it seems that most of the major institutions in Washington such as the Brookings Institute, Aspen Institute, George Washington University and other academic institutions in the area, the International Finance Corporation and several law firms are convening “global entrepreneurship” events.  These combined with dozens of events convened by the institutions working in this field such the Kauffman Foundation, Endeavor Global, Global Entrepreneurship Week, AMIDEAST, Cisco, ANDE, Corporate Council on Africa, 10,000 Women and an array of organizations with Middle East expertise, speak to how popular “entrepreneurship” is as both an emerging field and a global engagement strategy for all nations.

The question now is how much “entrepreneurship” the delegates will be able to take home with them at the end of the week. The mere convening of this summit has put checks in the boxes next to the goals of the Summit (namely to highlight successful entrepreneurs from Muslim communities; expand networks among stakeholders in entrepreneurship; find ways to replicate the most successful entrepreneurship efforts and approaches; identify ways to build and strengthen economic and social climates conducive to entrepreneurship; and enable participants to announce or highlight their entrepreneurial programs).

The challenge now is the iterative process of defining what advice and technical support to offer public and private sector leaders around the world who accept President Obama’s challenge to embrace and foster a startup culture.  Only a careful look at the Summit’s agenda will reveal whether the U.S. is really imparting useful guidance on how to foster entrepreneurship.

Recognizing that entrepreneurship is still little understood, the Kauffman Foundation created Kauffman Labs to explore the science of startups in a more empirical way, which is seeding new programs and thinking from the Foundation and its partners. America is rich with experience and willing to share both successes and mistakes.

The Summit will allow best practice sharing through sessions such as “Perspectives on Successful Entrepreneurship” in which Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and speakers from Tunisia, Indonesia and Kuwait will share their experience about the keys to fostering entrepreneurship, and “Catalyzing Youth Entrepreneurship” which will feature a discussion about the role of government and non-government actors in shaping education, training, mentorship, culture and other factors that encourage young people to be innovative and entrepreneurial. 

However, while these gatherings will get policymakers thinking about entrepreneurship, we must make sure not to impart wrong guidance on how to foster it. For example, nations might remember that entrepreneurial capitalism rejects grand central planning.  As Carl Schramm, President of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, recently wrote in his “Expeditionary Economics” article in Foreign Affairs,
Entrepreneurial capitalism is messy, since it is highly organic rather than centrally planned or centrally managed. Many different people and entities bring the elements—from new firms to university research to federally funded research—into place, and activity flourishes from letting them all evolve and interact in the marketplace. It is nearly impossible to predict what outcomes these activities will bring beyond a broad trend toward higher productivity, rising standards of living, and continued economic growth.

Keeping that general guideline in mind, policymakers must decide how to best unleash entrepreneurship, looking at the various elements of an entrepreneurial ecosphere: education, access to capital, innovation commercialization mechanisms, etc. For example, if one takes a look at the rationale for having a strategy to improve one of these elements, education, one can begin to see that ensuring a skilled and entrepreneurial workforce is of utmost importance. Perhaps the most significant constraint on successful startups’ growth is the difficulty finding talent.  At its most fundamental level, entrepreneurship is about the successful development and commercialization of novel ideas. This high-impact process is impossible without creative and highly skilled individuals.

America still has an untarnished reputation for understanding startup thinking and culture.  Now that we have openly encouraged the world to adopt it, let the work begin.


Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

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