Road to GES: Engaging entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt has a rich history of entrepreneurism with enduring role models

Ziad Haider

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Seven years ago this week, President Obama delivered a landmark speech in Cairo in which he underscored the transformative power of entrepreneurship. In his remarks, he described the need to “...deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and…around the world.”

Catalyzed by the President’s Cairo speech, nearly 10,000 entrepreneurs, investors, foundations, and other key stakeholders have since convened over the past six years in Washington, Istanbul, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Marrakesh, and Nairobi as part of a series of entrepreneurship summits.

Later this month, President Obama will lead the US delegation to join approximately 1,200 more entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors from 170 countries in Silicon Valley for the seventh and final Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) of the Obama administration.

As the Department of State’s Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs, I have had the privilege of travelling across the globe as part of a series of “Road to GES” events. The purpose of the events has been to promote GES 2016 and entrepreneurship more broadly for three reasons. Promoting entrepreneurship creates jobs and incomes. By creating such prosperity, enhanced stability follows, diminishing extremism and associated security threats. So does a level playing field and inclusiveness where entrepreneurs can be self-reliant and contribute to their economies and societies.

Take the entrepreneur I met in India who was working to develop durable solar powered roofs that don’t just provide shelter but also can charge light bulbs. In a country where a population the size of the entire United States has no electricity, such bottom up ingenuity to complement the government’s top down policies is essential.

Another in Tunisia described his passion for entrepreneurship as the idea of achieving “success without unfair advantage.” Creating a strong and self-starting entrepreneurial ecosystem was, in his view, vital to cementing Tunisia’s historic democratic transition away from the prior authoritarian regime and its economic model based on cronyism.

While visiting the Cogite incubator in Tunis, I was also inspired to learn of a group of Norwegian entrepreneurs who were developing an app to assist Syrian refugees learn Norwegian in order for them to integrate and find jobs in Norway. Norwegians in Tunisia are helping Syrians. That to me is the kind of world we want to live in. Young people — without heed to borders — applying their creativity to find solutions to a crisis of humanity.

But for my last stop on the Road to GES, I decided to come full circle to where it all began: Cairo. On June 1, I had the privilege to serve as the keynote speaker at a “Road to GES: Cairo” event at the American University in Cairo (AUC) that brought together 300 entrepreneurs. The day-long event featured networking opportunities and panels on investing in startups with venture capital firms, transformative technologies and resulting opportunities, and the socioeconomic impact entrepreneurs can have beyond their borders.

In my remarks, I underscored the elements needed to create a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem: access to capital, protection of intellectual property, support from academic institutions, investment in infrastructure and technology, and a shift in a cultural mindset that accepts risk-taking and, failure.

These are elements on which I have sought to build partnerships with foreign officials throughout my Road to GES stops.

Egypt has a rich history of entrepreneurism with enduring role models such as Talaat Harb — Egypt’s pioneer entrepreneur who went on to found the Bank of Egypt in 1907.

Azza Faiad from Alexandria at the age of 20 years old tackled two of the world’s biggest issues at once — pollution and energy — when she discovered a more efficient way of converting garbage into valued biofuel.

And then there is RiseUp Summit whose offices I visited at Cairo’s vibrant GrEEK campus. RiseUp organizes the MENA region’s preeminent summit on entrepreneurship with a total of 4,500 entrepreneurs in attendance last year. Event by event, they are forging an invaluable intra-regional ecosystem for entrepreneurs.

All that I have witnessed in Egypt and across my Road to GES stops is but a drop in the bucket. There is a world out there teeming with young innovators eager to create value and solutions in response to social needs, and who desire a platform to connect.

GES is the preeminent platform for them to do so. Those that cannot attend GES can still plug into interact online with other entrepreneurs and investors.

Ziad Haider serves as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. He leads the Office of Commercial and Business Affairs in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs in assisting and promoting U.S. business interests overseas; ensuring that private sector concerns are fully integrated into U.S. foreign and economic policy; and promoting global entrepreneurship and the protection of intellectual property rights. He previously served as a Senior Advisor for international economic affairs on the Policy Planning Staff in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State; a White House Fellow in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice; and a Foreign Policy Legislative Aide in the U.S. Senate.

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