22 March 2010
A New Beginning: U.S. Summit on Entrepreneurship
By Phillip Kurata
Staff Writer (Department of State)
Washington — Entrepreneurs from more than 50 countries with sizable Muslim populations come to Washington in April on President Obama’s invitation to celebrate the risky, exhilarating life of entrepreneurship and share ideas about sparking new businesses in their communities.
The April 26–27 conference — A New Beginning: The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship — builds on President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo June 4, 2009. He promised to host a summit on entrepreneurship “to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.”
“We now seek a broader engagement” that involves greater exchanges in education, health, science and shared ideals, he said in Cairo.
The conference will highlight the role that entrepreneurs play in communities in creating jobs and improving societies. Results expected from the gathering are new programs, partnerships, relationships and networks, which will encourage starting new businesses and social projects.
In all, about 250 people of various religious backgrounds are expected to participate in the meeting. They will come from Africa; the Middle East; South, Central and Southeast Asia; and Muslim communities in other regions and countries, including the United States.
Among the participants will be Muhammad Yunus, the father of microfinance — a strategy of making small loans to impoverished people to help them start businesses. For example, a woman might borrow $50 to build a chicken coop, buy hens and sell their eggs. With profits, she would repay her loan and qualify for a future loan, which she could use to expand her business. Yunus uses his Grameen Bank and Grameen Foundation, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to promote microfinance. He has received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
Leading the Pakistani contingent of entrepreneurs to the summit is a woman from Lahore, Pakistan, Roshaneh Zafar, whom Yunus mentored. With $10,000 that his bank lent her, she launched the Kashf Foundation in 1996, which focuses on lending to poor women. Her microlending operations have grown from an initial 15 clients to more than 300,000 today. The Kashf Foundation has disbursed $225 million to more than 1 million poor families, according to Zafar. It also has become the first nongovernmental microfinance institution to offer insurance. To expand the financial base, Zafar has established the Kashf Microfinance Bank, which can accumulate more capital than a foundation. She has received numerous international awards for her work in helping impoverished women raise living standards for themselves and their families.
“Helping poor women has a ripple effect throughout society,” Zafar said. “When they make money, they spend it on health for their children and themselves and on children’s education. The whole society benefits.”
MORE THAN TALK
Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, said it is vital that the summit be more than a public relations exercise. “We have to turn talk into action. The Obama administration has shaped a compelling vision of how an entrepreneurs’ summit can transcend politics and get us working together around the world in a very exciting way,” he said.
The institute has several projects designed to encourage Middle East entrepreneurship. It has played a key role in organizing the Middle East Venture Capital Fund, which is managed by Israeli businessman Yadin Kaufmann and Palestinian entrepreneur Saed Nashef. Backed by the European Investment Bank, Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corporation and other contributors, the fund has $50 million to fund high-growth, export-oriented ventures in information technology. It is the first venture capital fund targeting the Palestinian Territories.
“By having Israelis and Palestinians work together in funding new ventures, you get economic advantage as well as political advantage,” Isaacson said.
Another project designed to put economic flesh on the administration’s political outreach to the Muslim world is the institute’s planned conference on innovation and creativity in Abu Dhabi in June or July, according to Toni Verstandig, director of the Aspen Institute’s Middle East programs.
She said that the conference will highlight the importance of having venture funds, research parks and universities adjacent to each other. This convergence is apparent at the most successful U.S. high-tech clusters, such as the Route 128 high-tech belt around Boston and Silicon Valley in California. “Innovation involves partnership among universities, businesses and government to foster creativity,” she said.
Isaacson said some Gulf states, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are experiencing strong economic growth resulting from their investments in innovation and technology.
(Read more about the President’s speech in Cairo on www.America.gov)