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The World Bank estimates that 100 million new jobs will be needed in the Middle East and North Africa over the next 10 years to keep the region's unemployment rates—now as high as 13 percent for adults and twice as high for young people—from climbing even higher. To meet the needs of this region's rapidly growing population and put it to work meeting the world's needs, there is no surer route than entrepreneurship. That was the big takeaway at the first-ever Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship focused on the Muslim world, held at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington in late April.
Attending the event and meeting some of the 275 delegates from over 50 countries with large Muslim populations gave us hope that business could indeed help bridge the gap between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. Apart from their affiliation with Islam, these entrepreneurs—nearly half of whom were women—had something else in common: They represent a generation of business people intent on charting a new course for economic and social change in and beyond their countries. Addressing highly charged political problems in this region remains paramount, but the folks we met were searching for a more tolerable life. Their activities hold the potential to help defuse, if not circumvent, some of the political tensions and lead to improved stability and security.
Entrepreneurial energy has a ripple effect on communities—leading not only to new jobs, but to better services and improvements in the standard of living, giving more individuals a greater stake in the future. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out at the event: "if one thing unites all entrepreneurs, it is a belief that your world and the larger world can be made better, that new ideas can solve old problems … and that one person's hard work can lift many lives."
Presenters at the summit inspired us as they explained how they effected change in environments where traditional economic development tools have fallen short.
Tri Mumpuni, 45, established a local cooperative for small, community-supported hydroelectric power plants in Indonesia that is attracting private investment. Establishing electricity in rural areas through local ownership of an off-grid system was not her only challenge—she was kidnapped for ransom by a group of rebels. She turned adversity into opportunity by showing them how the same mechanical skills they used to make a weapon could be used to build a turbine.
Three years ago, at age 17, Wad Taweel started an event-management company in Palestine as part of a school contest. It was the only company of its kind in Ramallah and proved profitable. In the 2007 seven-country Injaz al-Arab student business competition, Taweel was named best student chief executive officer in the Arab world. Taweel plans to open a center in Palestine to give kids much-needed recreation options. After she completes her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend Babson College on scholarship for an MBA.
What did the summit accomplish? It demonstrated the power of individual entrepreneurs to change their communities. The Obama Administration announced a series of positive but small steps to build partnerships with governments, universities, and businesses, including an e-Mentor Corps and investor fund partnerships. More ambitious actions are still needed, such as best-practices sharing on a much larger scale, global education opportunities, and youth entrepreneurship development.
With so many great global challenges of our time, why single out entrepreneurship? There is simply no better tool at our disposal to transcend political and cultural divides and accelerate the forces needed to stimulate economic and social development.