By Kylie Jue
“This is the place that made nerd cool,” said President Barack Obama when he spoke at Stanford on Friday morning as part of the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES). Obama highlighted diversity and accessibility in entrepreneurship in his address.
Following his speech, the president moderated a discussion with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and three young entrepreneurs from around the world.
The speech and panel were part of GES’s Partner Plenary, which also included speeches from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and co-founder of AOL Steve Case and welcoming remarks by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
Stanford President John Hennessy introduced Obama and emphasized the importance of a diverse workforce, noting that computer science has become the “fastest growing major for women at Stanford.”
“An entrepreneurial mindset — including its constituent characteristics of creativity, collaboration, bold leadership, smart risk-taking — [is] important in all walks of life, especially as we educate young people who will need to address the massive global challenges we have around the world,” Hennessy said.
Obama on why entrepreneurship matters
Following Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union (EU) yesterday evening, Obama explained that he had spoken to Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) David Cameron just a few hours before his speech.
“Based on our conversation, I’m confident that the UK is committed to an orderly transition out of the EU,” Obama said.
“While the UK’s relationship with the EU will change, one thing that will not change is the special relationship that exists between the two nations,” he added. “That will endure. The EU will remain one of our indispensable partners.”
Obama also noted that he believes the UK’s decision reflects today’s challenges of globalization — that “the world has shrunk” and is “interconnected.”
“Part of why this Global Entrepreneurship Summit has been so close to my heart, something that I’ve been so committed to, is because I believe all of you represent all the upside of an interconnected world,” he said. “But it’s also important in these discussions to find ways in which we are expanding and broadening the benefits of that interconnection to more and more people.”
According to the president, 170 countries were represented at GES this year, and this is the first year that Cuban entrepreneurs have attended the summit. Next year’s event will be held in India.
Obama stressed that accessibility to resources like financial support and mentorship is key to increasing diversity in entrepreneurship.
“You deserve the same chance to succeed as everybody else,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure that everybody has a fair shot to reach their potential. You can’t leave more than half the team on the bench.”
New ventures are vital in creating new jobs for youth all over the world, including the United States, he explained.
“We live in a world where half of our world is under the age of 30 — where all of the young people around the world need to start new ventures and create jobs in the 21st century and help lift up entire populations,” Obama said.
In order to achieve these goals, GES aims to help entrepreneurs pursue social missions that matter to them. The president announced several new initiatives that have stemmed from GES this year: the Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE), as well as a White House initiative to connect global investors such as the likes of Bill Gates with clean energy entrepreneurs from developing countries.
These latest schemes aim to give young entrepreneurs the boost they need to access capital and business skills.
“Dozens of tech companies are committing to make technology workforces look like America by publishing data on diversity each year and developing tech talents from all backgrounds,” Obama noted.
In all, 17,000 entrepreneurs have benefited from the GES since it was first held in 2010, Obama explained. Just this morning, he signed an executive order institutionalizing his efforts to promote global entrepreneurship — which include the summit itself — so that the initiatives will persist well into the next presidency.
Focusing on the next generation of entrepreneurs
Even as he outlined the latest policy initiatives, Obama focused chiefly on the young entrepreneurs, urging them to seize the networking opportunities during the remainder of the summit.
“The point is, I believe in you, and America believes in you, and we believe you have the talent, skill and ambition not just to pursue your dreams, but to realize them, to lift up not just your own families but your communities, countries, and create hope for decades to come,” Obama said.
To learn about young entrepreneurs’ stories and challenges from around the world, Obama was joined by a panel of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and three up-and-coming entrepreneurs: Mai Medhat, the founder and CEO of Egyptian event planning company Eventtus; Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, founder and CEO of Rwandan renewable energy firm Habona; and Mariana Costa Checa, founder and CEO of the Peruvian technology education social enterprise Laboratoria.
Medhat shared that her event planning and networking company began from a need she had felt keenly herself: professional women in Egypt often have difficulty networking at events. Her drive as an entrepreneur came from a desire to help others in her position.
“Funding was a real challenge of course,” Medhat said. “The passion [is] really the only thing that keeps me going and keeps me awake every day.”
Like Medhat, Zuckerberg emphasized that young entrepreneurs should begin with an idea that invigorates them rather than an idea aimed just at making money.
“When I started, I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice and giving people the ability to share everything they cared about, and bringing a community together,” Zuckerberg said, recalling Facebook’s early days. “It started small, in one university, and I didn’t think it would be a company at the time.”
From a more practical perspective, Mehdat pointed out that administrative difficulties also abound in her home country — everything from finding a lawyer to registering a new company with several different government offices.
“Even in the U.S., we still have 16 agencies in charge of doing business,” Obama said. “We tried to streamline them into one, but it requires congressional action.”
He looked to Zuckerberg for technological solutions that could lower barriers for entrepreneurs where the government might fail.
“We have developed a program all over the world — it’s called FbStart, and we give entrepreneurs free access to tools,” Zuckerberg said.
“We also have over 50 million small businesses with pages on Facebook, which they use as their primary presence online,” he added.
Obama concluded the discussion by acknowledging that governments around the world may continue to resist the unfamiliar, especially when it comes to technology. He recalled the landmark use of social networks during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“[The campaign team] had all this stuff I hadn’t heard of,” Obama said. “If I tried to maintain control and said, ‘We’re going with pamphlets because I’m used to pamphlets, and I can control what’s in the pamphlet,’ then I might not be sitting here.”
While he acknowledged the dangers of radicalization on the internet, Obama saw technology and entrepreneurship as vital for creating a better future.
“Part of what has created all this [modern entrepreneurship], what Stanford is all about, is our capacity to say, ‘we don’t know’ — to say all the received wisdom may not be right,” he said. “And we’re willing to test that.”