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Remarks at Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship

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Monday, April 26, 2010

CONTACT OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship
Washington, D.C.

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Good morning. I am honored to address all of you.

On behalf of President Obama, I want to welcome you to the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

Last year, when President Obama detailed his vision for this summit in Cairo, he did so knowing that ties between America, Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities around the world should be based on more than concerns about security or diplomatic issues—even though they are critical.

This summit underscores the president’s commitment to pursuing a more comprehensive engagement based on mutual respect, mutual interest, and mutual responsibility.

With us today is an incredibly diverse range of participants. You hail from over 50 countries on five continents; include individuals of many religious backgrounds; and you represent the full spectrum of the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Some of you are entrepreneurs, some investors. Some of you run companies, foundations and non-profits, while others have founded them. But together you recognize the immense and vital role that a vibrant private sector has in promoting economic opportunity, and in improving the standards and quality of life for all.

This entrepreneurial force extends across our shores. It unites America and Muslim-majority countries in a shared vision of promise.

Much like this event today, trade and commerce have always brought together diverse peoples in a common pursuit.

For thousands of years, entrepreneurs have found ways to transcend national, political, economic, physical and spiritual boundaries to create opportunity and prosperity for us all.

As we look at the history of Islamic civilization, we see a rich tradition of invention and innovation.

The world was given coffee from Yemen; the first fountain pen from Egypt; and the first windmill from Persia.

It was a Muslim engineer who invented the crankshaft, which even today is the foundation of much of the machinery in the modern world.

For centuries, these goods and services flowed east and west through the trading hubs that extended throughout your countries and regions.

Today, perhaps more than ever, international trade holds tremendous potential for improving people’s lives. And innovation and entrepreneurship in particular have the potential to be the great equalizer.

Any man or woman with a great idea and the will to pursue it, can change not only their own lives, but peoples’ lives all over the world. Just look around this room and you will see almost 300 living examples of exactly that.

As our world stares down an immense set of challenges, from climate change and poverty to disease and resource scarcity, we need to have the brightest minds from every corner of the globe looking for solutions.

And today, we are honored to have some of those bright minds gathered right here in this room.

You hail from different countries and work in different industries and are addressing different social challenges, but you are united by your relentless will to succeed, even in the face of immense obstacles.

There’s a young woman who built a thriving tailoring business in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan; a young man who launched a nonprofit to promote entrepreneurship in the Palestinian territories, and a doctor from Nigeria working to advance health among that country’s youth.

Also with us is the founder of a private equity firm that makes investments in natural resources and infrastructure in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, and the founders of major corporations, from courier services and airlines to telecommunications.

You are different in so many ways and yet you all share an uncommon talent to bring hope and opportunity to your communities.

The challenge before us is to take the tremendous success all of you have had individually and expand it throughout the Islamic world.

There are over one billion people living in Muslim-majority countries today.

They represent a vast reserve of under-utilized potential in the global economy—both in terms of their demand for goods and services, as well as their ability to create technological and social innovations that will drive economic growth and social development throughout the world.

All of you here today have been selected because of your past, present and future efforts to unleash this potential.

It is very much in America’s and the entire world’s interest that you succeed.

In the United States, we are just now emerging from the worst economic crisis many of us have ever seen.

Too many Americans who want work still can’t find it, and too many people who are working can’t find enough of it.

To replace the jobs we have already lost and to create new, better paying jobs, the Obama administration is taking bold steps to grow our economy.

Central to these efforts is a renewed focus on expanding American exports and growing international trade.

President Obama recently announced a National Export Initiative (or NEI) that aims to double our exports over the next five years and support two million American jobs.

The NEI will have tremendous benefits for the entire world.

It will give foreign consumers access to a wider variety of goods and services, and will provide our trading partners with more access to new ideas and new innovations that can spur growth in their own countries.

But this strategy only works if countries have growing economies and growing middle classes that are fully engaged in the international marketplace.

And of course, building that capacity in Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities is why we have all gathered here this week.

So why the focus on entrepreneurs?

Because they are the heart of all thriving economies.

When innovators and entrepreneurs can easily turn their ideas into businesses, jobs and economic opportunity follow closely behind.

Entrepreneurs are a powerful force for change. They improve the business climate in their own countries and champion necessary policy reforms. And they improve practices in global markets.

Mobile commerce, for example is rapidly transforming markets worldwide thanks to the work of entrepreneurs from Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh.

In the United States, we have always relied upon entrepreneurs to be a primary engine of our economic growth.

Firms less than five years old—many of which are considered small businesses—have accounted for nearly all increased employment in America’s private sector over the last three decades.

My own biography is a testament to America's entrepreneurial history.

My grandfather immigrated to America from China, initially working as a servant in exchange for English lessons. My father, also born in China, opened a small business in Washington state, a grocery store. I worked at that store as a student, and it was the profits from that store and the fruits of my father’s hard work that enabled me to stand where I am today.

But immigration should not be the only refuge for those seeking opportunity around the world.

As much as America has benefited from the contributions of immigrants, we also respect the strong desire that citizens around the world have to see their own countries grow, develop and thrive.

Entrepreneurs can change societies, not just economies. Social networking sites haven’t just spawned new companies. . . they have changed how people around the world interact with one another. Even before there was the Internet, there were people who mobilized communities to advance just causes—from education and healthcare to civil rights.

And I am happy to hear that one of the regional conferences that will follow this Summit—in Iraq—will focus on social entrepreneurship.

I want to be clear that the United States engages in these efforts to expand entrepreneurship in a spirit of partnership, not of patronage.

The U.S. and American workers have much to gain from this summit, as well as other efforts to build economic cooperation between our nations.

First and foremost, the U.S. can learn much from the accumulated successes of you assembled here today, as well as the countries you represent.

From brilliant scientific advances in water management and desalinization technologies, to the truly incredible success Middle Eastern telecom companies have enjoyed distributing mobile phones throughout the developing world, to the staggering growth of services and tourism in the Gulf—there is no question that Muslim communities have the capacity to nurture a thriving entrepreneurial culture.

Our challenge at this summit is to fully realize that potential by growing new businesses, industries and economic opportunity.

Over the next couple days, we’ll be holding plenary sessions to address a wide array of issues that help build entrepreneurial cultures. Among other things, we will be talking about social entrepreneurship, technology and innovation, access to capital, women and youth entrepreneurship and mentoring and networking.

We’ve got a full slate of events, and I’m confident that we’ll conclude this summit with concrete commitments to act. But I want everyone here to know that President Obama and his administration do not see this summit as a one-time event. It’s part of the process of creating a sustainable focus on entrepreneurship.

U.S. embassies around the world are holding roundtables with entrepreneurs and other key stakeholders. USAID has already held several listening sessions on entrepreneurship, including in Cairo, and a virtual effort that included thousands of participants from over 150 countries.

And several foreign governments and NGOs have offered to host follow-on regional conferences, from Algeria to Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain to Indonesia. And I'm proud to say that the Commerce Department is deeply engaged in this challenge.

This year, the Commerce Department will be leading at least five trade missions to Muslim-majority countries and we will be hosting as many as 27 reverse trade missions with partners from Muslim majority countries. And this December, I will host a conference in Washington to highlight opportunities for commercial engagement for American companies in the Middle East and North Africa.

And, together with the State Department, my department’s Commercial Law Development Program is advancing policy and legal frameworks in Muslim-majority countries that are conducive to advancing entrepreneurship.

This is a government-wide effort for the U.S. And you will hear from many of my colleagues about the many ways we are working to advance mutually-beneficial ties between our peoples.

This summit is a beginning, not an end.

And even as the Obama administration continues our vigorous efforts to promote entrepreneurship, we know that there are limits to what we can do.

Governments have an important role to play in convening, mobilizing and facilitating. We can develop policies and incentives to spur entrepreneurship.

But ultimately, it is leaders like all of you who will build the businesses and the networks and create the innovations that economies need to grow.

You have so much to offer and when you leave the summit tomorrow, I hope you will return to your communities with a renewed sense of purpose that you will help mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs and advocate for changes in your societies that will allow your neighbors to help realize their full potential.

Because promoting entrepreneurship is, in fact, very much about promoting our common humanity.

Every time a person’s potential is deferred or squandered, whether here or abroad, it is a tragedy.

In this world, people are largely defined by their calling, by their profession. This is fundamental to the human condition—seeking a purpose, seeking meaning through work or service. When people cannot find work, when they cannot apply themselves to better their own lives or those of their society or families, they ache for meaning.

That ache is powerful. . . . It is compelling. And in some way, your presence here is a response to that ache, to the knowledge that ambition can transform lives and transform societies if only it is met with opportunity.

I hope this summit can help soothe that ache in both our societies, and that our countries can find common ground in providing our people a purpose and a chance for a better life. Thank you.