Core Messages for the U.S. and the Islamic World

The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship has granted the United States and the Islamic World a historic opportunity to deepen mutual relations. At this turning point, I would like to articulate three core messages: 1) The Summit will give the two sides a crucial, promising chance to evolve their engagement, and depart from a focus on security and oil; 2) The Summit will use entrepreneurship to communicate, reduce tension, and empower societies, but the conversation must not be one-sided towards business entrepreneurship, and must incorporate social entrepreneurship equally, if not more-so; 3) In spite of this pivotal opportunity the Islamic world cannot wait for the U.S. to solve its problems, and must begin identifying and supporting entrepreneurs, particularly social innovators, in its own communities.

On June 4 2009, the world stopped to watch US President Barack Obama speak at the University of Cairo in Egypt, addressing Muslims around the world. He called for 'a new beginning between the United States and Muslims' and a relationship built on entrepreneurship. Nearly one year after his course-changing speech, President Obama is poised to write a new chapter in U.S.-Islamic relations. The Summit marks a departure from the traditional politics, oil and security-heavy exchanges between the two, and will allow a new group of individuals to play a key role in informing the American President and his Administration on the Islamic World's needs and capabilities. The typical attendees of such high-profile gatherings - presidents, kings, ministers and other political figures - have been replaced by leading entrepreneurs, instilling hope that another side of the U.S.-Islamic story is emerging.

Entrepreneurship will become a new way of communication between the two sides as well as an opportunity to reduce tensions and empower societies. Although entrepreneurship is most often identified with the business sector, we cannot forget the vital role social entrepreneurs play in generating a thriving knowledge economy and civil society. Key development drivers, social entrepreneurs craft solutions to spur growth, opportunities and prosperity throughout the world.

What's more, social entrepreneurs have a unique ability to work and succeed with scarce resources. Often faced with little funding and support, they find local sustainable solutions to systemic social and economic problems. Widespread unemployment (Arab youth unemployment stood at 20.4% in 2009), food scarcity, illiteracy, an absence of basic healthcare and education systems that do not encourage risk-taking and creativity, make their home in many Islamic countries. To cure these most pressing challenges, social entrepreneurs craft solutions that unite sectors and leverage scant resources to maximize both impact on and potential of local communities. Yet, their full potential has not been realized as many cannot acquire the necessary comprehensive assistance to have profound impact.

One organization that can help provide a model is Ashoka, which has supported over 3,000 leading social entrepreneurs across the globe, many of whom work throughout the Islamic World. The Summit needs to recognize the social entrepreneurs in these countries, and must also call for increased search and support of nascent social innovators. The Summit has called social entrepreneurship to the center-stage, and Muslims cannot miss this opportunity to embrace it, and provide its practitioners with the financial and technical support they need to prosper.

Given this historic opportunity, and the need to identify and support social entrepreneurs throughout the Islamic world, Muslims cannot rely on Obama to single-handedly bring change. The Summit may very well mark the beginning of a new relationship with the U.S., but if they cannot equip themselves to embark on such a partnership, they will miss a golden opportunity.

In order to make the most of the Summit, the Islamic World must first strengthen its own economies and societies. Entrepreneurship is first and foremost a mindset that can only be developed internally rather than imported. The seeds of entrepreneurship are planted at schools and in societies that encourage creative thinking and social commitment, which must become a top priority in any Muslim majority country's development agenda.

The Islamic World cannot wait for Obama to stimulate entrepreneurship, nor can it wait for its own business and social entrepreneurs to reach scale on their own. In order to work in tandem with Obama on improving the entrepreneurial climate in their countries, Muslims must first prepare themselves to receive and capitalize on the assistance they are offered. They must shoulder the load of change to ensure that the spirit of entrepreneurship grows and expands beyond national borders, and that it is fully recognized and given every opportunity to thrive.