July 24

Steven R. Koltai

Entrepreneurs Are the Same Person All Over the World. And That’s a Good Thing.

Count me among the international development types gravely concerned about the Trump administration’s harsh posture toward foreign aid. As a successful entrepreneur and advocate for bolstering entrepreneurship ecosystems in fragile and poor countries, I have long urged USAID (and similar institutions) to increase spending on seed funds, mentorship networks and accelerator programs for foreign startups. It’s the best way to generate jobs and economic activity in places that need them most – and that threaten us most.

But it’s not all about the economy. Perhaps not at all.


value Productivity over difference

The Arab world – that epicenter of terror, migration and travel bans – suffers from the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Yet igniting economic hope for disenchanted youth in lands of economic despair (i.e., those prone to radicalization) may not be the most important reason to strengthen entrepreneurship programs. Rather, Western governments should spend heavily on supporting young entrepreneurs because, as I like to say, entrepreneurs are the same person all over the world.

Be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, Russian or Ukrainian, Sunni or Shia, Democrat or Republican, entrepreneurs everywhere care about developing innovative goods and services, building businesses and forging relationships with everyone from customers to investors. They want to learn from each others’ experiences and strike deals with one another. Missing from this list of interests are, among other things, socio-political and religious grievances that often lead to violence and war.

In short, entrepreneurs tend to be like-minded folks who get along and who value productivity over difference. As such, they are natural peacemakers. They are a “bridge” class of people, making entrepreneurship a unique link among nations and cultures. The world of entrepreneurship – especially in the cross-border international development sense – is about peaceful collaboration, transnational investment and shared expertise and learning.


engender Cross-cultural spirit

When I ran the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program in Muslim-majority countries, I routinely encountered Arabs who wanted access to Israel’s famed entrepreneurial ecosystem of venture capital and technology expertise, who wanted access to American know-how and markets. That program also exposed American investors to leading North African startups, some of which eventually opened Silicon Valley offices.

This is the cross-cultural spirit entrepreneurship engenders – and which should be promoted in foreign aid. We are all familiar with “sports diplomacy,” “cross-cultural diplomacy” and even “panda diplomacy.” Entrepreneurship and the startup culture are as much a part of American culture today as any of those other areas.

Actually, there are already ongoing examples of organizations that leverage entrepreneurship and innovation for a better world. (In the interest of disclosure, I am involved to varying degrees with some of these).

CyprusInno, based on the eponymous Mediterranean island, is an online platform that explicitly aims to “connect and lift” and “engage peacefully” all entrepreneurs across an island long riven by violence and disputes between its Greek and Turkish populations. The founders of CyprusInno are a (young) Greek Cypriot and a (young) Turkish Cypriot.

entrepreneurship helps rwanda rebound

In Europe, where a migration crisis has polarized and shaken populaces and politicians, the SINGA group of incubator programs networks immigrants (often refugees) and nonimmigrants in a variety of sectors. Operating in Germany, France, Belgium, as well as Canada, SINGA stands for the proposition that despite all the friction among “adults” about letting in or not letting in immigrants, the (young) entrepreneurs somehow all seem to get along just fine.

On a more “macro” level, Rwanda’s rise from the ashes of genocide to the top of the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings for sub-Saharan Africa has been credited in part to government policies spurring entrepreneurship – and the government’s belief that nationally cohesive economic development efforts could transcend ethnic conflict.

Building bridges does not appear to be high on the Trump administration agenda, but, for the ostensible president-cum-entrepreneur-par-excellence, entrepreneurship programming really should be. Jobs in rich and poor economies alike are primarily created by young firms, not by big companies or government-owned businesses, so one would hope convincing a president so vocal on jobs about entrepreneurship’s economic benefits would be a piece of cake. If so, the amicable and productive relationships like-minded entrepreneurs construct all across the world would be the icing.


Steven R. Koltai is an entrepreneur, long-time business executive and foreign policy expert with a focus on entrepreneurship.

Photo courtesy of Karen Roe via Flickr



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