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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks at the Global Technology Symposium

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Menlo Park, CA
March 24, 2011


Good morning. Thank you, Mark. I’m delighted to be here today.

With so many technology leaders in the audience, I’m sure you were thrilled to learn that your opening speaker would be from the government. Well I hope you will agree that after 20 years with Discovery Communications, my business credentials are still in good order.

And I’m happy to report that it’s not all that bad on the other side. But it does feel good to be back in my natural habitat, talking to you about a subject very near to my heart.

Conferences like this provide an invaluable opportunity for government and business leaders to interact with each other and share ideas about critical issues in a complicated world. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have built partnership and mutual respect into every aspect of our foreign policy because we recognize that we make more progress when we work together. This is true when we engage with the private sector as well as with foreign governments.

We are looking for partners in everything we do. We are committed to making government work better and smarter. And we are exploring ways to put new technologies to use so we can do more with the resources we have. So I hope this will be a chance for us to learn from one another and find new areas where we can work together.

This morning, I’d like to talk about the work we are doing to build partnerships in three critical areas: supporting entrepreneurship, spurring innovation, and harnessing the power of connective technologies.

I’ll share some information on programs we are developing at the State Department. Then I’d like to hear from you, and learn about the work you are already doing on these fronts.

Our first critical area of engagement is also one of America’s strongest national assets. Entrepreneurship brings a unique element to our global engagement. Whether we are fighting youth unemployment, lifting people out of poverty, building broad-based prosperity, or forging connections across borders, entrepreneurship augments our efforts to address many of today’s deep-seated challenges.

Too often we attack international problems with time and labor intensive projects, with meetings and money. Our solutions offer plenty of perspiration, but we sometimes forget about the inspiration. Well entrepreneurship is all about inspiration.

President Obama has identified entrepreneurship as “an area…where America can share our experience as a society that empowers the inventor and the innovator.”

Simply put, America is good at entrepreneurship. We’ve developed an open system that allows the entrepreneurial spirit to thrive. It taps into what is best in our character – our boundless optimism; our belief that an individual who is willing to take a chance and work hard can achieve the impossible.

Knowing how many impossible dreams became realities right in this neighborhood, I think everyone here would agree with that statement.

Discovery was a highly entrepreneurial company. When I started, we only had 35 employees and one cable channel in the United States. By the time I left, we were a multinational media corporation with more than 5,000 employees distributing services to over a billion subscribers around the world. Achieving this remarkable growth wasn’t easy, but it was exhilarating.

Thinking big and taking risks is always exciting. It carries an energy that defines entrepreneurs all over the world. And we see it all over the world. We recognize the United States doesn’t have a monopoly on entrepreneurship. Amazing indigenous technology development is happening all over the world – in Latin America, in East Africa, in Southeast Asia.

I’m sure you are all familiar with Mo Ibrahim of Celtel, so I won’t retell his story here. Except to say: Mo built a booming business because he saw what could be where others only saw what had been. Rather than viewing Africa as a commercial wasteland, he saw a whole continent full of customers. And he figured out how to make his business work for them.

When entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses, jobs and opportunities follow. And those opportunities empower everyone in a society, including women, youth, and traditionally marginalized populations.

At its heart, entrepreneurship is all about jobs and economic growth. As we all know, small businesses accounted for two-thirds of all new jobs in the U.S. over the past 17 years. In emerging economies, small- and medium-enterprises drove 97 percent of job creation.

This is crucial for economic development as well as social stability. We don’t need to look further than today’s headlines to see the connection between an absence of opportunity and social unrest.

Mohamed Bouazizi wasn’t a democracy activist in Tunisia, he was a vegetable seller. It was the only work he could get to support his family of eight. And last December, when the police confiscated the unlicensed produce cart Mohamed pulled around his town – confiscated his only hope for an income – he couldn’t take it anymore. Mohamed walked to the main square, doused himself in gasoline, and struck the match that ignited a movement that is transforming our world.

To be sure, unemployment is just one of many factors fueling recent events throughout the Middle East. For far too long and in far too many places, the status quo has been characterized by a lack of political, social, and economic freedom. By repression and corruption that has stifled much more than entrepreneurship. But joblessness is without doubt a highly combustible ingredient.

The Middle East is also sitting on a growing youth bubble. Forty-two percent of the population in Tunisia is under the age of 25. In Egypt, it’s 52 percent. In Yemen, 65 percent. For some, this may seem like an overwhelming challenge, but you and I know what an enormous opportunity it is.

Economies are built on the strong backs and fresh ideas of youth. But so far, unemployment is choking off this sea of untapped potential.

By 2020, an estimated 100 million young people will be on the job market in the Middle East. Many of them will be college educated. They will be internet savvy and connected to their peers around the world. For them, entrepreneurship can be the door to opportunity.

Last fall, I was in Dubai for an Entrepreneurship Conference sponsored by Abraaj Capital, and I sat in on some of the most impressive presentations I’ve ever seen. I came away convinced that entrepreneurship is a powerful vehicle for dynamic growth in the region. And just last week, Secretary Clinton announced that we are going to help further stimulate private investment with up to $2 billion in OPIC funding for the Middle East and North Africa.

Promoting entrepreneurship has always been part of our development assistance. Now we have made it a central plank of our foreign economic policy as well. We want to work with you to support entrepreneurship opportunities for people everywhere and nurture ecosystems that allow individuals to unleash their natural entrepreneurialism.

This is where we as a coalition of government and private sector and civil society supporters can truly have an impact. What can we do to make it easier for individuals to start a business and have a chance at succeeding? Where can we link up entrepreneurs around the world with the capital funding in this room? How can we improve the environment so that when you invest in Kuala Lumpur and Quito, your return will be as safe as when you invest in Silicon Valley?

Entrepreneurs need laws and systems that protect individuals and their ideas. Corruption strangles the entrepreneurial spirit. We must demand greater transparency and accountability from government and businesses alike, wherever they are in the world.

Entrepreneurs also need a culture that values risk-taking. Striking out to do something new requires individuals to take a chance on themselves. That is an admirable quality. We should celebrate it. There has to be room to try and possibly to fail.

If we can advance opportunities for entrepreneurs in emerging markets even slightly, the prospects to make money together and build long-lasting relationships are countless.

So how are we going about this at the State Department?

At the first Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship last April, Secretary Clinton announced our Global Entrepreneurship Program to advance opportunities in emerging economies. This program offers a soup-to-nuts approach to help start-ups succeed – from identifying promising young entrepreneurs, to connecting them with funding and business mentors, to celebrating their successes.

We are also working toward a second Entrepreneurship Summit in Turkey later this year, and we look forward to continuing our shared commitment to supporting entrepreneurs worldwide.

And the Global Entrepreneurship Program also sends delegations of leading American investors and entrepreneurs out to explore emerging markets. My colleague from the State Department Lorraine Hariton, our Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs, is here today, and she can tell you more about these programs.

The second critical area for U.S. engagement is so closely connected with the first we consider them two parts of a whole.

Together, innovation and entrepreneurship make up a continuous cycle of growth that can drive a nation’s production. Innovators refine processes or think up new ways to do things. Then entrepreneurs bring these new developments to market.

Humans are always innovating. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Silicon Valley or the Serengeti. There are no pre-qualifications for great ideas. And capital always finds a way to fund them. That is what makes innovation and entrepreneurship such powerful catalysts for change in every country of the world.

As President Obama has said, “education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century.” We have certainly seen the truth of this over the past few years. Moreover, given the right environment, we have seen that we can educate people how to innovate.

Just a few miles from from here the Stanford Institute of Design, or, is changing the way we think about innovation and teaching new ways to unlock creativity. The doesn’t provide answers, it provides an approach.

Its students have already redesigned a water pump that improves the ability of farmers in Burma to irrigate their crops. They have developed and manufactured a warming device that could save millions of infant lives for less than 1 percent of the cost of a conventional baby incubator. In some cases, they have brought their ideas from an in-class assignment to market production in less than two years.

Innovation can be learned in the classroom, applied to real-world problems, and brought to a marketplace hungry for new ideas. It’s a formula that can work across cultures and continents.

Last August, I visited the Ingenio Business Incubator in Montevideo. The Government of Uruguay recognizes that innovation is essential to better connect its people to global markets and promote its economic development. So it worked with universities and the private sector to create an innovation hub for information and communication technology.

I saw firsthand how their integrated approach applies the same values of collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving as the Stanford And it is opening up new sectors of opportunity for the people of Uruguay.

Also last summer, we hosted a contest that encouraged African NGOs to develop innovative solutions for problems in their communities. Bringing the needs of NGOs together with the know-how of local technology entrepreneurs, they turned their ideas into apps.

Apps4Africa brought the convening power of the State Department to help local groups address their community’s shared challenges creatively and effectively. And in case you are wondering just how locally-driven Apps4Africa was, look no further than our winning entry: iCow. This voice-based mobile app helps farmers maximize the fertility cycles of their cows. Talk about endless innovation within your own market.

East Africa has almost made a cottage industry out of innovation, pioneering mobile technology in ways the developed world might never consider. African innovators aren’t encumbered by legacy systems or ideas of how things should be done. They simply figure out what works.

One of the most striking examples of this is the mobile banking boom pioneered by M-PESA. Only about 20 percent of families in Africa have bank accounts. But over 400 million Africans now have mobile phones. Which means they now have an ATM, a point-of-sale terminal, and internet banking access right in their pocket. In the last five years, M-PESA has exploded from just 900,000 subscribers to over 13 million.

At the State Department, we are seeking out ways to stimulate innovation and support entrepreneurs at every level. In the last year, we have launched several new exchange programs specifically focused on promoting connections between innovators and entrepreneurs.

As one example: Our TechWomen program will bring women working in the tech industry in the Middle East and North Africa to California this summer. We will pair them with one of their female counterparts working in Silicon Valley to act as a mentor and a support system and a friend. Through educational exchanges and peer-to-peer conversations like TechWomen, we hope to develop the next generation of innovators around the world.

And because no organization can succeed without innovation, we are rewarding new ideas within the State Department as well. Last year, my office set up a Fund for Innovation. Any public diplomacy officer who sees an opportunity to engage foreign publics can submit their idea online and apply for immediate support from Washington. We want to take advantage of opportunities as they arise and be part of conversations as they happen.

Which brings me to the final area I’d like to touch on briefly today: the power of connective technologies to remake the way we engage with one another.

The Internet and new media have made it possible to reach more people in more places than ever. But the Internet has also shifted power and influence to such an extent that it is necessary to engage with more people than ever. Immediate and widespread access to information has fundamentally changed the way we do business.

Secretary Clinton has embraced these developments – from mobile messaging to Facebook and Twitter feeds to Smartphone apps – as vital tools for what we call “21st Century Statecraft.”

These technologies are not a replacement for traditional methods of people-to-people outreach. Instead, using technology, we are moving the work of diplomacy into new arenas and connecting directly to new audiences. We launched new Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi last month that allow us to share our messages directly with populations across the Middle East and see their unfiltered, uncensored responses.

We see every message, positive and negative. We engage as equals. And sometimes it presents challenges. But they are challenges we welcome, and they are challenges we share with nations around the world.

Just a few weeks ago I was in Boston to launch the media working group of our high-level strategic dialogue with Russia. We brought together participants from U.S. and Russian media outlets to begin a conversation about our changing media landscape. And we found that, for the most part, we were struggling with the same issues: What is the role of traditional media in this new environment? How can we use these new technologies to provide critical and accurate information to all our citizens?

As we confront these and other challenges, we believe the Internet must be open and accessible to everyone in order to fully harness its power for social transformation, and for economic growth. This is one of the reasons Secretary Clinton is so committed to advancing Internet freedom and what she has termed the “freedom to connect.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship need the same environment to thrive online as they do in the real world. And each of us has a role to play in keeping the Internet a fertile ground for developers worldwide.

When innovation and entrepreneurship meet the broad power of connective technologies, the world and the way we do things can change instantly.

One of the most striking examples of this from the past few years comes not from California, but Kenya. Many of you may already be familiar with Ushahidi, but theirs is a story worth telling again and again.

When violence broke out in Kenya after the 2007 elections, an innovator posted a simple idea online: What if we had real-time reports to monitor violence and locate people in need of assistance? What if we mapped individual accounts of crises as they happen on the Internet?

Technology entrepreneurs saw the post and developed the Ushahidi platform in a little over a weekend. They did not have venture-capital funding, so they used what open source software was available. Because the platform was built for the immediate need in Kenya, it catered to mobile phones rather than computers. Soon the results came flooding in faster than any government or international organization could have ever reported.

Over the past four years, connective technology has made Ushahidi the go-to platform in crisis situations. It helped locate survivors pinned under rubble after the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. As of three weeks ago, it was helping Libyans report conditions on the ground directly to the UN. And most recently, it is helping coordinate response and recovery efforts for the tragic events in Japan.

Ushahidi is a testament to the amazing things people can accomplish given the opportunity and the right tools. Their story reminds us of the power of an individual and an idea to make a difference in the world. Whether that individual is a student trying on a new way of thinking, an entrepreneur looking to sell her goods to more people, or a farmer just trying to get more out of his cows.

There are critical opportunities for partnerships and cooperation between the government and the talent in this room to propel entrepreneurship and innovation forward around the world. I hope that you will join with us to bring ideas and resources to the table.

Whenever a new entrepreneur hangs out his shingle or sets up her shop, we want that individual to know the United States is there for them. Not just the U.S. government, but the U.S. people and U.S. businesses as well. And when we can make that connection, I consider it diplomacy well done.

Thank you.

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