Pradeep Ramamurthy, a White House official who plays a key role in implementing the vision laid out in President Obama’s historic Cairo speech last June, dislikes talk about “initiatives” coming out of Cairo. “This is about a new way of doing business, a new DNA for how government operates,” he told me yesterday at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship. In other words, it’s not about listing the discrete tasks coming out of the Cairo speech and checking off the boxes, it’s about how Cairo invites looking at the world through a new lens.
Culture change takes time and is hard to measure, but the Entrepreneurship Summit provides a window into how the vision that President Obama laid out in Cairo is becoming reality.
As is his style, Obama likes to find the intersection between values that are high priorities in the world and that serve as common ground for different communities. Entrepreneurship is perfect. The world needs business entrepreneurs who are creating new goods and services and generating new jobs. It needs social entrepreneurs who are building new institutions to solve social problems. And entrepreneurship is a shared value in both Islamic and American civilization. From the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs, entrepreneurs are celebrated figures in American history. But they are equally important in Islam. As Obama stated in the Cairo speech: “It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.”
The Summit included business and social entrepreneurs across the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Indonesia, from Saudi Arabia to the United States. Perhaps the most commonly used phrase from the panelists was “culture of entrepreneurship.” I was impressed by the energy, intelligence, pragmatism and self-criticism in the discourse. Here were some of the most important dimensions of that culture of entrepreneurship:
Culture of Risk-Taking
Failure is good. Those three words were repeated over and over by some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the room. In much of the Muslim world (as elsewhere), there is a bias within families towards government jobs and professional careers (lawyer, doctor, accountant, engineer). Too often the first response that a creative young person in a Muslim culture will get to a new idea is, “Make that your hobby, and make sure to get a job in the government.” That attitude is not going to solve the problems of today or create the jobs we need for the future. As Muhammad Yunus said, “We should not teach young people to be job seekers. We should encourage them to be entrepreneurs, and therefore job givers.”
Culture of Pluralism
In his beautiful keynote, the American business leader S.A. Ibrahim spoke of the diverse faiths of the various mentors in his business career, of his current colleagues, and of the people he is mentoring. He made it a point to emphasize his knowledge of and respect for the religions of these people, not just their business acumen. It was a lesson he learned from his Muslim father who told him in their home city of Hyderabad, “My participation in the festivals of other faiths does not diminish me as a Muslim, it enhances me as a human.”
The more I listened to this, the more I recognized this wasn’t just about Mr. Ibrahim’s generous spirit, this was a necessary attitude for a successful business and entrepreneurial culture. To work in a globalized world, you’ve got to be able to work with people from different backgrounds. There’s nothing like respect for other people’s identity to build the foundation for successful business relationships. Moreover, talent comes in all colors and languages of prayer. As one panelist said, “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or a white cat, I just want a cat who can catch mice.”
Culture of Education, Human Development and Work Ethic
“The only renewable resource I know of is the human brain,” said the Jordanian businessman Fadi Ghandour. “I’m tired of talk about discovery of new oil or other natural resources, and new ways of refining or bringing these to market. I want to hear talk of the discovery of the power of the human brain and the investment needed to nourish it. It will cost billions, but it will be the best billions we spend.”
Improving education is, of course, a common applause line. Muslim cultures have an abundance of this all-important resource – people. But Fadi went one step further and emphasized the importance of work ethic. A culture of entrepreneurship needs a population of people willing to roll up their sleeves to dream and build new systems. That takes a whole different attitude than simply hoping to take your place in old institutions.
This was a summit about new recipes, not just more cooking. The Cairo vision is starting to take shape in reality.