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Diplomacy in Action

A New Beginning: President Obama's Entrepreneurship Summit

FPC Briefing
Dennis Hightower
Deputy Secretary of Commerce
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
November 23, 2009

Date: 11/23/2009 Location: Washington DC Description: Deputy Secretary of Commerce Dennis Hightower briefs about President Obama's Entrepreneurship Summit at the Washington Foreign Press Center on November 23, 2009. © State Dept Image

3:00 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Okay. Good afternoon. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. We are very honored today to have the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Mr. Dennis Hightower, with us, who will be speaking about a new beginning, President Obama’s initiative that was mentioned in his Cairo speech on bringing together entrepreneurs from Muslim communities in many parts of the world. But I will let him tell you about it.

Please, sir.

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: Great. Thank you very much. Good afternoon, delighted to be here, and I wanted to spend just a few minutes with a few overview comments before I open up the floor for any questions.

As many of you know, in June, President Obama did visit Cairo, and in a speech there announced that the U.S. will host a summit on entrepreneurship to really identify how we can deepen ties between the business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Muslim communities around the world.

The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, which is what it’s being called, will be held here in Washington, D.C. over about a two-day period sometime in the early spring of 2010. And this is a direct follow-up of the President’s commitment. It does represent an opportunity to highlight and support business and social entrepreneurship in Muslim majority countries, and including their minority populations and in Muslim communities around the world.

What we hope to accomplish through such a summit is really to seek to join existing efforts, and inspire new efforts, to promote entrepreneurship and innovation, including maybe looking at about 150 participants or delegates, if you will, from around the world who will represent their home countries, regions, sectors, and communities at the summit. And one interesting feature, we think, is that delegates may be either nominated or they may self-nominate. Delegates will be invited to Washington. The consulates and embassies from the countries where the delegates are potentially coming from have been alerted to the program and will be processing visas and other paperwork necessary to facilitate the movement of all of the delegates into the United States for this summit.

And we believe it really does represent an unprecedented historical opportunity both to support and highlight the leaders and drivers of economic and social innovation in the Muslim majority countries and Muslim communities, but also to really craft a new model for a new basis for relationships based on mutual respect and partnership around certain common challenges.

The leads in the program will be the Department of Commerce, the Department of State, and the USAID, all three of which will be playing key roles in implementing the summit. And as many of you may know, Secretary Locke recently identified and announced a Department’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and that’s the process or the methodology that’s currently being used to accept memberships of the delegates for this convention.

So why don’t I just stop here and open the floor for any questions.

MODERATOR: Please wait until you have the microphone before asking your question, and then identify yourself and media organization.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mina Al-Oraibi, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. I’d just like to ask you, in terms of criteria, you know, for 150 delegates, what are you specifically looking for in terms of nominations and in terms of acceptance and how, you know, judging who gets to come, so to speak, may be done from panel, from USAID, State, and Commerce?

And if you’ll allow me just a second question, you say this is going to be held at the White House --

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: No, I didn’t say the White House. I said Washington, D.C. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Oh, okay.


QUESTION: Washington, D.C., okay. I see. So in terms of attendance from the U.S. side, who are you looking to attend, and also numbers of delegates?

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: Okay. Well, to answer the first part of the question, as I said, the delegates can be nominated either by businesses, governments, academic institutions, social entrepreneurship institutions throughout the Muslim community, or you can self-nominate. So that’s the process, and they will initially flow into Commerce, and then a combination of Commerce, State, and USAID will begin to sort through.

Because one of the things we’re trying to do is highlight successful entrepreneurs, you could look at that as one category; and look at new and strengthened global networks to continue to build on either existing programs or new programs; and look at the opportunities for how can we enhance partnerships that would link capital, business development, market access; that would enable people to build high-growth and high-impact ventures; and again, look at ways of sustaining the focus that we already have on other programs that could combine and link with strategic partnerships and other partnerships of an economic basis.

So when you take that sort of broad spectrum of looking at academia, at social institutions, businesses that are currently there, or innovators who want to move into those areas, it gives us a pretty broad platform to think about who and how that mix would be in order to get the best possible range of participation. Because as most of you know, and I certainly know after 30-odd years of running businesses around the world, you just never know where the next best or good idea is going to come from. So to the extent that there is diversity across a number of sectors in this 150-delegate delegation, then that’s where we would hope to get the greatest leverage of good ideas which could spur other opportunities.

QUESTION: Georgian TV Company Imedi. The question is about – so not political relationship, because I understand the political step, a good relationship with Muslims. But what’s the economic reason and goal for that? Could you explain that side?

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: Oh, absolutely. Good business is good business no matter where you do it or – on that basis, as long as there is a mutuality of interest and opportunity.

I can go back and cite 26 years of actually working myself directly in this community, regionally starting in Kuwait in 1961 where I actually set up distribution for a very well-known toy company in the United States with the Alghanim family in Kuwait, as the – one of the biggest traders at that time in the region. Going from there, I’ve opened up businesses in Kuala Lumpur, in Johor Bahru, in joint ventures in Saudi Arabia, starting in Jeddah, going into – from there to Dubai. I had businesses in Cairo, in Istanbul, Morocco, throughout the region.

And the underlying rationale was what is going to be mutually beneficial, both in terms of opportunities to create jobs in the countries where the joint venture is, in most cases because of business practices, and what was going to be good for the U.S. company to create – and as we certainly understand now, the need and the opportunity to create jobs here is as equally compelling.

So at the core of it we have an opportunity, I think a very unique opportunity, to look at the three, four, however many areas of commonality there might be that could draw this particular community together around a business paradigm. Because it’s very easy to sit down and talk about how we are so different, but the unifying themes of how we are more alike is certainly at the core of why this makes sense now. And again, good business is good business.

MODERATOR: Next question. Yes. You, please.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Williams Ekanem. I’m a journalist from Nigeria. My question is: Is the forum restricted to only Muslims? And also, is it Muslims from all around the world, or is this specifically for African Muslims?

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: Muslims all over the world or Muslims that may be minorities in broader communities, but on a global basis.(*)

MODERATOR: If we don’t have more questions, then I’m going to end the briefing. Is this all right?

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: Was there another hand in the back? No? Okay.

MODERATOR: (Laughter.) Okay.

DEPUTY SECRETARY HIGHTOWER: Okay. Well, thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much.

(*) Clarification: The Summit will include participants from Muslim-majority countries regardless of religious creed. All residents of Muslim majority countries are encouraged to apply.

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