U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
Algiers, Algeria
December 1, 2010

I’m pleased to see you all here today, and especially to see so many young people in the audience who have traveled from Mauritania, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and here in Algeria, as well as from the United States and around the world. It’s been a thrill to watch this event come together, which we have been working on with our partners at the U.S.-Algeria Business Council. I would like to thank the people of Algeria and the USABC for hosting the first annual U.S. Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference here in “Alger la Blanche.”

Why Maghreb?
Some may wonder: “why the Maghreb?” The fact of the matter is that we have been working towards this day for a long time now. A decade or so ago the United States announced our interest in deepening our economic engagement in the Maghreb. While that partnership did not unfold as we had hoped for then, we looked closely at the good ideas and the challenges in that experience in order to move forward with something stronger. What I will announce today is inspired by previous U.S. initiatives and builds on these efforts with a robust new approach to U.S. engagement in the Maghreb region.

So the answer to “Why the Maghreb” is simple: We believe there is significant opportunity for economic growth, stronger business ties, new forms of economic partnership and people-to-people contact between the U.S. and the people of North Africa. These partnerships are a direct outcome of what President Obama said in June 2009 when he went to Cairo to tell the world that we are committed to deepening ties between U.S. and Muslim communities. Our work also builds on the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in April of 2010. And it continues today, as I am joined by many U.S. government, private sector, and non-governmental representatives who are committed to upholding our President’s goal.

In addition to working with key governments, the United States is committed to engaging with the people of the region. Where possible, we are trying to have a positive impact on people’s everyday lives.

And in the Maghreb, we want to deepen our relationships based on our mutual interests and mutual respect. When I say mutual interest and respect, let me stress the word mutual. We’re committed to this region not only because it is important, but because in a globalized world our economic destinies are inextricably linked.

Why entrepreneurship?
In addition to asking “why Maghreb”, some of you may be wondering why we have chosen to focus specifically on entrepreneurship. In the United States, as you know, we feel quite strongly about entrepreneurship. We think of it as an essential part of what creates economic opportunity and makes for a free and prosperous society, and so we make entrepreneurship a pillar of our conversations with other countries. While the U.S. has a long history of successful entrepreneurs and business promotion in general, and we believe that we have much to contribute in these areas, we also believe that we have as much to learn. This dialogue is what constitutes a true partnership – a sharing of ideas, and a way to build both security and opportunity worldwide.

I have seen first-hand the power of entrepreneurship in individual communities – people working not just for profit, but for the payoff of seeing their ideas improve the lives of those around them, as well. I know you have also seen it here in Algeria, from the innovative spirit of Isaad Rebrab, founder of Cevital, to the creativity and success of Dalila Nadjem founder of Dalimen Publishing House, among many others.

Some of you attended the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington in April. We would have liked for many more of you to have been able to join us in Washington for that historic Summit. What we have aimed to do here, though, over the next couple of days is to bring the President’s Summit to you here to the Maghreb, and to share it with all of you, the business leaders, entrepreneurs, and future entrepreneurs of the Maghreb.

So we are here today in the Maghreb to build on the President’s Summit on Entrepreneurship together with all of you – to compare lessons learned, find concrete ways to grow our companies, increase regional cooperation among the private sector, mentor our younger colleagues, and encourage these young entrepreneurs in their dreams to create their own dynamic economic futures. And so today, I want to talk about some specific outcomes and about how we are moving forward; first, through our focus on young entrepreneurs; second, by promoting science and technology, and third, by building meaningful partnerships that are tailored to the Maghreb region.

Focus on Young Entrepreneurs
We have chosen to focus in part on youth entrepreneurs. We understand the economic challenges facing young people, particularly the frustration faced by youth seeking jobs, as they try to fulfill their dreams. This is a challenge that we must face together both in the United States and in this region of the Maghreb.

We have with us in the audience the winners of the 2010 INJAZ National Student Entrepreneur Awards in Morocco, as well as two innovative young women who won the annual business award competition sponsored by the Algeria Start-up Initiative. We are also joined by a number of young, successful entrepreneurs from around the world, including 22-year old Brent Skoda who joins us in Algiers today from Texas as a student entrepreneur ambassador from the United States. Brent is the recent overall winner of the Global Student Entrepreneur Award sponsored by the Entrepreneurs Organization along with the Kauffman Foundation. It is the world’s biggest student entrepreneur competition involving students from over 44 countries. In addition to being a full-time student, Brent has created a successful business that focuses on encouraging good nutrition among college students. You will hear more from Brent about his story over lunch today. And perhaps one outcome of our conversations on youth entrepreneurship over the next couple of days could be to take programs like the Global Student Entrepreneur Award and expand them to provide new opportunities to student entrepreneurs in Maghreb countries.

Fostering youth entrepreneurship in the Muslim world is an on-going effort for the United States. Our seven year, $2.4 million investment in the Junior Achievement-Injaz Al Arab program that is already active in Morocco and Tunisia will expand in the coming years to Algeria and Libya. We have partnered with ExxonMobil, Citigroup, Save the Children Federation, and other private sector partners in the region to promote youth entrepreneurship. Injaz has directly trained 700,000 youth with a foundational understanding of business, economics, and the practical skills needed to become successful, productive young entrepreneurs.

To further encourage young entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, or MEPI, is providing $1.5 million to the Injaz “Generation Entrepreneur Project.” The funds will enable 22,000 young people throughout the region to start their own business ventures. Competitions for the 100 most promising proposals will be held nationally and regionally, and each winner will receive $1,000 to continue his work. In addition, a film crew will follow the challenges and successes of young entrepreneurs in each country, and the resulting series will be broadcast throughout the region.

Focus on Innovation in Technology
Let me turn now to innovation and technology. In response to President Obama’s call for expanded opportunities in science and technology, the United States is establishing a Digital Science Library for the Maghreb as part of the new set of partnerships that I am announcing today in the region.

The Digital Science Library will help support development in science and technology, increase access to digitized scientific data and research, encourage partnership and networking, and technology licensing and exchange. By facilitating the sharing of knowledge, the Library will be an essential tool for the professional development of the regional scientific community and for furthering sustainable relationships between U.S. and regional science communities.

The Library initiative will launch this spring with new library resources coming online throughout the ensuing year accompanied by hands-on workshops across the region to support and promote the program.

Focus on North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity
Let me explain how we are focusing on building successful partnerships between the United States and the Maghreb region. We believe that the United States can do more in North Africa. Increasing cross-border links in North Africa between entrepreneurs, professional and business associations, youth, and business leaders is key to long-term economic prosperity, stability, and security in the region and across the globe.

In support of this goal, we are launching the North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity. As some of you are aware, we’ve made a number of trips to the North African region in the past few months and over the past couple of years to listen to your concerns and hopes, and to make sure this partnership is tailored to your needs. We are pleased to work with the governments in each of the five countries participating in this initiative – Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. We continue this work in Washington as well, making sure that there is a U.S. government-wide effort to coordinate all the good and important work that we feel we are already doing, and would like to be doing more of, together.

Aspen Institute
This partnership is different from past efforts, in that it is a true joint public-private effort. On the public side, we are investing our time, creative capital, and financial support alongside the existing efforts of regional governments and public entities. On the private side, this initiative will be managed by an independent organization that will work with you in each country to create local advisory boards and a regional board of advisors composed of U.S., diaspora, and Maghreb business leaders.

We are very pleased to announce to you for the first time today at this Conference that we have selected a prestigious U.S. foundation to partner with us in this important work and act as a Secretariat for this new Partnership. I am delighted to announce today that The Aspen Institute will manage this initiative as we move forward together with you in the Maghreb.

We are particularly pleased to work with The Aspen Institute on this new partnership because they have a proven track record in forging innovative and successful partnerships between public and private stakeholders. For example, they have already implemented a successful public-private partnership between the United States and the Palestinian Territories. In general, The Aspen Institute seeks to foster open-minded dialogue, and place a strong emphasis on local consultation and participation as a foundation for their engagement with business and civil society. This combination of expertise, openness, a track record of public-private partnership, and their approach to listening carefully to stakeholders seems a perfect match for the initiative we are launching here today.

North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity
So, what are the concrete pillars of NAPEO? There are five. Let me enumerate them

  • The first pillar is the North Africa Young Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders Network, which will facilitate cross-border links by developing a closed regional on-line social network that connects American and Maghreb young business leaders and entrepreneurs to each other and to potential investors, including in the United States.
  • Second, the North Africa Innovation and Technology Incubator will support the on-going first steps of a Maghreb venture-capital sector and provide regional access to seed and growth capital for small businesses, as well as encourage startups in technology and innovative new sectors. We would like to sponsor a Regional Start-Up Initiative in new technologies for young entrepreneurs, and support Science, Math and Technology training by sponsoring a U.S. - Maghreb Math Digital Media Competition or “Math Olympics.” We will also work with diaspora leaders and business leaders in the Maghreb to explore launching a North Africa Angel Capital Network, which will bring the angel capital concept into the Maghreb to give young entrepreneurs access to early stage capital. Angel Networks are among the most important sources of funding for start-ups and early stage enterprises in the United States. These innovative programs are designed to assist those who need it most – young and new entrepreneurs.
  • Third, the North Africa Leadership and Training Academy will work through local and U.S. partners to strengthen leadership, management, entrepreneurship and education-to-employment skills for youth ages 16-35, but also new entrepreneurs of all ages. We will do this through regional workshops, mini-academies, and retreats.
  • Fourth, the North Africa Creative Industries Incubator will harness the potential of regional artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and digital media artists, to contribute to job creation and local development. We will deliver training to assist artists and artisans to build and sustain businesses in the cultural sector and promote their cultural exports.
  • As for the fifth initiative, we hope that this final initiative will form the long-term backbone for this Partnership. But it is also a challenge to you. Our vision is that the Partnership initiatives we outlined today will one day be housed in North African Centers for Excellence on Entrepreneurship, one in each Maghreb country. The U.S. government will not fund these NAPEO Centers of Excellence; rather they would be the result of the collective leadership efforts by all of you working together to launch and finance them. We therefore call on entrepreneurs like you and all members of your business communities to mobilize with us around promoting entrepreneurship and to join with us and The Aspen Institute to make this vision a reality. Our hope is that these centers of excellence would be networked together and work in concert with the Aspen Institute to make the U.S. – North Africa Partnership a real success. In the short term, the Aspen Institute will begin work the centers of excellence by working with local partners to create a network of regional business schools, universities, and research entities to connect with diaspora academics and think tanks in the United States.

Over the coming weeks, we will look to private and public partners to help us bring this vision to reality. There is a role for all, regardless of size or nationality.

Trade Missions
Finally, let me briefly mention that we are also planning two missions tied to this new Partnership – a reverse trade mission of businesses and entrepreneurs from North Africa to the U.S., and an entrepreneurship mission from the U.S. to the Maghreb.

The reverse trade mission, spearheaded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, is designed to spur U.S. company interest in pursuing new opportunities and projects within the Maghreb region. The Reverse Trade Mission will provide an opportunity for public and private sector representatives to travel to the United States to see equipment and technology in action, as well as to meet with U.S. companies and relevant U.S. Government Departments.

The second mission, the Entrepreneurship Mission, will come to the region in the early spring. This mission will include 8-12 American investors, including potential angel investors from the Maghreb diaspora community, investors who are interested in emerging companies in the emerging market, as well as American entrepreneurs who may serve as role models and mentors. The Delegation will meet with local investors, incubators, training organizations, and relevant government officials. Most importantly, the Delegation will meet individual entrepreneurs leading some of the most promising start-ups. We hope you will be as excited as we are to participate in these meetings.

We are working to move our world closer together, by building meaningful partnerships with all of you. Over the next two days, I look forward to hearing your stories and having our speakers provide some concrete lessons to help you grow and thrive as successful entrepreneurs.

I also look forward to your help in growing what will be a successful and landmark partnership. Thank you very much.