Remarks at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Generation: Power of Entrepreneurship Workshop

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
The American Center
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
May 29, 2015

Thank you, Alex. First of all, congratulations on joining a growing community, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative – or YSEALI. You are part of a select few who beat the odds to be here. You have already proven that you are future leaders.

I am always delighted to meet with entrepreneurs because – before I was an Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs – I spent 20 years working as a chairman and CEO in the entertainment industry in California.

I was President and CEO of award-winning entertainment companies such as The Jim Henson Company, which created the world-famous "Muppets."

I also worked at a company called Wildbrain which created an innovative educational TV series called “Yo Gabba Gabba!”

In those environments, I worked with many kinds of creative people – people just like you who were brimming with ideas and determined to develop them.

They knew that success is always about three things: having the innovation to come up with the idea in the first place; doing the hard work to get it developed; and perhaps most importantly, never taking “no” for an answer.

I have a story about that. We came up with the idea for a television show that was as entertaining and smart for parents as for children – “Yo Gabba Gabba.” We wanted to put the “cool” in preschool. But television stations didn’t share our vision and every one turned us down.

We didn’t let “no” stop us. We brought in indie rock bands like The Shins, The Ting Tings, The Roots, Weezer, and Devo. We taught counting with the skills of the beatboxer Biz Markie. We took our show to the public through the internet.

“Yo Gabba Gabba” built a large following through its online presence, and fans started calling TV stations to find out why they didn’t have the show. Stations that once told us “no” were begging to sign the show they had passed up. Now “Yo Gabba Gabba” can be seen on one of the premier U.S. children’s television stations – Nickelodeon.

It taught me a great lesson about being resourceful. I believe that lesson applies to any entrepreneur who has faced setbacks or defeat.

Now, I am profoundly aware that, while there are many challenges for entrepreneurs in my country, we have it relatively easy, compared to the rest of the world. We have grown up in a culture that believes if you’ve got an idea and if you really work hard, you’ll succeed.

Maybe you’ll stumble a few times, but you can eventually turn that idea into a reality.

According to a survey tracker known as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor – or GEM – many young people around the world, including this region, lack the confidence that conditions are right for them to start a business.

In many ways, their response is understandable. There are enormous challenges that can make a young person hesitate, from a culture that makes people too ashamed of failure to even try in the first place, to more economic or political issues.

Which is why it’s all the more impressive that you defied the odds and took it upon yourselves to apply for this competition. You are here, not only because you have great ideas but also because you have consistently refused to take “no” for an answer.

That makes you the engine of hope and industry that this region needs.

President Obama recognizes that and, from the beginning of his administration, has elevated our support for entrepreneurship to make it easier for young people to start a new business or a new social venture.

As a former businessman, I was delighted when Secretary Kerry asked me to become Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs. One of my reasons was the chance to lead a Bureau that takes the lead in helping entrepreneurs worldwide.

Through various efforts such as our Global Entrepreneurship Program – or GEP – we work with the private sector and other partners within the U.S. government to train and empower thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs.

We create programs and workshops like this one, and make tools and networks available to you. We help small businesses expand into new markets. We help mobilize new investments. We connect emerging innovators with mentors and networks, and we expand access to capital.

As we support entrepreneurs in hands-on ways, we also work with governments to help create better economic environments. We do this through bodies like the UN, APEC, and ASEAN. We are currently negotiating a multilateral trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will break down barriers to business for 12 nations in the Asia-Pacific.

So we are very much in your corner, and I would like to share three big reasons why we support you.

First of all, each one of you is a winner, demonstrated by your presence here today. When you back winners, they tend to spread that success around. They help to grow communities and economies. Entrepreneurs and small to medium businesses are the winners in virtually every economy.

They are the engines. So when we empower them, when we support them, they can rise to the occasion and help their economies grow.

Number two: Young people are an enormous human resource in the world, and they’re not being supported enough. More than half the world’s population is under the age of 30. And in the ASEAN region, more than 65 percent of the population is under the age of 35. Many of them are unemployed – or underemployed.

Number three: In this day and age, more and more young people around the world are connected through technology. And we need to harness that potential. Through the internet, they can build businesses, network with others, and identify funding sources.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to help them harness that connectivity in ever more effective ways to address shared problems.

We have a choice. Do we stand by and let economic frustrations grow? Or do we find ways to support young people, so they can build and develop their ideas and grow their communities and their national economies, and their regional partnerships?

There is really only one answer.

One of the great – I would even say magical – effects of entrepreneurism is its power to ripple outwards.

When you build a business, it isn’t just you that benefits. It’s the people you hire. They get a salary that will benefit their families. It’s also the customers who benefit from the service or the product or the social benefit you are offering. And when other entrepreneurs do similar things, whole communities begin to see the benefits and prosper.

Imagine what we can do when we empower more entrepreneurs to work, not only for themselves but across this region. That is one of our goals for YSEALI.

They can identify common challenges that no country can meet by itself, like lifting people out of poverty, combating climate change, or preventing the spread of disease. They can share their best ideas. They can communicate in new ways with people across cultures and between faiths. They can become an ever growing community of regional and even global economy builders and problem solvers. There is no better time than now for entrepreneurs to step up and get started.

President Obama was recently talking with entrepreneurs and he said: “I believe that entrepreneurs like you can make the world a better place, one idea at a time. You are going to be how change happens – one person, one step, one business, one city, one country at a time.”

As I look at you, I can see that’s true. And before I open this up to questions, I want to share a quote from Thomas Edison. As you probably know, he was one of America’s most famous entrepreneurs, who invented so many things, from movie cameras to lightbulbs. He once said: “I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

As I look around this room, I see the kind of people who have already found a way that works for them. All you need is a little support. So, my sincere congratulations on being selected for this prestigious program and we all look forward to seeing what you can do in your own communities. I am now open for questions. Thank you.