By Zeenat Rahman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Zeenat Rahman serves as Special Adviser to the U.S Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues. You can follow her @zeenat. The views expressed are her own.
Young people are at the center of global events. This is not a platitude, but a fact, given that half of the world’s population is under the age of 30. We live in an era dubbed the age of human talent, and this human capital is a fundamental driver of economic development. But how can we best harness the talent of youth populations and create new pathways for progress? Entrepreneurship, defined by innovation, creativity, and economic advancement, is key to leveraging this talent and forging new paths as entrepreneurs and young people around the world share many of the same traits.
Emerging powers are increasingly putting economics at the center of their foreign policies, and with at least 75 million young people globally, if not more, seeking access to meaningful livelihoods, this demographic is an economic reality that policy makers cannot ignore. Instituting meaningful ways to engage the natural talents of young people, while also addressing the economic challenges this demographic faces, make entrepreneurship initiatives so critical to help solve global challenges.
In 2009, President Barack Obama highlighted entrepreneurship as a pillar of U.S. global engagement, underscoring the importance of entrepreneurship as one of the most powerful ways for individuals to improve their own economic circumstances, and in turn, their lives.
At its core, entrepreneurship is about optimism. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, “Entrepreneurship is a way of looking at the world and seeing not just obstacles, but opportunities; not just the world as it is, but the world as it could be.” Young people are inherently optimistic, creative, energetic, and passionate. Entrepreneurship can therefore be a vehicle for economic development, but equally important is that it is a powerful form of empowerment. Taking an idea from creation to realization allows young people to create and own their innovation, contribute positively to society, and be their own agents of change.
Empowerment is at the core of our engagement with young people around the world at the U.S. Department of State. Secretary Clinton has made youth issues a priority by creating the Office of Global Youth Issues and asking me to ensure that our youth focused programs are sustained, coordinated and have meaningful impact. We focus on elevating youth issues and youth voices, engaging directly with young people, and offering tools that bolster the efforts of young people who want to be change makers in their communities.
There is perhaps no more critical region in the world to address youth unemployment than the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). According to the World Economic Forum, the region needs to create 75 million jobs by 2020 just to keep employment close to current levels. The MENA region has one of the world’s youngest workforces, with more than half of the population under the age of 25. Recent polling has shown that fair pay and efforts to help bolster entrepreneurship in the region are high priorities among Arab youth.
This week, the U.S. government is partnering with the government of the United Arab Emirates to host the third annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Dubai. The GES is the leading U.S. government-supported forum for promoting economic growth through entrepreneurship. It connects entrepreneurs, investors, universities, and policymakers to catalyze partnerships and exchange ideas to encourage economic growth and strengthen ties. Recognizing that young entrepreneurs are a critical component of this audience, the State Department is playing a leading role in the Young Entrepreneur Forum at the GES.
The sessions at the Young Entrepreneur Forum are highlighting successful young entrepreneurs, emphasizing peer and mentor networks, and helping budding innovators develop their ideas and their capacity to realize them. The State Department is also launching Startup Youth, an initiative that, in coordination with the private sector, will provide programs and events to foster entrepreneurship around the world to facilitate opportunities for young entrepreneurs to take their ideas from creation to realization.
We are at a tipping point when it comes to economic engagement with young people, and we cannot let this opportunity pass us by. We must avoid letting this generation of young people become what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned could be a “scarred generation.” It is critical to harness the potential of this moment with action from governments, the private sector, and especially young people themselves. The U.S., I believe, has a significant role to play in partnering with young people to make this happen.