Entrepreneurship: A Growth Strategy for Combating Youth Unemployment

By 2020, an estimated 100 million Arab youth, many of them college-educated, will enter the job market seeking opportunities. Youth unemployment is not new a phenomenon; but it is a growing problem around the world. And it is one that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) feels acutely. Many countries in the MENA region currently experience an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent among those under the age of 24, compared with figures in the teens or below for most of the rest of the world. In Egypt, unemployment among the young, college-educated population has risen to 33 percent, the second highest in the world. As the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia unfold, I've watched as young people voice their frustrations over their current economic and political circumstances and press for change.

Entrepreneurship, a cornerstone of America's economic success, represents one of the brightest hopes for expanding economic opportunity and creating jobs in emerging markets, and can provide a big economic boost to the MENA region. While by no means a panacea, entrepreneurs have consistently proved to be a key engine of growth and, critically, job creation. In the United States, from 1980-2005, firms less than five years old accounted for nearly all net job growth. We believe that a focus on entrepreneurship in emerging economies can produce similar results. Moreover, because entrepreneurs create jobs and promote innovation from the bottom up, they are a key force for opening up the economic systems of their countries to groups that have previously been marginalized. In this way, entrepreneurship can be an important component of promoting "Economic Democracy," whereby greater numbers of people can participate productively in the economy and thereby have the skills and energy to improve their own lives and contribute to their country's economic advancement.

President Barack Obama emphasized the impact of entrepreneurship when, speaking at the 2010 Summit on Entrepreneurship, he said, "entrepreneurship [is vital] because throughout history, the market has been the most powerful force the world has ever known for creating opportunity and lifting people out of poverty."

The State Department's Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP) is a key example of the Obama Administration's commitment to draw on America's entrepreneurial culture to help create growth and opportunity around the world -- an outcome that is not only beneficial to partners abroad but also to global stability. The program brings together private sector partners from America and the local community to create an integrated entrepreneurial ecosystem. The programmatic areas that GEP focus on include: identifying promising entrepreneurs, training them, connecting them to each other, increasing funds available for emerging enterprises, promoting supportive policy, and celebrating successes. Entrepreneurs can also play a key role in connecting the Arab world to a far greater degree in the global economy -- opening new opportunities for investment, trade, collaborative research, and growth.

Days before people in Egypt took to the streets, the GEP wrapped up its first Entrepreneurship Delegation in Cairo. The delegation brought 11 prominent U.S. investors and entrepreneurs to Cairo, including the founder and former CEO of CarMax, an MIT management scientist, and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Over the course of four days, 105 Egyptian start-ups competed for two prizes worth $20,000 each in seed funding provided by the delegates themselves.

One of the two winners was a start-up begun by 21 and 23-year-old brothers from Alexandria. These young software developers created a company to do "smart search" for mobile phones, a technology which the members of the GEP Delegation said was "world class." They are members of the growing number of young, educated, Internet-enabled entrepreneurs in the region. It is precisely these people who not only seek meaningful opportunities but upon whose shoulders the future growth and prosperity of Egypt will most likely depend. We plan to continue our work promoting entrepreneurship in the MENA region and throughout the world not in spite of the recent events, but because they underscore its importance.