By Jordana Merran, MAC
January 8, 2015
In his famed “a new beginning” speech delivered in Cairo in 2009, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a Summit on Entrepreneurship “to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.”
“All of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the 21st century,” he had said to the crowd.
This was before the Arab Spring protests rippled through the Middle East and, years later, took on new and—in some countries—sinister forms. But, perhaps even bolstered by these difficult times, President Obama’s commitment to using business as a platform for cultural exchange and diplomacy has not wavered, and in November 2014, the fifth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) made its way to Marrakech, Morocco. There, thousands of business leaders, government officials, and entrepreneurs from the region and around the world met for three days of panel discussions, workshops, and networking.
News coverage of the event showed an energetic and welcoming crowd (certainly Vice President Joe Biden would agree—when he mentioned in his keynote address that it was his birthday, the audience of thousands broke into song). But as with all such gatherings, one may wonder how much can truly be accomplished.
Yasmine El Baggari, a young Moroccan entrepreneur, is optimistic. She heads her own startup, Voyaj, which matches people worldwide looking for travel opportunities wherein they can share cultures, beliefs and mutual understanding. Meanwhile, she is finishing her studies at Hampshire College, where she has focused on women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship trends in the Middle East and North Africa. Yasmine participated in three panel discussions at GES 2014 (and was even invited to attend a White House Travel Blogger Summit a few weeks later).
“It used to be the case that if you are an entrepreneur in Morocco, you just haven’t found a job and this is your last option,” she explains. “Now the culture has shifted so that being an entrepreneur is ‘cool.’ You’re being innovative, you’re not following the traditional path, and you’re adding value.”
The Summit “had a very important impact on Morocco because it was the first time that I observed businesses, government and young people together in one place having constructive discussions. We need more of that. We need to organize more round tables and workshops.”
One GES workshop of particular interest to her was with Former Kansas Secretary of Commerce Laura Owen on mentoring. We “talked about the importance of mentoring and conducted an interactive activity connecting mentors to mentees,” says Yasmine.
“For established business women to be engaging the younger community, especially the young girls, I think that it is extremely important to focus on this concept of collaboration and mentorship.”
“From personal interviews, Moroccan women are the ones leading entrepreneurship in the large cites. A number of incubators or co-working spaces are led by women. They are doing an amazing job engaging entrepreneurs from around Morocco to involve different communities.”
“Moroccan women are working extremely hard to be involved in the workforce and to be active members of Moroccan society. I have personally met many amazing women, and I have been amazed by the talent and motivation that we possess.”
Yasmine spent two months traveling around Morocco interviewing entrepreneurs from around the country, and establishing partnerships with organizations and universities for Voyaj. While she found that women were often leading the change, she realized, too, “that a lot of people are entrepreneurs, they just don’t know it.”
“For example, if I go to the souk and I talk to someone who’s selling olives or selling argan, they are able to use their limited education in mathematics to bargain and sell their products. They’re also creating businesses. It might not be technology, but it’s still creating jobs for other people and for themselves.”
The work of GES and related programs is to support these men and women to grow their businesses. In Morocco, it is well underway.
For further insight from Yasmine and her research on entrepreneurship in Morocco, check out her latest article on the Atlantic Council blog.