The United States has long drawn on American culture to advance its foreign policy goals: jazz diplomacy was critical to countering Soviet propaganda during the Cold War; ping-pong diplomacy played an important role in the rapprochement between China and the U.S. in the early 1970s; and, hip-hop diplomacy has helped foster dialogue in the Muslim world since the early 2000s. In today’s increasingly multi-polar world, startup diplomacy might just be the next frontier of U.S. soft power.
The potential of startup diplomacy, which aims to promote grassroots entrepreneurship and innovation worldwide, stems from three current realities. The first is that, like jazz and hip hop, American entrepreneurship culture has broad global appeal. Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are veritable superstars in today’s world, inspiring young people from New Delhi to Dakar. The second reality is that the world’s youth population is swelling at a time when its employment opportunities are shrinking; over half of the world’s population is under 25, and youth unemployment is climbing worldwide, reaching 12.6% in 2013, and over 25% in regions such as North Africa and the Middle East. Entrepreneurial skills would help the world’s youth to take their destiny into their own hands and drive economic and social development in their countries and beyond. The third reality that makes startup diplomacy so promising is that many of the global challenges we face in the 21st century – climate change, sustained economic growth, conflict prevention – can only be addressed through creative problem-solving and the empowerment of local communities. This is what entrepreneurship is all about- not just making a quick profit but creating lasting positive change.
To realize the potential of startup diplomacy, the United States needs innovative partners from the private sector, including UP Global. UP Global’s Startup Weekend model was developed to produce successful startup companies in just 54 hours, but its impact is much broader. Startup Weekend sparks innovative thinking and creative problem-solving; it gives participants a crash course in business creation and teaches them how to work in a team; and, most importantly, it opens participants’ eyes to their own potential. In short, Startup Weekend empowers people.The beauty of Startup Weekend is that it transcends cultural and professional boundaries. This was demonstrated during the recent Youth Forum Startup Weekend organized by the U.S. Department of State and UP Global, in connection with UNESCO’s 8th Youth Forum.The Youth Forum Startup Weekend brought together Youth Forum delegates from thirty countries and thirty aspiring entrepreneurs based in France. The participants, many of whom had no prior experience with entrepreneurship, were asked to “pitch” innovative business solutions to social challenges, form teams around those ideas, and develop an action plan to take their idea forward. The teams presented their final products before a jury that included representatives from UP Global, Google, the Office of the Prime Minister of France, and Women’s Worldwide Web.
The results of the Youth Forum Startup Weekend were nothing short of extraordinary. One team developed an online platform to connect young people in Africa to training and job opportunities. Another team worked on a website that would allow individuals to donate unwanted food, potentially reducing food waste. Yet another team proposed a mobile application that would bring greater visibility and resources to local musicians in East Africa. In the end, the judges selected a project called ‘SEED’ as the winner of the Youth Forum Startup Weekend. Developed by an international team representing eight countries, SEED aims to reduce the amount of waste produced by the tourism industry on small island states by up-cycling discarded items and selling them back to the very hotels that produce the waste.
Not only did participants of Startup Weekend come up with innovative projects, they were transformed in the process. In a post-event survey conducted by UP Global, some participants spoke of how it demystified entrepreneurship and led them to consider starting a business. The representative from Cote d’Ivoire commented, “I believed that entrepreneurship was reserved for one category of person. But through this activity, I understand that I can be a true entrepreneur.” Others stressed how Startup Weekend helped them concretize their ideas, with the representative from Saint Lucia saying, “My fear of failing was crippling my attempts to implement my idea…but, within the security of the Startup Weekend, I was able to face that fear and recognize my ability to develop something concrete and viable.” All of the participants surveyed expressed a determination to take the lessons they learned from Startup Weekend back to their home countries.
The Youth Forum Startup Weekend demonstrated the tremendous potential of startup diplomacy to empower youth populations worldwide, but it is only the beginning. In October, the U.S. Department of State and UP Global announced an ambitious partnership to reach 1,000 cities and train 500,000 entrepreneurs by 2016. Given the ripple effect that entrepreneurs have on their communities, it’s safe to say that the world will be a different place with half a million new entrepreneurs.
Check out the UNESCO video from the event below: