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Entrepreneurs might just be the answer to global poverty

Published: Sunday, June 22 2014 4:30 a.m. MDT

The Global Accelerator Conference at the United Nations last week, a gathering of top entrepreneurs and high-ranking United Nations Foundation officials with a big idea of their own using entrepreneurship taking root in remote areas of the world to address global development and poverty.

S5R3 / Simon Ruf

Jeff Hoffman, the founder and former CEO of Priceline.com, decided to take a year to say yes. It was an experiment to see what would happen if for one year — to the best of his ability — he responded to anyone who asked him for help.

His responses led him to cities and villages around the world, and that's how he ended up in Senegal with a 19-year-old young man who wanted to give him a business pitch.

The slick slide show and smart ideas were on par with presentations Hoffman had seen and heard in Silicon Valley, London or Harvard University. But this time he was sitting in a hut with a dirt floor and a goat bleating outside.

"Where did you learn how to do this?" Hoffman asked.

The young man had never left Senegal. Every night, after he worked in the fields, he took free online business classes from Stanford on Coursera. He learned how to present by watching TED Talks. He used free software from Slideshare, and had studied the 10 best investor pitches.

"That's how I found you," he said. "I emailed you after I found you on the Internet."

The point of the story, Hoffman said, was that the kid in Senegal could not have existed 10 years ago. "He could only have existed in the last two or three years, thanks to the democratization of information," said Hoffman.

Hoffman offered this story at the Global Accelerator Conference at the United Nations last week, a gathering of top entrepreneurs and high-ranking United Nations Foundation officials with a big idea of their own — using entrepreneurship taking root in remote areas of the world to address global development and poverty.

In the United States alone, almost half of all new jobs in the past 30 years have been created by firms that are less than five years old, according to the global entrepreneurship GEDI index, and globally, 65 million entrepreneurs each plan to create 20 jobs or more in the next five years. Many of these startups offer innovative products that are new to the market, according to a GEM report.

Supporting entrepreneurs isn't just about bringing new products to market, though, as far as Hoffman is concerned. He sees enterprising, business-minded young people pulling themselves and their communities out of poverty. We have the ability now, he says, to deliver tools and resources to "every little village on the planet so every kid can change the future of his nation."

Risk and reward

High-risk entrepreneurs and bureaucratic U.N. officials might seem like a strange combination, but applying the problem-solving of a startup culture to global development is the idea, said Michael Dell, who spoke at the meeting via video call.

Dell was announced as the new United Nations Foundation global advocate for entrepreneurship at the meeting, a position that advocates for technology and innovation with policymakers and world leaders.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is sort of raise entrepreneurship to the level of the public policy agenda,” said Dell. “If you look at what’s going on in the world today, in terms of where jobs are being created, we need more entrepreneurs. We need more risk-taking."

More than 565,000 small businesses start each month around the globe, and the innovations and consumption they drive could be key to the recovery of the world economy as they create jobs, more global disposable income, and new products, according to Kauffman Index research. But only 15 percent of entrepreneurs say their country's culture supports entrepreneurs, according to ey.com.

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