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A Muslim-focused entrepreneur summit

Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship logo

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Today and tomorrow President Obama is hosting an unlikely gathering of delegates from Muslim nations. The event is being called an "Entrepreneurship Summit" -- a follow-up to his speech last June in Cairo, where he called for more democracy in the region, and better relations with the U.S. It's billed as a grass-roots affair. "Real" entrepreneurs from both sides trading ideas and business cards. Our Entrepreneurship Reporter, Mitchell Hartman, joins us with the details. Hi Mitchell.

Mitchell Hartman: Hi Tess.

Vigeland: So an entrepreneurship summit for Muslim majority nations. This is what the White House is calling it. What is actually going on here?

HARTMAN: Well, on a first pass it looks pretty impressive. There are 50 countries represented, 250 or so entrepreneurs and funders. It's everyone from microlenders like Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank to the biggest private equity firm in the Middle East. There's also a lot of U.S. fire power on the podium. Not only the president speaking today, but Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and tomorrow Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There will also be announcements about U.S. support for trade and education, as well as science and technology assistance.

Vigeland: So it sounds like we might call this the new entrepreneurial diplomacy, but the question, of course, is it going to work?

HARTMAN: Well, you know, it's not religion, it's not politics. We know how well we've done talking about those things. This is a little more under the radar. On the other hand, it's not a completely foreign language either. As one Indian American entrepreneur I know put it, the old word for entrepreneur is trader. Arabs and Muslims he says have been doing this for a 1,000 years or more, so this certainly does appeal to cultural roots. Still, you know, everything is political with U.S.-Muslim relations, and there's plenty of skepticism. Indian journalist Aziz Haniffa asked the question in an administration press conference on the Web just before the summit.

Aziz Haniffa: How would you set out to rebuff the contention that this is sort of a huge propaganda exercise by giving all of them a free trip, and then hopefully getting them to go back and not be anti-American?

HARTMAN: You know, he says go back and not be anti-American like it's a bad thing. The administration does want them to do that. But they do say it's not a junket with a bunch of finance ministry officials. It's grass-roots entrepreneurs from all over the Muslim world. They'll go home with connections, with some assistance, and with a big moral thumbs up from the U.S.

Vigeland: But what kind of challenges might they be going home with as well?

HARTMAN: Well, lack of funding and technology to start with, for sure. But you know it's not a monolith. You have Indonesia and India, where entrepreneurship is very vibrant. You have places like Egypt and Syria with state-controlled economies and plenty of corruption. One real concern across the region is women. They're key to businesses getting off the ground and pulling communities out of poverty. But in some parts of the Muslim world they're not free to work or get an education. I asked Rabiya Jilani about this. She's at the summit. She's 28, she's from Pakistan, and she runs a small firm in the D.C. area that helps immigrant businesses.

Rabiya Jilani: As a woman from Pakistan, what I saw was a lot of males were generally inclined towards being entrepreneurs whereas females wouldn't really consider entrepreneurship as a choice. And there wasn't that much support.

HARTMAN: And that's a point that Secretary of State Clinton is sure to stress in her speech at a meeting afterward with women entrepreneurs.

Vigeland: All right. Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman joining us to talk about the president's entrepreneurship summit in Washington today. Thanks so much.

HARTMAN: You're welcome, Tess.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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