Celebrating a “new beginning” with Muslim nations, this week the White House hosted 275 entrepreneurs from over 50 Muslim-majority countries. The purpose of the summit was to reach out to Muslim counterparts with a new collaborative approach.

This is good foreign policy, but what about U.S. entrepreneurs at home? Silicon Valley start-ups, venture capitalists, and U.S. small business owners were noticeably missing from the event. A Lebanese entrepreneur described the new business contacts he had made as all Muslim entrepreneurs. He had hoped to partner with Americans, but few were in the room.

Still, President Obama claimed that “together, we’ve sparked a new era of entrepreneurship” and went on to outline the administration’s plans to launch new exchange programs for Muslim entrepreneurs to come to the United States and for their American counterparts to share best practices overseas. 

Muslim women in technology fields will be provided with U.S. internship opportunities. And, science teachers will be supported with new exchanges for professional development. Further, the Global Technology and Innovation Fund announced in Cairo last year will mobilize more than $2 billion in investment for the region.

It was difficult to attend the summit and not think that why we need government officials to focus top attention on entrepreneurship also at home. Why not host a 50 states summit inviting 275 entrepreneurs from across the 50 U.S. states to build new networks, exchange ideas, and engage more effectively with government? Let’s host an event to bring together entrepreneurs from Oregon to Ohio and from New York to Alabama.

To start, we need cross-fertilization between Silicon Valley and Michigan. Some parts of Detroit look like a third-world country. We could also do a better job supporting women entrepreneurs at home. According to Kauffman Foundation research, women in the United States were primary owners of only 19% of firms founded in 2004 and were founders of only 3% of technology firms that year.

We hold ourselves up as an innovation nation that can spawn the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. And yet, our domestic policy is focused on bailing out “too big to fail” banks and auto companies, and regulating these behemoths when they get out of control.

“Entrepreneurs are a powerful force for change,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in his remarks to the summit. In the United States, firms less than five years old account for nearly all net new jobs. Isn’t that what we need now?

To sustain our innovation engine, we need to shine a spotlight on entrepreneurs who underpin America’s economic success. More than half of companies on the 2009 Fortune 500 list were started in a recession or bear market. These include companies such as Burger King, MTV, Microsoft, and Disney. And a number of America’s leading firms, including Intel and Federal Express, depended on Small Business Administration funding to get started. There are certainly ways for government to help support job generators when we need them most.

Why not pattern an ‘entrepreneurship-at-home’ campaign to understand the needs of small and medium size business owners in the United States? In the last year, the U.S. has hosted a series of roundtable discussions in our overseas embassies to catalyze entrepreneurship in the Muslim world. And, USAID has conducted a “listening tour” to reach out to over 10,000 Muslims in the emerging markets and understand the support they need. Let’s do the same at home. The administration could host roundtable discussions and online listening sessions across America just as we have done overseas.

At the conclusion of the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced 4 new foreign policy initiatives. These include: a Global Entrepreneurship Program collaborating with business and academic institutions; two new partnerships with Silicon-Valley incubators; the formation of Partners for a New Beginning led by Secretary Madeleine Albright and the CEOs of Coca-Cola and the Aspen Institute; and a new e-Mentor Corps.

We need similar programs to boost entrepreneurs in America from rural counties, impoverished inner cities, and struggling communities. After all, we are a country of mom-and-pop shops, garage start-ups, and small business owners persevering through difficult economic times.
President Obama swept into office using an entrepreneurial platform to connect and collaborate with individual citizens. To catalyze innovation at home, we need the president to get back to his campaign roots.

Amy M. Wilkinson is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University in the Center for Business and Government and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is writing a book on global entrepreneurs and can be reached at www.amymwilkinson.com.

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