Grading the Presidential summit on entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs from more than 50 countries gathered at the summit on entrepreneurship in Washington to learn how individual action can expand opportunity, especially in the Muslim world.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, Monday, April 26, in Washington. Obama is using his summit on entrepreneurship to address ties between the Muslim world, and American business leaders, foundations, and social entrepreneurs.

I was curious what being a delegate to a Presidential summit would be like, and now I know. It's like being a passenger on very slow roller-coaster ride, but with awesome fellow passengers. The panels have been pretty typical conference fare, with way too much happy talk about dream fulfillment. But it's important. Really important. In ten years, the most important outcome of the summit will simply be there was a summit at all. I'd venture to say the very idea could not be topped by the substance, no matter how good.

Consider the "Force of Fortune," recently reviewed in Foreign Affairs:

Renowned Middle East expert Vali Nasr's bestselling The Shia Revival profoundly transformed the debate about the Iraq War by unveiling how the Sunni-Shia rift was driving the insurgency. Now, in Forces of Fortune, Nasr presents a paradigm-changing revelation that will transform the understanding of the Muslim world at large. He reveals that there is a vital but unseen rising force in the Islamic world—a new business-minded middle class—that is building a vibrant new Muslim world economy and that holds the key to winning the cold war against Iran and extremists. His groundbreaking analysis will utterly rewrite the wisdom about how the West can best contend with the threat of Islamic extremism, as well as about what we can expect from the Muslim world in the future. The great battle for the soul of Iran, the Arab world, Pakistan, and the entire region will be fought not over religion, Nasr reveals, but over business and capitalism.

So after one full day, here's my report card:

Title: A

Think about it. They could have had a summit on "Development" or on "Peace" which would have been instantly forgettable gatherings. This topic has some bite to it, and it's something tangible and deep enough that all Americans should be cheering the President. I tried to find out who coined the term, and have been crediting Esther Lee or Secretary Locke at Commerce, but she says it was one of President Obama's speechwriters. If you believe in the transformational power of market capitalism, you believe in this summit.

Team: A

The Obama administration is playing its first string team on this one. Secretary Gary Locke kicked things off, Melody Barnes was on a panel, the President himself gave a long speech today (including a rope line and numerous shout-outs to delegates, though he called me the Governor of Virginia for some reason). Tomorrow Secretary of State Clinton will speak. Arne Duncan. Rajiv Shah. There are many more. To be fair and balanced, I'm not sure all of the White House folks get entrepreneurship and you get a sense some want to talk about social entrepreneurship instead. Believe me, the delegates from the Middle East noticed, and one would-be entrepereneur commented to me that, "We need help creating wealth before we start talking about giving it back." Regardless, they appreciate the symbolism and ceremony of having the President's A team show up, and it means a lot.

Agenda: B

The panels have been good. Missing so far is an objective accounting of which countries are getting which policies right. Where are labor regulations most efficiently reformed? Who is solving the problem of access to capital and middle-tier loans? Maybe we'll get into the nuts and bolts tomorrow, but I doubt it. That's not the point and/or that point is very much alive without being on the podium, if you know what I mean. Besides, the hallway conversations are excellent. These delegates are players. Biggest surprise of the day was that a lot of folks recommend betting on pro-market reforms in ...Syria. Young Syrians, apparently, are ambitious capitlists agitating for growth.

Finally, I don't think it's appropriate to simplify a presidential speech with a letter grade. But I thought President Obama's remarks were excellent. I can't find a transcript, but will link to it tomorrow when I can.

Like 99% of you, I don't agree with the Obama administration on everything. But this summit deserves our full-throated support.

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