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Startups as a Form of Diplomacy

Donna Harris

Cofounder & Co-CEO, 1776

Jonathan Ortmans

President, Global Entrepreneurship Network

There’s no question that there is a growing wave of entrepreneurship and startups around the world.  As costs are decreasing and knowledge is being shared, there has never been a better time to build a company no matter where you live in the world. This grassroots global trend is spurring an age of startup diplomacy that is crossing political boundaries and building ties even among historically quarreling nations.

Why is this happening?

Entrepreneurs already are talking and working together no matter where they’re from, which stems from two business needs: talent and shared knowledge.   First, there is a global battle for talent—evidenced in the U.S. by entrepreneurs and high-tech companies starting to scream about the need for immigration reform so the US can bring in greater numbers of talented people and engineers. Similar situations occur in places such as Israel, where many startups employ thousands of Palestinians in spite of political instability between the two nations.

Second, entrepreneurs are also eager to share knowledge and find ways to work together. Even as tensions grew between Russia and Ukraine this past March, the Global Entrepreneurship Congress was held in Moscow, bringing together more than 6,500 attendees from 153 countries. Convening global-scale events such as the Global Entrepreneurship Congress not only allows for collaboration and key partnerships, but also highlights the growing nature of startup diplomacy and its potential for further impact.

Furthermore, strong Global Entrepreneurship Week campaigns are occurring in unexpected corners of the world, like Palestine, showing that the entrepreneurial mindset is not limited by political borders. Instead, entrepreneurs see opportunities for collaboration, for building bridges and community building. In fact, Palestine received the GEW Hosts’ Choice Award in Moscow last March. This type of communication creates better relationships between the populations and cultural sentiment—which will hopefully force governments to work together out of grassroots pressure.

Through our activities in GEW and 1776’s Challenge Cup and Challenge Festival, we’ve been able to be part of entrepreneurs coming together globally, working together, and sharing knowledge.  It’s hard to understate the energy and power of this activity.

As we traveled across the world for Challenge Cup, we saw a rising trend: the socially conscious entrepreneur. These entrepreneurs are finding solutions via technology to problems that historically have been solved by government-based programs. These entrepreneurs are globally connected, socially motivated, unapologetic about making profits and—best of all—creative risk takers who develop with bold solutions. That makes for one powerful group of problem solvers fearless of national bias and much more likely to solve the intractable problems many societies have been struggling with for decades.

Societies across the developed and developing worlds are encountering very similar challenges in health, education, energy, transportation and other related industries. The United Nations Foundation and USAID have identified these industries areas as critical to building better functioning societies and empowering citizens to live up to their potential.

Empowering entrepreneurs and citizens to solve problems in their societies and collaborate across borders results in better, long-term outcomes.  These organizations help make connections, provide funds and distribute new products and services. All of these services help the entrepreneur to pilot a problem or eventually scale his or her solution quickly to a global audience.

Reaching that global audience is critical, as companies themselves have become increasingly global. Virtual tools allow remote workflow and communication, and the location of an executive team, sales force and engineering team can be spread across the entire world. To these entrepreneurs, the peaceful relationship between countries is vitally important to their operations. For example, we had a German entrepreneur (Solar Brush) win the Sao Paulo Challenge Cup; yet, he was testing his product in Chile and ultimately looking to distribute his product in North America and the Middle East. While these entrepreneurs have loyalties to their countries of origin, they are truly global citizens when it comes to building their companies.

In order to grow more of these global citizens and foster startup diplomacy, we must all find ways to bolster promising entrepreneurs’ efforts. NGOs and governments can be catalysts. Multi-national corporations can be sales partners, acquirers and distribution channels. Finally, incubators can act as conveners that bring together disparate parts, jumpstarting ecosystems for a strong future ahead.

Donna Harris is the cofounder of 1776. Jonathan Ortmans is the president of Global Entrepreneurship Week. 

Donna Harris

Cofounder & Co-CEO, 1776

Donna is cofounder and co-CEO of 1776, a global incubator and seed fund that works to accelerate innovation to solve complex challenges. Under her leadership 1776 has grown from a…

Jonathan Ortmans

President, Global Entrepreneurship Network

Jonathan Ortmans serves as president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN), a year-round platform of global programs and initiatives created by the communities that celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week each November.…

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