About the Author: Jose. W. Fernandez serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs."There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."
When President Obama spoke these words a year and a half ago in Cairo, the world stopped to listen as he announced a new beginning between the U.S. and the Muslim world. I too took his message to heart, and when I became Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs, I endeavored to put his words into action.
The culmination of this process brought me to Algeria for the first ever U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference. In planning this event, we thought about how we could put into practice the new beginning that President Obama envisioned. We saw a way to do this by promoting entrepreneurship and launching an innovative web of partnerships with the North African region, the North African Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO). NAPEO has been developed in conjunction with a wide range of public and private sector partners -- and in collaboration with each of the five countries involved in this initiative: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
NAPEO includes five concrete initiatives aimed at increasing economic engagement in the Maghreb. These initiatives will encourage start-ups, promote cross-border business partnerships, provide needed skills training, incubate technology and innovation, facilitate improved access to capital in the Maghreb, and link youth and entrepreneurs of all ages throughout the region and in the United States.
NAPEO will also enable partners from business, universities, and public entities in the Maghreb and in the United States to work more closely together to promote economic opportunity in the region. Increased cross-border linkages in the Maghreb will empower regional entrepreneurs to make better use of available tools to address critical socio-economic issues, such as high youth unemployment.
The conference itself was amazing: rooms were filled to overflowing with experienced entrepreneurs, budding entrepreneurs, foundations, and government officials. A number of student entrepreneurs from the United States and Maghreb shared their stories of starting companies and the challenges overcome in countries where start-up financing is often scarce. They were interviewed by the press to get their story out, and this will hopefully lead to connections with other mentors and funders who can help their businesses grow. I was delighted to see the sense of excitement and possibility present in the room as the torch is passed from one generation to the next. As many of the economies in the Maghreb cannot provide sufficient jobs for their new graduates, it is particularly important to give this new generation the tools to build their own businesses and create jobs.
One thing I'll take away from the U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship conference is that we all have much to learn from each other; whether from the United States, North Africa, or around the globe, our success is founded on mutual interest and mutual respect. Our hope is that these partnerships will help us grow and thrive together.