August 19, 2013
Gathered around a life-size chess board with ninety-nine of South Africa’s Brightest Young Minds, I was curious. How would I add value to their conversations as an American? And what would I learn during the week-long summit where I would engage with an array of African leaders?
Prominent African experts confronted us— the delegates— with timely lessons: the value of authentically acting on our values, the imperative of taking civic ownership as young people and the importance of challenging old paradigms. Most notably, however, the delegates’ entrepreneurial spirit highlighted the power of moving past thinking and talking to acting. Refusal to wait on ‘government,’ an older generation or a prestigious position to address pressing challenges laced throughout my conversations with the other delegates and my observations of their work.
Young African leaders were teaching me about a quintessential, American value: pulling yourself up by your bootstraps— acting without approval as ‘qualified.’ My country was built on these ideals of entrepreneurship. Little government and a lot of hard work would keep Americans at the top and provide a comfortable lifestyle to anyone eager to join our national experiment. The American promise is faltering. Superficially, it is easy to pin the demise of the American promise on the private sector, pointing to a greater valuation of profits than people. But this analysis is perhaps unfair and definitely obstructive.
The BYM delegates refreshingly steered conversations away from the vilified rhetoric surrounding the private sector. Their drive to create solutions to problems facing their nation and continent showed me entrepreneurship will be essential to re-legitimating the American promise. Entrepreneurship will work in the US because, even though the American promise has wavered, the American dream endures. People are willing to work hard. And, linked to the advice of speaker Allon Raiz from Raizcorp that young people must challenge paradigms, Americans must challenge the notion that social considerations cannot be central to for-profit entities’ considerations. All entrepreneurship can and should be social.
However, intellectually reconceptualising entrepreneurship is not enough. Young leaders stand at a crossroads of redefining capitalism. We must, ourselves, act on our values to build private sector models that tap the potential at the ‘bottom of the pyramid,’ which will inspire inclusive, creative and more sustainable solutions.
Just like South Africans, Americans are invested in the direction of their nation as a whole. But young South Africans refreshed my understanding of entrepreneurship, showing me it is a feasible means of taking civic ownership— and that is still holds potential for saving the American dream.