Washington — A select group of 100 college students from across North Africa and the Middle East recently spent nearly four weeks at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, learning about business plans, social entrepreneurship, nonprofit management and other topics.
The 61 men and 39 women, aged 18 to 24, are from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Morocco and Tunisia, and their fields of study include computer science, engineering, medicine and business. All have ideas for starting businesses, which is why they were chosen to participate in a summer scholarship program designed to increase Arab students' exposure to entrepreneurship and business education, sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company and the U.S. State Department.
Upon completing their program, the students left Indiana University's Bloomington campus for Washington, where they visited the State Department on July 13, prior to visiting Atlanta. Tara Sonenshine, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, greeted the students and spoke about the importance of supporting young entrepreneurs.
"We're proud of you for demonstrating an understanding of the needs of your own communities," she said, citing the students' widely varied business plans. "You and your proposals are brimming with potential. As Secretary Clinton often says, 'Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.' We have to do everything we can to create opportunity, so that we can foster the creators of the next Apple or Google."
As innovators and entrepreneurs, young people "can transform economies and bring about prosperity and positive change for people everywhere," she said. "What you've learned at Indiana University and at the State Department isn't the end. It's just the beginning."
After Sonenshine's remarks, the students divided into 10 groups, giving five-minute presentations on the business proposals they had worked on at Indiana University.
A group from Egypt pitched a plan to improve public transportation in Cairo, while a group from Jordan offered an initiative to save water and promote irrigation. Students from Algeria, where power outages are common, described an idea for an electronic device to help consumers use electricity more efficiently and reduce their electric bills.
Students from the Palestinian Territories spoke of the need for safer delivery of gas to homes and businesses, where leaks from gas cylinders produce "lots of accidents and injuries." The Palestinian students said they would provide a service to fill gas cylinders using an imported product from South Korea. "Our service saves lives," they said.
Other proposals included a pitch from Moroccan students who want to start a fashion company that serves the needs of veiled women, "combining modernity and Islam."
"Women want clothes that meet Islamic requirements, but are fashionable and attractive," said a young woman serving as the group's leader. Her group's target market would be 1.4 million women "living in urban areas, between 20 and 40 years old, open-minded and trendy."
Finally, Ben Rhodes -- the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications -- delivered closing remarks and took questions from the audience.
"Entrepreneurship is something the president has personally been focused on since he came to the White House," Rhodes said. "More prosperous countries will be good partners for the United States, and we want to be supportive of opportunities for starting businesses."
He acknowledged the Arab world's frustrations with regional issues where progress can be maddeningly slow, adding that "there are huge political and security challenges" as the United States tries to pursue the Middle East peace process with Israelis and Palestinians.
"We want to hear from your generation as we craft our policies and approaches," Rhodes said. The United States strongly supports the goal of a Palestinian state and believes that the negotiation process is essential to achieving that goal, "since the two parties will have to live side by side and co-exist."
"We don't benefit in any way from a status quo" that perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We don't think Israel benefits from that, either."
One student asked what it felt like "to work for the Big Man" -- that is, the president.
"The U.S. president has to deal with more issues than any other leader in the world," Rhodes said. "He's been focused on the economy here, but he has responsibilities around the world. ... It's a lot of fun working for the president, but there are a lot of pressures, too. It's an opportunity that only comes along once in your life -- and you do get to ride around in a really cool plane."
Rhodes repeatedly stressed that the United States wants to encourage entrepreneurship and engagement with young people throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
"There's extraordinary potential [in the Arab world], and there's a tremendous amount of energy and talent in the region's young people," he said.
He concluded by urging students to help foster a strong business climate in their countries.
"I think this region can be a real hotbed of economic activity. It can ultimately transform the future of the region," Rhodes said. "If you pull down barriers to success, there's no limit to what you can achieve."