8 July 2014

Africa: Initiative Lets Science Entrepreneurs Connect With U.S. Mentors

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This blog post by Jonathan Margolis originally appeared on the State Department's Dipnote blog on July 7. Margolis serves as acting deputy assistant secretary of state for science, space, and health in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Inspiration comes in all forms, whether from the encouragement of an individual or from a far-fetched idea that will dramatically change society. Alex Muriu, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Kenya, is working to address food shortages in Africa with his micro-finance mobile application, Farmspace Africa. The app, accessible to farmers and investors, provides a platform to crowd source much needed loans and investments to small agricultural businesses or farmers. Nermin Sa'd, an engineer from Jordan, employs female Arab engineers on a virtual platform, handasiyat.net, enabling them to utilize their valuable skill sets while working from home. These entrepreneurs, with the help and encouragement of the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative, are effecting positive social change in their respective countries and economies.

The State Department's GIST initiative empowers young science and technology (S&T) entrepreneurs in emerging economies through events such as startup boot camps; live interactive webinars; the GIST Tech-I competition; and, most recently, an Entrepreneurship Journey to the United States, organized with CRDF Global. The Journey brought together the top 12 entrepreneurs from over 1,500 participants in GIST initiative program in the past two years to experience the GIST 2014 Journey to Chicago and Washington to learn about the American entrepreneurial ecosystem and obtain training and mentoring for leadership and entrepreneurship.

The Journey began with an intensive 10-day program at 1871, a premier IT entrepreneurial hub in Chicago designed to provide the networking, knowledge, and other tools needed to strengthen and grow their tech startups. In addition, they received hands-on training from industry leaders, such as the CEO of OpenTable, Chicago native Chuck Templeton, who shared insights on leadership. Other training topics included private mentoring sessions with intellectual property lawyers, brand positioning, and financial modeling. Each entrepreneur was paired with a peer and a senior mentor from Chicago who had expertise in their field and/or region. Mentoring happened throughout the ten days in Chicago. The GIST entrepreneurs visited successful Chicago startups like Groupon and Textura, where the latter's executives led a half-day workshop on the initial public offering (IPO) process. The entrepreneurs also met with local Chicago diaspora from their communities, seven countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The group also spent some time in Washington, where they shared their experiences with Under Secretary of Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli and Ambassador David Thorne, Senior Advisor to the Secretary, among others. The Washington discussions explored the challenges entrepreneurs face in their own countries, and how these individuals can engage with their own communities and Governments to contribute to the development of policies that reinforce innovation. Visits to both cities culminated in a Demo Day, an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to showcase and pitch their companies' products or services to the media, potential investors and mentors, and embassy and consul general representatives of their countries.

Over the course of the journey, talking with Alex, Nermin, and the others has been an affirmation of the GIST initiative's positive impact on the entrepreneurial ecosystems in emerging economies. These entrepreneurs are emblematic of the GIST initiative's success in advancing the Secretary's vision for shared prosperity, promoting the empowerment of women, and fostering scientific and technological innovation by youth. I wish all of the GIST entrepreneurs the best of luck with their work and with the change that they wish to create in their pursuits. Their dedication and hard work makes me confident that we will see many more role models emerge from the 2014 GIST Tech-I competition, which is currently accepting applications until July 21. To learn more about the competition, go to http://www.aaas.org/tech-i.

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