Remarks at the Opening of the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Stanford University Memorial Auditorium
Stanford, California
June 23, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY:  Thank you so much.  You’re the best.  I love you.  You are terrific. Thank you so much.  Thank you.  (Cheers.)  Patricia, thank you.  Thank you so much.  Good morning, everybody.  Are you all energized?  (Cheers.)  I saw that video.  I thought I’d quit as Secretary and become an entrepreneur immediately.  (Laughter.)  I was all charged up by it. 

But Patricia, thank you for a very warm introduction.  My memories of our tour together and our conversation in Kinshasa are still very fresh in my mind, and I am really delighted to see that you have continued your twin goals of, number one, building a successful enterprise in your home country, but also empowering young women to start their own.  And I think she is a great example.  I’m delighted she’s also a part of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, which is a critical initiative the President has exemplified, I think, extraordinary leadership on.

My thanks to Rick Stengel, the State Department’s point person for public diplomacy, and to Charlie Rivkin – he’s one of our top voices in the State Department on economic and business affairs – for their vision in helping to organize this GES, and to Ambassador David Thorne for his role in helping us to take this message out on a global basis.

I want to thank California for reminding me how absolutely astonishingly beautiful it is out here – (laughter) – enough to make me cancel my flight.  I’m not going home, folks.  (Laughter.) 

I want to particularly thank our hosts here at Stanford, a learning institution that so embodies this area’s tradition of innovation that President John Hennessy is known as the godfather of Silicon Valley.  And I know that he has played an extraordinary role in helping this valley to become the remarkable center of thinking and of groundbreaking new initiatives that it is.  It is really fitting that we are all gathered here for this, the final gathering of the GES under President Obama.  But it will continue, and as you all know, will take place next year in India.

I also know that this peninsula is famous for its 20-something CEOs who wear jeans and hoodies to the office and make a living trying to upend the established order.  So clearly, it is only fitting that your opening act should be a guy with gray hair in a dark suit – (laughter) – who’s spent decades in government and whose idea of disruptive art probably pretty much begins and ends with Mick Jagger.  (Laughter.) 

But in fact, my years of experience have actually taught me a very important lesson about these types of gatherings: the best thing the government can do is convene the forum, make sure the coffee is hot, and get out of the way.  (Laughter.)  And we’ve seen in the past six years that a successful GES is measured not by the numbers of speeches that are given, but it’s measured by the contacts that all of you make; it’s measured by the quality of your interventions, by the quality of the relationships you build, the networks that you take away from here, the partnerships that you forge with peers and hopefully with potential investors; and the networking you do that may lead to the next iconic global brand. 

When you listen to those people in the video a few minutes ago, you know that’s not a dream.  I mean, I guess it is a dream; it begins as a dream.  But it’s such a reality.  It’s possible, if you’re willing to break through the “nos”.  And I tell you, I hear “no” more than I hear “yes” in my business.  But you keep plugging away.

I want to emphasize something that, to me, is very important as I get to open the GES, and that is that there is a really close connection between what you do as entrepreneurs and investors and what I do as Secretary of State and what the President of the United States does in terms of our foreign initiatives and efforts. 

In our world today, there is an intimate connection between the creation of economic opportunity and the potential of political stability or peace – between prosperity and peace – between economic policy and foreign policy, which I have long argued are two sides of the same coin.  Economic policy is foreign policy and foreign policy is economic policy, particularly in the globalized world we’re living in today.

And I want to emphasize to you there is actually an urgency to encouraging as much entrepreneurial activity as possible, which is why President Obama invests so heavily in this, why I am here and he will be here, because we face some extraordinary challenges at this moment.  And I think I’m looking at a lot of different parts of the solution to it.

We are living in a world that is far more complex than the world that I grew up in.  I’m a child of the Cold War, born towards the end of World War II and raised during the Cold War.  And the world we’re living in today is far more complex than the world of the last century, which was defined more by a bipolar separation of great powers, the Soviet Union and the West, defined by state actors. 

Part of what made it so different, in fact, is your entrepreneurial activity and the activity of a lot of people like you – a lot of people out here in this valley or in Massachusetts, in Cambridge and other parts of our state, or in Texas, in other places.  And thanks to the innovations of entrepreneurs, people everywhere now see more of what is happening across borders.  The world is smaller in that regard.  People have a better sense of what others are doing, of what others have, and that also means they have a sense of what they don’t have and want.  Disturbing images and outright lies can circle the globe in an instant and have an impact. 

As a result, our politics is moving faster.  Certainly, the shift in desire, in aspirations, the felt needs – I had a college professor who always reminded – he said that all politics is a reaction to felt need.  And the needs are felt now by more people in more different places in the world in similar ways.  The marketplace is moving faster.  Ideas are moving faster.  And we simply will not be able to keep up to solve the problems before us without the talent and contributions of this generation of entrepreneurs, of all of you.

The fact is that we need you to utilize your business savvy, your ambition, your dream, your desire to creatively figure out how we can educate a fast-growing generation of kids, how we can improve modes of transportation, how we can deliver health care to everybody and more effectively and efficiently, how we produce medical services that are within the reach of everybody, how we can build the infrastructure needed to grow economies and create shared prosperity worldwide. 

We need you to establish your businesses with two frames in mind: to create new products, yes, and do well, yes, turn a profit, help your local community certainly, but also to tackle the enormous global challenges that we face.  And in the end – of all the problems that we face, I just want to narrow this down for you to think about it in the context of your meetings in the next days and of what you decide to do when you go out of here and take what you’ve learned or pursue your dream.  I want you to think about these interconnected challenges.

The first is violent extremism and the emergence of radical non-state actors who have no agenda outside of the frustrations that they exploit, the bigotry that they espouse, and the conflicts that they inflame.  And the depth of this challenge is now felt in every single corner of the world, and it was underlined just two weeks ago by the terrorist and homophobic shootings in Orlando, Florida. 

In country after country, in the Middle East, Africa, South-Central and East Asia, 60 to 65 percent of the populations of these countries are under the age of 30, 50 percent under the age of 21, 40 percent under the age of 18.  These young people need education and they need opportunity and they need it now – not 10 years from now.  And think of the peril if we leave those minds, which have the same desires that many of you do here, if we leave them to the picking of extremists and exploiters and demagogues.

Our second challenging, literally growing in urgency every single day, is to preserve the health of our planet in the face of climate change and other environmental dangers.  Last week, I traveled to the Arctic and I saw firsthand the impact of what this means in real terms.  Now, I have read about this for years and I’ve been active in trying to deal with climate change since I went to the Senate in 1985.  But I can tell you that seeing it up close and personal gives you a dramatic sense of what is happening in ways that no book or no briefing paper ever does. 

I flew over an ice fjord from which glacier flow dumps 86 million metric tons of ice per day, which would yield enough water in just 24 hours to be able to meet the needs of New York City for three whole weeks or my city of Boston for four months.  I saw the edges of mountains where there’s a gray line now way up high with bare everything, all the way down to what remains of the ice, the edges of mountains and what used to be glacier that has disappeared only in the last 10 to 15 years.  I saw with my own eyes what I’ve been reading for years about melting ice in the polar regions that could, within the lifetimes of babies born today, cause average sea level to rise 5 to 6 feet over the course of this century.

And notwithstanding the craven protests of politicians who refuse stubbornly to accept science, climate change is a transcendent, urgent challenge, and we must all come together – public and private sector alike – to move to a low-carbon, low-emissions economy.

Now, our third generational challenge is tied to the first two.  It is to improve overall governance capacity all over the world so that leaders everywhere fight corruption, so they earn public confidence and inspire unity and a sense of vision.  Anyone in local or international business confronts this issue every day in a variety of ways; and for entrepreneurs, poor governance can mean the difference between being able to start up and survive or never getting started at all.

You may not believe that all of these issues automatically fall within your responsibility, but let me tell you – believe me – we need your creativity in order to address each and every one of them.  And there are countless ways that you can help with government efficiency or hold people accountable – transparency, accountability, the movement of money, the accountability of it, the safety of it.  There’s so many different things that could be done to fight back against corruption. 

You have a fundamental interest in how these questions are answered, because you want to be able to operate a business without the fear of a terrorist attack.  You want to be able to take advantage of the great economic openings in clean energy market.  You want to be able to open your enterprises without having to pay a bribe or be dependent on making friends in high places.

And this doesn’t have to be complicated.  You simply have to do what you do best – innovate, experiment, identify the needs in the market, come up with good ideas to meet them, build competitive economies where jobs are created, and where hope and opportunity are widespread and refuse to take no as an answer. 

And you may not realize it, but you also provide a highly visible and very effective rebuttal to the propaganda of violent extremist groups.  Because your optimism provides an alternative to their nihilism.  Because you’re trying to build the brighter future that in fact these folks are determined to prevent.  Because you are living a narrative of modern civilization and progress that is diametrically opposed to the dark worldview of Daesh and its ilk, the very enemies of civilization itself.

You can also be a partner to governments in finding solutions to any number of policy challenges, none more so than the effort to combat climate change.  Many of you were the ones designing and working in or devising the latest techniques for how we produce or store or use energy.  And you can provide an exciting alternative to the creaky and discredited model of top-heavy government, centralized economic control, corrupt bureaucrats, and regulatory structures that preserve the status quo at the cost of future gains and possibilities.  And because you are focused on replacing these old systems with new traditions defined by the promise of free enterprise and fair competition, once unleashed it can never be reversed. 

So these are our shared challenges, my friends, as you gather here for two days of total input and stimulation and listen to our common calls to action.  These are the areas where we can and must be partners.  And it is for these reasons among many more that the Obama Administration has made supporting you, supporting entrepreneurs, a top priority in our diplomacy and foreign policy.

That’s why on a government-to-government level, we constantly push our counterparts in other nations to enact needed regulatory reforms, to invest in their schools, to protect intellectual property, to end corruption, and to make public sector a facilitator, not a barrier, not an obstacle to the creation and success of new businesses.  It’s why we urge our partners worldwide to develop healthy entrepreneurial ecosystems by expanding access to capital, fostering innovation and risk-taking, promoting transparency, ensuring the rule of law – in short, by creating the infrastructure of both good governance and open markets. 

And it’s why the State Department works directly with entrepreneurs overseas.  We have established centers in Pakistan, Cambodia, Zambia, Kenya, that provide training, mentorship, and access to technology to women entrepreneurs.  We’ve dedicated resources to help – excuse me – the next generation of innovators in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam and help them to be able to preserve that area as well as to grow startups.  And led by Ambassador Thorne, we’ve sent teams of public and private sector leaders on innovation roadshows across Asia to strengthen ties and support new business formation in critical and fast-growing regions.  And you can anticipate that as you go out from here and get engaged in whatever initiative it is you’re planning, we will be there moving around and working to continue to provide a support structure for your efforts.

We have literally brought thousands of entrepreneurs together at each GES, and as I mentioned, this will continue beyond President Obama’s presidency next year in India.  This – (applause).

This is a global effort because in our era, everybody here understands that new ideas can evolve anywhere, at any time.  And they can have an impact anywhere.  In my travels as Secretary, I have been absolutely amazed by the groundbreaking designs I’ve seen, by the ideas being brought to life everywhere – sometimes where you least expect it.  By the men and women striking out to create new firms with an idea of both turning a profit as well as improving their communities.  This is literally happening in every single corner of our planet today, and it’s what gives me such extraordinary confidence about the future. 

In Indonesia, Iman Usman developed an online marketplace for tutoring services and a program to provide test prep materials free of charge – leveling the playing field for children from poor families so they could compete.

In Liberia, Archel Bernard opened a company to design and produce clothes in contemporary African styles – and hired some of her country’s most vulnerable citizens, including rape victims, Ebola survivors, and deaf students, to help sew and sell their wares around the world.

In Morocco, Yasmine El Baggari started a business that matches travelers with a place to stay and a family to host them – giving tourists an alternative look at different destinations while also deepening people-to-people ties.

You can go on and on and on; it’s endless.  We could tell similar stories about virtually every single one of you in this room.  Yet for all the hope that you instill – for all the jobs that you create and services that you provide; for all the lessons you teach about hard work, and discipline, and persistence, and perseverance – I know that you are also very clear-eyed about the challenges that still remain at the heart of so many of your communities.

I know you appreciate what I see almost everywhere I go: that together, we are making remarkable progress, and what entrepreneurs have been doing already has helped us to make absolutely giant leaps forward across the globe.  And I want you to remember that as you might get deterred or dismayed or disappointed – we are making progress.

Extreme poverty worldwide has fallen below 10 percent for the first time in history – thanks in part to more effective delivery of food, greater productivity, improvements in infrastructure, groundbreaking technologies.  But there are still 700 million people struggling to survive on less than $2 a day, and they need the next generation of creative ideas to bring more families into the middle class. 

We are on the threshold of the first generation in 30 years to be born AIDS-free – thanks to advances in medicine, in testing and the prevention, and delivery of essential services.  (Applause.)  Yet overall transmission rates still need to come down, and we need to expand access to better treatment and ultimately find a cure.

The number of women dying in childbirth has been cut in half – due, in large part, to improvements in technology, prenatal care, and education.  But there are still hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths every year, and we need to do even more to ensure that all prospective mothers receive the care that they deserve.

Simply put, what you and past generations of entrepreneurs have already achieved has brought about a revolution in our world right now.  And you saw each of those people in the video respond to the question of where would we be without entrepreneurs.  This journey that we are all on in this planet is defined by entrepreneurial activity.

Just think about it:  A child today is more likely than ever before to be born healthy, more likely to be adequately fed, more likely to get the necessary vaccinations, more likely to attend school, and more likely to live a long life.

Individuals and companies around the world thrive on new technologies that have made possible incredible breakthroughs in education, communications, health care, economic growth.  And the number of democracies has doubled while the number of nuclear weapons has fallen by two-thirds in just the last 30 years.  (Applause.)

All of this isn’t because of any one country or because of what governments do alone.  It’s what happens when people have faith in their own values, in their own skills; when they respect the rights and the dignity of each other; and when they believe in the possibility of progress no matter how many setbacks stand in the way.

That is not a complicated formula; in fact, it sounds like a pretty good definition of the spirit entrepreneurs bring to the table each and every day.

So I just want to leave you with a personal reflection on how change happens on the breadth and scope of what his happening in this world today.  Just a few weeks ago, President Obama and I traveled to Vietnam – a place where that entrepreneurial energy and spirit is palpable on every street corner.  But I also remember a time, because I fought in a war there, when this was not the case. 

I recall my first trip back to Vietnam as a civilian, in 1991, when I was in the United States Senate.  And back then, I touched down at a Hanoi airport served by a cramped, ramshackle terminal.  Cars and motorcycles were few; there was no main highway into Hanoi.  Most of the people were on bicycles, most still in black pajamas.  None of the streetlights worked.  Locals were prohibited from speaking with foreigners.  And an economic embargo was in full force.  And in the hearts and minds of many people here in our country, the war still went on.

Today, just 25 years later, that country and our relationship are completely changed.  Vietnam has embraced a raging capitalism.  Modern technology can be found everywhere.  Tourists now flood the streets and talk freely without – with the local vendors.  And the economy is growing, and hardly any Vietnamese citizens still think about the war of long ago.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy.  It took us 20 years to normalize relations.  Another 20 years to move from healing to building.  But now, the leaders, the young people, predominantly a young nation and their families, are all looking forward and dreaming of what the next 20 years can bring.

It is exactly this spirit that we have to replicate in communities and nations in every region and on every continent.  And that is what I know drives so many of you to continue dreaming, to continue working, to continue striving and innovating, taking risks, and seeking out investors to back your latest venture.  You can change the world.

You are embarking on careers that will take many of you to companies not yet founded, using devices not yet developed, based on ideas not yet conceived.  In fact, you will be the men and women starting those companies, discovering those devices, and shaping those ideas.

And to some, that degree of uncertainty is fraught with fear, yes.  But you’re entrepreneurs; and you wouldn’t be here if you took the safer path, if you felt bound by what others told you could or could not be done.

You understand to the depths of your soul what the great Muhammad Ali meant when he said that: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power that they have to change it.  Impossible is not a fact.”  (Applause.)  “Impossible is not a fact.  It’s an opinion.  Impossible is not a declaration.  It’s a dare.”

GES is about daring.  It’s about knowing your power to change the world – and then acting on it.  It’s about leading our planet towards a future of prosperity, peace, and progress.  And I look forward to joining with you and all of you as we realize that vision in the years ahead.

Thank you for being here.  Take the most out of these next two days.  God bless you all.  Thank you, thank you.  (Applause.)