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Steven Strauss Column: World Entrepreneurship Forum

November 17, 2011

Not long ago I wrote “Only small business can save America.” Here in Singapore at the World Entrepreneurship Forum, I would like to double down on that statement:
Only entrepreneurship can save the world.

Why? Because entrepreneurs go where governments fear to tread.
Sitting at the Gala Awards ceremony tonight, the grandmother social entrepreneur from the Philippines sitting to my left asked me, “Do you think the world is getting better, or worse?” She opined that she feared that it is getting worse.

It was hard to disagree with her of course. We have tremendous problems my friends, problems that are seemingly new and qualitatively different than any faced before. Unemployment in the U.S. seems structurally at a new, higher level, and it has become apparent that the government is at a loss for how to get it back down to more normal levels.

Beyond that, we both agreed that the environmental issues facing the planet – climate change, global warming, carbon emissions from developing countries (the unbelievable smog in Beijing has led the news here all week) and so on also seem insurmountable for governments to fix because
•    It is so expensive
•    Choosing nature over growth is a tough political sell
•    Agreement between countries is hard to come by

Waiting for governments to fix that problem is like Waiting for Godot. So then what? The good news is that I am always amazed at the ingenuity and dedication of the global entrepreneurs I meet here. Someone is going to see a market opportunity in clean energy and make a bundle.

Here’s an example: Last month I met with James Garton, the president of Mission New Energy, an Australian-based company (with bases in Malaysia and the U.S.) that is revolutionizing both energy and entrepreneurship by helping poor Indian farmers turn a heretofore unusable, inedible weed into a biodiesel fuel that is sustainable, green, and affordable.
The Jatropha plant is sort of like hemp. Growing it allows these poor farmers to take what was unusable land and turn it into a profit center. Said the smart and affable Garton, “We help Indian farmers harness the worst quality land to produce a product that can be manufactured into jet fuel, biodiesel, and electricity at 50% less than the prevailing crude oil price.”

Not only that, but growing the Jatropha plant triples these Indian farmers’ income. No wonder Mission New Energy now has 140,000 farmers growing about 400 million plants of this weed in some 15,000 villages. So not only has this great entrepreneur figured out a way to turn a weed into a market-ready fuel, but he does so by turning poor farmers into energy entrepreneurs.

That’s what I’m talking about.

It is not that governments can’t solve problems; of course they can. But the problems they can solve are different than the ones entrepreneurs can solve. They need each other. Government can set the context and give incentives to entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs can use their brains, initiative, willingness to work hard, and creativity to do things, like, well, turn a weed into a sustainable energy source.

At the World Entrepreneurship Forum it is said that an entrepreneur is the “creator of wealth and social justice.” It is that last part that I love and which is, I suggest, unexpected. Anyone who thinks unvarnished, lassiez-faire, unregulated business-as-usual raw capitalism is the answer is missing the boat. That sort of Libertarian world view is both unrealistic and, frankly, silly. Entrepreneurs create wealth, yes, but like Mission New Energy, when done right, they also create social justice.

The folks I meet at these conferences are concerned about making a profit of course, but to a man and woman, they actually care more about making a difference.

Today’s tip: If you run a small business, it is likely that finding the right phone system has been an ongoing issue. Well here is one great solution: Ring Central. A cloud-based product, Ring Central offers small businesses world-class affordable phone systems, including auto-receptionist, multiple voicemail boxes, call routing, extension dialing, call transfers, and even easy integration with Smartphones. Steve says check it out.

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