I had just returned from the Middle East on the day prior to the devastating terrorist act of September 11th, 2012, in Libya. I was visiting Saudi Arabia, and experiencing almost the total opposite engagement with leaders looking toward in the region. Last week in Libya, and thereafter other places throughout the Middle East region, chose to curse the darkness. I experienced leaders who decided to light candles, towards a brighter future.
I came to Saudi Arabia with a simple message — in the MENA Region (Middle East and North Africa) you have a population that will be 60% under the age of 25 by 2020, and in Saudi Arabia this is already the case. This is either an incredible opportunity, or it is a problem on a scale unparalleled in modern human history. Just that simple, and their choice. Not mine. Theirs. The leaders I had the opportunity of spending time with, from one part of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to the next, and from some of the wealthiest enclaves to some of the poorest communities, were all unified in yes, recognizing the problem, but more so focusing on the untapped opportunity (of the region's growing youth population).
The MENA region is anticipated to have a population of more than 180 million by 2010, and a need for 100 million jobs. 100 million. A doubling or more of the current jobs calendar in the region, basically. And there is no greater national — no global security threat than a region that is majority youth, under the age of 25, who are exposed to the outside world and those possibilities and opportunities (the Internet, social media, etc), with too much time on their hands, no jobs, even fewer entrepreneurial opportunities, and increasingly without hope. The most dangerous person in the world, is a person with no hope.
But the challenge for the region is also their once in a century opportunity to advance not in their own space and place, but to possibly, become a new model for transformation and leadership in the world. While the United States of America and other developed nations are aging, getting older (on the median), having fewer children, the MENA region is doing almost the opposite over the next 10-20 years. Thus far, it has been extremist forces that have caught the attention and unfortunately, the imagination sadly, locked onto the hopelessness of this army of the youth throughout the Middle East. But what if there was a different movement, for a majority of supercharged and super engaged youth to grab onto. A movement around youth entrepreneurship.
What the world needs now is not less hope, but more of it. What the MENA region needs now is to spark a generation of youth entrepreneurship, small business owners and self-employment projects. This is where the 100 million of jobs needed by 2020 will come from. Not anywhere else. In fact, it is well known that most new job growth actually comes from start-up businesses in their early years of operation.
The MENA region is primed for a movement all right, but it is not the one that everyone keeps talking about. What they need is to connect education with aspiration, which for this part of the world means not just telling millions of youth to go to school, graduate, and then go to work for either the government or a big business somewhere. This is simply not where jobs come from — not there, nor right here in the United States. In the U.S., 99% of all jobs come from companies and employers with 500 employees or less. Companies, like the one I founded — Operation HOPE. An idea just 20 years ago, Operation HOPE today has directly impacted 2 million clients, recruited, trained and mobilized 20,000 HOPE Corps volunteers, secured 5,000 partners from government, community and the private sector, directed more than 1.5B in private capital, from our partners, to be invested in low-wealth and under-served communities, resulting in the creation of a few thousand new homeowners, small business owners and entrepreneurs.
Operation HOPE, which started as an idea of a 26 year old 'kid,' has today flowered into a global movement for financial dignity — now reaching even into the Middle East. This can be done, but going forward it must be a vision based on hope, and not hopelessness. It must be energized with possibilities, rather than simply frustration. We must really believe in rainbows after storms. Understanding, that you cannot have a rainbow without a storm first.
I believe in the youth of the MENA Region. I actually believe in the power, vision and influence of the leaders I met in Saudi Arabia, to help create this change. Leaders such as SEDCO Holdings, which has launched a comprehensive Corporate Social Responsibility strategy that is focused on teaching college students financial literacy, as a first step towards financial inclusion, financial dignity, and economic freedom. But mostly, I believe in the amazing, untapped and positive potential of the many young people I encountered there — women included — who can be the change we want and need to see in the region. HOPE Business In A Box and the Gallup-HOPE Index, I confirmed while there, are as relevant and needed in Saudi Arabia as it is right here in the urban, inner-city communities of the United States of America. Hope and hopelessness, are not defined by region or ethnicity.
Everyone ultimately wants the same thing — a shot at real opportunity, real aspiration, a real job, or alternatively, to be able to create something that changes the world. We have now seen the hopelessness version of this. Let's now give the hope-filled version a try.
This is what I am talking about when I say 'silver rights,' or quoting my hero civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young — "to make free enterprise and capitalism work for the poor and the least of these God's children."
Let's start lighting candles, right now.
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation, an NYSE Euronext publicly traded company, and a division of $54 billion Ares Capital.