Startup culture and the United Nations don't often go together. The former is defined by entrepreneurs who take risks, move fast, and break things. The latter? Well, it’s not a stretch to call the sprawling international governing body the very definition of a bureaucracy.
That’s what makes Michael Dell and the United Nations Foundation such a strange but compelling pairing.
Starting this month, Dell, the billionaire CEO who founded his namesake company with $1,000 at age 19, will serve as the Global Advocate for Entrepreneurship for the UN Foundation, the nonprofit organization that raises money for and works closely with the UN on its priorities. It’s part of both group's efforts to encourage more entrepreneurship around the world in order to create jobs, foster local economies, and mobilize ambitious people to tackle society’s biggest challenges.
"Part of what we’re trying to do is sort of raise entrepreneurship to the level of the public policy agenda," says Dell. "If you look at what’s going on in the world today, in terms of where jobs are being created, all of the technological change that’s out there, the pace of advancement, we need more entrepreneurs. We need more risk-taking," he says.
The role came about as the United Nations works to complete the Millennium Development Goals—which are supposed to be completed in 2015—and then agree upon new international development priorities for the coming decade. In the first-ever global citizen survey conducted by the UN to gather citizen input on these questions, the goal of "job creation" ranked among the top four priorities from respondents around the world, says Elizabeth Gore, the UN Foundation’s current resident entrepreneur.
As advocate, Dell’s job will be to talk to world leaders and decision makers in public and private, as well as inspire other entrepreneurs to take up similar advocacy roles. Some of this advocacy work will be at high-profile public events, such as co-chairing the first global accelerator event for 100 entrepreneurs around the world being held in New York City this week. But much will be incorporated into his everyday travels and meetings as CEO and chairman of Dell, Inc.
The biggest underlying goal is to spur the cultural environment required to foster new businesses—the one that is endemic in Silicon Valley, but much less so in a place like Japan, where risk-taking individualism is less valued. In other countries, like parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the goal will be to encourage the policies and institutions that can support the many entrepreneurs that are already bubbling up at all levels of society. Dell points to a countrywide program in Malaysia as an example of what’s possible: There, the government is trying to inculcate new businesses in a culture where the path to entrepreneurship has long been difficult.
"If you go back to the mid 1990s, and you look at the vast majority of the countries around the world, and you say, where did the net new jobs come from? They didn’t actually come from the big companies or the government. They came from small businesses and entrepreneurial fast-growing businesses," says Dell. He notes that while his position has CEO of a 100,000-plus employee company gets him in the door for meetings with governments around the world, the jobs are being created by much smaller ventures "who often don’t have that voice."
"Do policymakers really understand where the jobs are being created—how they’re being created? I think there’s some opportunity there," Dell says. "With the increasing pace of technological change, the proportion of jobs that will be created by new and emerging businesses is only likely to go up."
Gore says that Dell’s role will be about building a bridge between what’s often two very different worlds. While entrepreneurs have always developed local solutions to local problems, what’s important now is to marry their work to large institutions that can help them scale. "If you talk to Michael and I in a year, have we built that bridge? I think that’s where the opportunity lies right now," she says.