President Barack Obama sat down for a panel discussion with Palo Alto resident and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) on Friday at Stanford University to discuss the role of entrepreneurship in advancing societies and, perhaps, a future for the president that might involve more informal attire.
As he has in the past when the two have met, Obama, in a bow to Zuckerberg's signature jeans, hoodie and T-shirt, removed his suit jacket and settled in before launching into a conversation featuring his own signature folksy style.
They were joined by three young entrepreneurs from Egypt, Rwanda and Peru at Memorial Auditorium, who represented the faces of diversity the summit seeks to promote.
Mai Medhat, of Egypt, is a female software engineer who started Eventtus, a company that is a one-stop online shop for people who organize events. Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, of Rwanda, is founder and CEO of Habona Limited, a company that uses biomass and waste to develop eco-friendly fuels that are used in rural Africa. And Mariana Costa Checa, of Peru, is the founder of Laboratoria, which gives young women from low-income backgrounds the education and tools they need to work in the digital sector.
"This is a good-looking group. And I could not wear a T-shirt like Mark -- for at least another six months -- but I will take off my jacket so that I don't look too formal," Obama quipped.
"Soon," Zuckerberg said of Obama's impending retirement from the presidency and the impending switch to cotton jersey.
To which Obama replied: "Soon. It's going to happen soon."
Then Obama got down to business. As the young entrepreneurs discussed their successes, the president also asked about their challenges. The list was long, and they had many in common: preconceptions about what they can achieve; stereotypes regarding their age or gender; limited capital and difficulty getting financial institutions to buy into their ideas; governments that are behind the curve on infrastructure and streamlining red tape.
Obama wanted Zuckerberg's take on his early start.
"Mark, there was a time when you were sort of in their shoes. But now, obviously, Facebook's success has been extraordinary. But I'm sure that you still can connect with the stories that are told here, and some of the stories out there," Obama said. "How is Facebook thinking about its own role in creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world? I know that's something that you've been thinking a lot about."
Entrepreneurship, Zuckerberg replied, is about creating change and not just companies, and the most effective innovators "care deeply about some mission and some change that they're trying to create," he said.
Zuckerberg said when he started he "cared deeply about giving everyone a voice and giving the people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together."
"And it started small in one university. And I didn't think it was going to be company at the time. As a matter of fact, I was pretty convinced that at some point someone would build something like this for the world, but I thought that that would be some other company that already had thousands of engineers and was used to building stuff for hundreds of millions of people around the world. And what ended up happening was that no one built it, so we just kind of kept on going," Zuckerberg continued.
Entrepreneurs, he said, must be confident they are on the right path. Even with success, people did not believe Facebook was sustainable, he noted.
"People said it would be a fad and it would never be a good business. But you keep going because you care, not because you're trying to create a business," Zuckerberg said.
People also thought the shift to mobile wouldn't be a sustainable business, he said.
The entrepreneurs who build things that last for a long time keep going because they care fundamentally about the change they are trying to create in the world, he said, adding that he carries that idea with him to this day.
"We live in a world with more than seven billion people, but more than four billion of us are not on the internet. And we talk about having an equal opportunity to be able to create a change in the world, and I think that's a really hard thing to do if you don't have access to some of the basic infrastructure and technical tools that are necessary to build these kinds of technical products," he said.
In some ways, even as the company builds new ideas, he still struggles with the same responses from people.
"I get people all the time who come to me and say, 'Alright, well, you're investing billions of dollars in trying to put internet connectivity in places where we don't get paid for it. It's not something that we'll make any money from for a very long period of time -- if it works out.' But it's this deep belief that you're trying to make a change. You're trying to connect people in the world. And I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you," Zuckerberg said.
Facebook has a developer program called "FbStar," which gives entrepreneurs free access to social-media tools. The social-media giant gives tens of thousands of dollars' worth of Facebook tools to help businesses get started, he said.
The company also conducts entrepreneurship workshops for start-up technical companies and small businesses. More than 50 million small business pages are on Facebook, and a large number of them use Facebook as their primary presence for communicating with people and attracting new customers, he said.
Zuckerberg is concerned most with connectivity, both here and abroad.
"I think we need to do a better job of empowering folks in different countries to be able to spread connectivity. This isn't something that the U.S. or some American company can come in and do. In the places where it's worked, it's been in partnership with local companies and local entrepreneurs and local governments," he said.
Obama said that the U.S., through initiatives like as the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, is trying to encourage governments to hear from entrepreneurs to build a different kind of culture that will make it easier to develop a business.
In the U.S., programs such as "Startup in a Day" work to streamline paperwork, fees and applications with a goal of allowing entrepreneurs to get those things squared away in 24 hours. In countries such as Egypt, advanced technology could help governments implement processes that would make it possible for entrepreneurs to get their paperwork online instead of traveling long distances to get to the capital city, for example, he said.
The president noted that many reforms still need to take place at home. The educational system in the U.S., for example, has gaps in basic technology education, which leaves many students unprepared for entering the workplace.
In response, the Obama administration initiated "TechHire," a program that offers technical training to people in underserved communities through community colleges, and in some cases, through companies.
Governments play crucial roles in the success of entrepreneurs, depending on whether they embrace change and technology, Obama said.
"But openness is a sensitive topic in some countries. It is hard to foster and encourage an entrepreneurial culture if it's closed and if information flows are blocked," he said.
Too often top-down control stifles innovation, he added, pointing to his 2008 election as an example of the success that can come with giving up some control.
"People remarked on my 2008 campaign and how we were really early adapters of so much technology. It wasn't because I knew what I was doing. It's because a bunch of 20-year-olds came to me and said, 'Hey, there's this new thing called Myspace.'"
"Ouch," Zuckerberg replied.
"The point is that they had all this stuff that I had never heard of," Obama added. "And if I had tried to maintain control and said, 'No, no, no, we're going with pamphlets because I'm used to pamphlets, and I can control what's in the pamphlet,' then I might not be sitting here."
The same is true for governments as a whole, Obama said. A cultural shift that empowers individuals is sometimes difficult. New information and ideas that might contradict old preconceptions can sometimes be threatening to governments, he said.
But governments can scale up their economies quickly if they are willing to test those new ideas, the president said.
"And if they don't work, we're going to try something else. That's the connection between connectivity and the internet and science. And part of what has created all this, part of what Stanford is all about, is our capacity to say, 'We don't know'; to say that all the received wisdom might not be right. And we're willing to test it. And that is threatening sometimes. It's threatening to governments. It's threatening to cultures. But that is the essence of discovery and innovation," Obama said.
But the president admitted that the openness and the power of connectivity can also empower bad people.
"So us wrestling with how do we counter the sort of violent extremism that can end up poisoning the mind and resulting in what we saw happening in Orlando -- that's a constant balance that we're trying to weigh," he said.
"But what I worry about is people using that as an excuse, then to try to block things off and control the flow of information. And that's a question that I think young people are attuned to, and they're going to have to pay attention to and all of us are going to have to fight for in the years to come."