The Middle East then and now. The choice is simply one of lighting candles, or cursing the darkness, but it is a choice that the leaders there must make. We cannot do it for them.
On September 12th, 2012, I had just returned from the Middle East region on the day prior to the devastating Libyan terrorist act of September 11th, 2012. I was visiting Saudi Arabia, and experiencing a very positive engagement with business and political leaders in the region, as we launched an aspect of our empowerment work there. I had been invited to speak before the Young President's Organization (YPO), even the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. I met with the Minister of Labor for Saudi Arabia, who was but one of the leaders in the audience during my Chamber speech, fully engaged around a new vision and plan for the region's youth. It was obvious to me, these leaders had made a clear choice to "light a candle" towards the future.
Libya on the other hand, and thereafter other trouble spots throughout the Middle East region, unfortunately chose to turn backwards, simply cursing the darkness. At the end of the day, I choose to stay focused on that which I saw with my own eyes and experienced personally; substantive, new era leaders who have decided to light candles and build a society for all. Candles towards a brighter future. The respectful opening up of society. A view towards helping the average person to achieve their own level of aspirational success. Not a western version of aspirational success, but one of their own making. One that respected, and in fact embedded their deep and rich cultural beliefs.
I traveled to Saudi Arabia with a simple message -- in the MENA Region (Middle East and North Africa), according to the World Bank you have a population that will be 60% under the age of 25 by 2020, and in Saudi Arabia this is already the case.
There are only two ways to look at this. This is either an incredible opportunity, or it's a crisis of youth frustration and lack of hope on a scale unparalleled in modern human history. Just that simple, and totally their choice. Not mine. Theirs. And I am hopeful.
The leaders I had the opportunity to spend time with, from one part of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to the next, and from some of the wealthiest enclaves to some of the poorest neighborhoods, were all unified in a recognition of the problems, but more so focusing on solutions. Ways they could reach and empower 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.
This is a doubling or more of the current jobs calendar in the region, basically, in less than a decade. And there is no greater national -- no global -- security threat than a region that is majority youth, under the age of 25, exposed to the opportunities available in the wider world, but crippled by no way to operationalize these dreams in their own lives. Youth with too much time on their hands, no viable job, 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. An opportunity to advance not only their own space and place, but to also 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, of this growing youth population. Youth who have for now, locked onto the hopelessness of their lives in the region.
But what if there was a different movement available for a majority of supercharged and super engaged youth to grab onto? A new 'silver rights' movement, rooted in youth entrepreneurship, jobs, aspiration, opportunity and hope?
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. As my friend and partner Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup tells me, "John, tell the President and world leaders that 'the fix to our (youth) problem is free." I agree with him. But it takes a new form of leadership and a bold vision made real for a generation.
What the MENA region needs is to finally 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 conglomerate 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; all resulting in the creation of a few thousand new homeowners, small business owners and entrepreneurs.
Hope made real in people's lives is sustainable.
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 one fed by utter hopelessness.
It must be energized with possibilities, rather than simply rooted by the most basic human frustration. As advisor and friend Sean Cleary tells me, "before financial dignity, comes human dignity."
Going forward we must do more than focus on our intense and overwhelming problems in society. Even the Bible says, "where there is no vision, the people perish." And in every way that is important to human dignity and society overall, Islam, Christianity and all major religions stand in loud agreement, but almost no one focuses on this.
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, is as relevant and needed in Saudi Arabia as they are 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.' 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.