Remarks & Statements
Remarks by Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis at the “Entrepreneurship Summit”
CEU Auditorium, Budapest, October 9, 2012
- as prepared -
Rector Shattuck, Dean Horwitch, Distinguished Guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am very excited to be here to help open this Entrepreneurship Summit, and want to thank CEU Business School, AmCham, the Hungarian Venture Capital Association, the Entrepreneurship Foundation Hungary, and my Embassy’s own Economic and Commercial Sections for putting together a very relevant, interesting and inspiring program.
You are about to hear from some very successful entrepreneurs, both Hungarian and non-Hungarian, and learn how they achieved their entrepreneurial vision. You will also hear about financing options for today’s entrepreneurs, as well as a review of the latest trends in teaching and promoting entrepreneurship in academia. Last but not least, you will have the opportunity to network with like-minded individuals here today at the conference. Who knows, perhaps some great ideas and people will come together today that will go on to create the next UStream, LogMeIn or Prezi!
The United States has long recognized that innovation and entrepreneurs have the power to expand the economy and generate job growth. American entrepreneurs have shown that the pursuit of a new concept or innovation can also revolutionize societies, create entire industries, and advance humankind by leaps and bounds. We are proud of our American tradition of entrepreneurship; when asked, 40% of Americans aged eight to twenty-one say they hope to start their own business one day. American entrepreneurs created over 500,000 new businesses a month in 2011, and small businesses employ over half of all private sector workers in the U.S.
I would like to share a little about my background to illustrate how important entrepreneurship has been to my life. As a first generation American, my story really begins with my father’s journey to the United States from Greece, at the end of WWII, alone and at the age of 15. He was sponsored by his bachelor uncle, who worked as a farm laborer in a small town in the California central valley.
Working in the fields after school and on the weekends, my father learned many lessons. But most importantly, he learned that in America, opportunity for business success was open to anyone - even a kid from Greece, laboring in the fields. He is one of many Americans who proved that in our country if you work hard and play by the rules, you can climb the ladder of success. And in his case, he would eventually become one of California’s most successful farmers and land developers.
Along the way, my father learned something else, which has fundamentally shaped my own philosophy. As you make your way through your own career, make sure that you find ways to give back to your community, and improve it. You will encounter many charitable causes, often ones which align with your business expertise. But that isn’t entirely what I mean by giving back.
I spent about 18 years as a land developer. Land development is a highly regulated industry in the U.S. It is regulated by layers of government including planning commissions, city councils, boards of supervisors, water boards, sewer boards, school boards, and parks and recreation boards. And these boards implement a series of laws, sometimes overlapping or even contradictory laws, which are set by the Federal government in Washington all the way down to local initiatives, put in place by voters.
It’s a business that takes a lot of patience. And it takes a lot of persistence. But most importantly, it is an environment that is so transparent; you have to be completely convinced that your proposal will be good for the community, the state and the nation.
Now, many times I felt that the system that I was doing business in was not fair. That happens everywhere. But when I encountered what I considered to be unfair regulation, I always tried to correct the system, not just solve the problem for myself. In other words, I attempted to change the system where I thought the system was broken. If it wasn’t working for me, it probably wasn’t working for others.
I highlight the importance of being pro-active to strengthen your local business climate because entrepreneurship and innovation don’t happen in a vacuum. To succeed, entrepreneurs need favorable conditions to work their magic – such as a stable and predictable regulatory environment, a fair and level playing field in which to operate, protections for their intellectual property and assets, and a well-functioning, transparent, and non-partial legal system they can turn to when disputes arise.
Entrepreneurs are savvy; they can and do forecast all kinds of market risks when they make investment and business decisions. But ad-hoc changes and opaque systems are hard to assess and threaten the ability of startups to survive. For it to be possible, feasible, and worthwhile for individuals to realize their goals in business, it is vital that bureaucratic hurdles be reduced to a appropriate levels, red tape cut, and consistency and transparency increased so that individual initiatives can flourish.
It is a tremendous privilege and honor to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, and I am continuously impressed by Hungary’s traditions, history, and values. Its record in innovation and contributions to advancements in science and technology are legendary. Transformers, holography, the helicopter, vitamin C, the computer, the ballpoint pen, and even our own Ford Model T, were invented, discovered, or designed by or in cooperation with Hungarians. It is clear that Hungary is full of potential and talent, and should be a country where entrepreneurship is encouraged and supported. Today’s Summit will help to bring a greater awareness of what needs to be done to achieve this goal.
The U.S. Embassy in Hungary is also working to provide support to Hungarian entrepreneurs on individual, organizational and international levels. In the past year, we funded a Fulbright Scholarship in entrepreneurship, and we have supported Hungarian participants on International Visitor Leadership Programs to the United States focused on small business development and entrepreneurship. In fact, one of the participants in those programs is here today, David Maasz, who brought the inspiration and knowledge he gained from his International Visitor Leadership Program back to Hungary and formed the Entrepreneurship Foundation Hungary, which is a co-organizer of this Summit.
I want to conclude by also recognizing Laszlo Czirjak, who has led the Corporate Governance Committee of the AmCham for many years, and whose annual Corporate Governance workshop was folded into today’s Entrepreneurial Summit. Everything I was saying earlier this evening, about giving back to your community - Laszlo, David, and many of you here are excellent examples of this adage put to practice. I encourage all of you to follow their example - take some of your future success and pay it forward with the goal of creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Hungary that allows all Hungarian entrepreneurs the chance to realize their vision.
I wish you all the best with today’s Summit, and also to each of you in your entrepreneurial ventures. Thank you very much.