David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, talking with Finnish activist Maryan Abdulkarim at Slush 2019 on Nov. 23 in Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

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In November, Helsinki is arguably not the most attractive tourist destination. But fortunately, November is also the month of Slush, Helsinki’s big start-up festival, which brings together entrepreneurs and creatives from various industry sectors, from all over the globe.

On Friday—the second day of the festival—we listened in as David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, spoke with Finnish activist Maryan Abdulkarim, who had previously worked with the Obama Foundation, on the Founder Stage of Slush’s spacious venue, Messukeskus.

The two spoke about the importance of building bridges between and within communities, especially by helping empower good ideas and entrepreneurs. As Abdulkarim wondered, “We depend on each other, so how do we nurture an understanding?”

Drawing from her work and experience, she also emphasized the importance of an inclusive mindset in business environments. Mr. Simas asked her about the start-up and entrepreneurship scene in Finland; her impression was that there is a lack of diversity in the field, which is predominantly male and predominantly white.

“Ordinary people coming together can do extraordinary things.”

David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation

Mr. Simas went on to talk about the connection between entrepreneurship and civic engagement. In his view, people who have ideas and make an effort to improve their communities should not only be supported, but be recognized as a new paradigm of citizenship, one that is active and engaged beyond attending elections.

Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

According to Simas, trust in government in the US and across the world is at a 50-year low. Not only that, but trust in society and fellow citizens is being eroded. “When you ask people if they trust their neighbors,” he said, “only 29 percent of Americans responded that they do.”

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Abdulkarim asked Simas how one goes about supporting entrepreneurs, and her interlocutor provided two examples: one was a man from Cincinnati who started a business enabling underprivileged people to acquire housing, and the other was a man who developed an app that helps subsistence farmers. These cases, like many others, may be business ventures, but they also fall under the category of community building and social activism.

Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

The Obama Foundation CEO took the time to break down the process of developing a socially aware start-up venture. The most important bullet point seemed to be the importance of personal engagement: we should channel our creative energies into issues that we are particularly passionate about and which affect our lives. Then we galvanize a community of people who are also passionate about it, utilizing assets strategically to meet a common goal. In his words: “Ordinary people coming together can do extraordinary things.”

The pair of speakers ended with a discussion on the changing notion of citizenship. As Simas said, the old notion of citizenship, which involves voting for representatives but otherwise remaining passive, should be replaced “with the more creative view of what my responsibilities are.”

“You have all the power and agency you need,” he concluded, before signing off with a poignant quote from Obama: “So let’s get to work.”