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65 FIVE Through the Looking Glass IF YOU ARE AN entrepreneur in America, even one lucky enough to live in a part of the country that provides a great ecosystem, you know that nothing works out as planned. An investor backs out. Your prototype falls short of expectations. The container from China will be two weeks late. You need to skip paychecks to slow your burn rate. Or, most horrifying of all, a key employee (and in a startup they are all key) asks if they can come in to your office and shut the door for a minute. Nothing good ever happens after that! The successful entrepreneur’s modus operandi is to deal with changes, setbacks, and the unforeseen. He or she finds workarounds when things don’t go as planned, when obstacles sprout up. When told “You can’t do that,” or “The system doesn’t allow for that,” the intrepid entrepreneur’s instinct is to find a workaround—to figure out what the system does allow for, or as they say these days, “to pivot.” But when I left the world of business and startups to join the State Department in 2009, I soon found myself through the looking glass. As Alice once said to the Queen of Hearts, “What a strange world we live in.”1 The concept of “workarounds” serves as a great example of the difference between the private sector and government. At State, my main project was launching the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP) under the auspices of the Office of Commercial and 66 PEACE THROUGH ENTREPRENEURSHIP Business Affairs (CBA) in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic, Energy , and Business Affairs (EEB). (Everything at State has an acronym, and acronyms change! EEB, where I worked, is today EBA, the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.) At its inception GEP was facing that ageold startup problem: money. We needed it. We had good ideas for entrepreneurship programming that we wanted to roll out in several countries, programs that would identify leading entrepreneurs in Muslim-majority regions and support them with mentorship, training, and access to capital. But nobody in the State Department, let alone EEB, had any money for us. We were desperate to locate a government funding source just to establish a budget. I approached EEB’s senior administrative officer in hope of finding an experienced ally to solve this problem. I explained the big picture of why GEP was important to creating jobs for unemployed Arab youth; how President Obama and Secretary Clinton were speaking about just such programs and, in fact, were asking for deliverables; and how it would be really important work for our bureau to support our leadership in this way. In the entrepreneurial spirit, I suggested figuring out a “workaround ” for our funding problem. Taking this tack turned out to be a big mistake. The officer, a twenty-plus-year State Department employee, immediately straightened up and said, “This is the State Department. We don’t do workarounds.” At that moment, I understood something. I realized that, in the mind of a career government worker, when you hit an obstacle, you stop. You do not figure out how to go over it, under it, or around it. You just stop. This turned out to be a big lesson in the difference between the way America works and the way the U.S. government works. In this particular case, I learned that government workers not only stop, but stop and block. At one point, we discovered that GEP was eligible for some funding and that EEB, in fact, had unspent money in its own budget . But our administrative office, called the EX, was completely uninterested in securing the funds for GEP, and, instead, erected roadblock after roadblock to justify inaction. GEP could not, in fact, access the funds because the sub-office in which we were housed, CBA, did not have a certified grants officer authorized to manage the money. Fair enough. Time for a workaround. I figured out that the Foreign Service Institute, the inhouse training center for the government’s foreign affairs crowd, held regu- THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS 67 larly scheduled workshops precisely to train such grants officers. Contractors and consultants (like myself at that early point) were not eligible, but no matter; we sent to the training a “borrowed” foreign service officer on loan to us while awaiting new assignment (called a “Y tour,” standing, I think, for “Don’t ask me why”), which he...


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MARC Record
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