Rajiv Shah Calls on New Generation to Lead Innovation Economy

“We did something a bit unusual in Washington; we tried to change,” said Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID, during his talk Thursday at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Since his arrival at USAID in 2009, Shah has overseen numerous structural changes within the department while at the same time witnessing global shifts in indicators of social and physical well-being.

By 2025, the burgeoning global middle class is expected to more than double, growing to over 4 billion new consumers and producers in unexpected places such as Nigeria, Tunisia, Columbia and Cambodia. In order to maintain a dynamic economy, the tremendous changes on the international horizon require domestic adaptations, Shah said. (See video here.)

“As this center of gravity shifts, it will have as great an impact on futures of Fortune 500 companies as it will on the careers of Duke and nearby high school students,” Shah said. Shah presented the 2013 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture to a full house in Fleishman Commons.

He commended the Research Triangle Park for its continued innovative, entrepreneurial efforts and called for even more participants to “bring American innovation to global development.” Edesia, a start-up company in Rhode Island producing high-energy peanut products for malnourished children, is an example of the growth in this sector of the American economy, he said.

“Today we’re working with companies in Georgia, California, New Jersey and Texas to develop the next generation of scientifically advanced, life-saving food products, creating jobs at home while continuing our nation’s proud history as the world’s humanitarian leader,” he said.

 Small businesses and start-ups may define the American economy as they have generated two-thirds of new job creations and 13 times more patents than large companies. At USAID, Shah has supported rising innovation hubs across the nation. He helped develop USAID Forward, which supports changes such as funding more university initiatives and cutting ineffective programs.

For example, he mentioned spectacular innovations within the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD), which USAID has supported with $10 million, and which is part of a network of laboratories situated on various college campuses.

“Duke University beat out more than 400 other world-class institutions for a spot in this higher education solutions network precisely because of your extraordinary commitments to bringing science and technology to the challenges to the world’s most vulnerable,” Shah said.

Shah also shared President Obama’s three new goals: ending global hunger, eradicating preventable child and maternal death and providing energy for impoverished international communities. He told students in the audience, which included a large contingent from Carrboro High School, that they are the new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

“We need you to focus on the 300,000 mothers who die in childbirth and the 7 million children who die before the age of 5 every year, almost all of them in remote and rural settings, and almost all relatively easily preventable,” he said.

Global communities desperately need solutions to extreme climate change and poverty. Shah called for the integration of public and private sectors to address these problems and set needy communities on a path of resiliency. As part of those efforts, President Obama launched Power Africa in order to double energy production and extend power grid systems by collaborating with companies such as General Electric and Standard Charter. USAID’s new development innovation ventures fund also fosters small-scale innovations to extend electricity access even further.

“Continue to choose to work at the intersection of service and entrepreneurship; build businesses to serve the urban poor, not just in Detroit but also in Delhi; invent tools for poll workers to monitor elections not just in Cabo, but also in Miami; design mobile applications to monitor extractive industries not only in Canada but also in the Congo,” said Shah. Those who choose a life of service will encounter frustrations along the way, but will gain immense personal satisfaction, he said.