Clinton Seeks Student Innovation to Address Social Issues

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton told a gathering of college-student innovators not to be dissuaded by fear of failure because even that may hold the seeds of eventual success.

“I know something about this,” he said last night at Washington University in St. Louis, pointing to his loss in his first Arkansas political race and a later defeat that left him for a time the “youngest former governor in American history.”

Speaking at the sixth annual Clinton Global Initiative University, a conference designed to support efforts by young leaders to address global issues, he told the gathering that it’s important for society to encourage people to take risks in pursuit of their visions.

“We need to create a culture where failure is OK, so long as it is not the product of laziness,” Clinton said.

More than 1,000 college and university students came from every state and more than 75 nations for the youth-oriented version of the annual Clinton Global Initiative event that encourages both networking and commitment to action. Clinton noted it was his first time at the university since taking part in a 1992 debate that helped seal his lead over then President George H.W. Bush.

Sharing the opening-night stage with Clinton was Jack Dorsey, the St. Louis native who was co-founder of Twitter Inc. and the mobile payments startup Square Inc. Dorsey said he put his initial idea for the Twitter social messaging service on the shelf for five years until the time seemed right.

“Look at every mistake as a learning opportunity, as something you can rebound from and not react to, but use as a way-point on the journey to push forward,” he said in response to a question about how he has handled worries about failure.

‘Fundraising Event’

Dorsey is chief executive of Square, which makes a device that turns a smartphone into a credit-card payments system, and is executive chairman of Twitter, which has about 200 million active users. Speaking earlier to reporters, Dorsey didn’t signal whether either company may seek an initial public offering of shares this year.

“An IPO is another fundraising event; it’s a milestone, it’s not something to race toward and then stop. It’s something to move through,” he said. While the question regularly comes up from reporters, “we never talk about this in the company,” he said.

Chelsea Clinton, the former president’s daughter and a board member of the William J. Clinton Foundation, said CGI-U has produced about 3,500 project commitments since the first gathering in 2007. The projects include student-initiated programs such as a vaccine awareness campaign in Nepal and the Philippines, a software project to empower girls in Kenya, and the Kansas City Free Eye Clinic to help underserved populations.

Awareness Gap

Seminars today offered students advice on matters from fundraising to “creating buzz” and working sessions discussed projects aimed at poverty alleviation, empowering girls and women, internet-based human-rights efforts, and global sanitation issues. About 300 student groups vied for grants from a funding and mentoring nonprofit organization, the New York-based Resolution Project. For instance, four University of Chicago undergraduates sought support to implement a text-message-based inventory-management system they have developed to improve the supply chain for rural health clinics in nations such as Peru.

Building Windmills

A lot of the innovation is made possible by new technology “where you can have private funding and sharing of ideas and targeting of projects,” the former president said last night. And it is “partly because of peoples’ awareness that there will always be a gap between what the government can provide and what the private sector produces that’s pretty large right now because of the economic and other problems in the world.”

Along with Dorsey, Clinton shared the stage with William Kamkwamba, who drew international attention after being inspired by a picture of a windmill to build one out of spare parts to generate electricity for charging mobile phones in his Malawi village.

Kamkwamba, now a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, said he originally envisioned the windmill as a way to pump water for irrigation but couldn’t afford a pump, and then had an idea of how to cheaply build a generator using odd parts.

Also on the panel was Kenneth Cole, a clothing designer and chairman of Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. who was an early supporter of AIDS awareness and research programs, and Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi immigrant who is founder of Women to Women International, which assists women in war-torn regions.

Today’s sessions wrap up with the former president to be interviewed by faux-pundit Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Chelsea Clinton said that was put on the schedule because even “earnest do-gooders’‘ should have fun.

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