With their fresh ideas, desire to disrupt, and willingness to take risks, entrepreneurs and startups drive economic growth.

That's true in places like St. Louis, Missouri, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

And it's true across the world.

But what happens to a society when innovation and entrepreneurship are stifled?

The results can include civil war, poverty, violent extremism--all partially the result of the chronically high unemployment present in nations that restrict entrepreneurial activity. This dynamic is particularly evident in parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially in the region's four failed states: Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. In addition to chronically high unemployment, those failed states face a rapidly growing working-class that already struggling economies cannot absorb.

Among young people, the unemployment rate in some areas exceeds 50%.

And the reality is the walk from bored and hungry to desperate and dangerous is a very short one--and that is as true in American communities as it is in Yemen and Syria.

Hungry, armed, and angry isn't a uniquely Middle Eastern thing.

It's a human thing.

In the MENA, one organization is doing everything it can to change that.

Silatech, founded at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Forum in 2008, has raised over $377M to fund businesses started by young people, helping to create a loose, homegrown startup ecosystem spanning 17 countries across the region. The financing model for Silatech's youth startup initiative focuses on three components:

  • Grants to financial institutions, civic entities, and other organizations
  • Lending to portfolios that specifically focus on increasing youth access to capital
  • Investment in startups led by young people

The results include more than 90,000 new jobs in Yemen and more than 275,000 jobs in Tunisia. Silatech has also forged strategic partnerships with the United Nations, the World Bank, MIT, Microsoft, and J.P. Morgan, and other organizations that have helped create economic opportunity for the region's youth.

"In Tunisia, Silatech provides loan capital, business-development services, and technical assistance to financial institutions that make lending to youth-led startups a priority," said Silatech CEO Sabah Al Haidoos. "In Yemen, we've partnered with a microfinance bank to help develop a loan product for existing youth-run enterprises and another financial product that functions as a saving account for young entrepreneurs. When we support lending institutions by helping develop products that empower young people to shape their own destiny, we are helping create a more prosperous Middle East and North Africa--and a more prosperous world."

Most of us do not have any idea what it's like to live in Syria, Libya, Iraq, or Yemen. The challenges faced in our own lives pale in comparison to the challenges faced by the residents of a failed state. I've written extensively about the problems Midwestern entrepreneurs face accessing capital. I have never had to write about how hard it would be to start a business on a perpetually empty stomach.

Like every entrepreneur, I've felt the sting of paying taxes to a government that is not always operating efficiently or effectively.

I've never felt the crushing weight of the state dictating who I am today, or what I could become tomorrow.

If I did--if we all did--we would live in a nation and a culture that looked a lot less like wherever it is we call home, and a lot more like Tunisia. Or Yemen. Or Iraq. Or Syria.

Starting your own business is never about striking it rich. Anyone who has actually done it can tell you that. It's about the ability to achieve your potential on your own terms.

That's not The American Dream.

It's just The Dream.

It's a dream held by young people in Baltimore, Maryland--and by young people in Bayt al-Faqih, Yemen.

And in the Middle East and North Africa, Silatech is helping those dreams become reality.