Former US President Barack Obama speaks at Bits & Pretzels about equality, climate change and the break-up of big tech companies like Facebook and google. An overview of his positions.
Barack Hussein Obama II was the 2009th President of the United States from 2017 to 44. He is a lawyer specializing in US constitutional law and has been a member of the Democratic Party since 1992, for which he became a member of the Illinois Senate in 1997. From 2005 to 2008 he was a Junior Senator. He became the first African American to move to the White House in 2009 and was confirmed in office in the 2012 presidential election. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize.
There are currently many strong women in politics, including in the US Congress. What about equality between men and women?
Michelle has sensitized me to this topic for 26 years. As a manager, you have to recognize the problem and then make appropriate decisions. Men always think they know what they're talking about, even if they have no idea, but women are much more reserved, so you have to encourage them.
And how do the male employees think?
I told the men in the White House to be quiet and listen. But it always takes a while for them to learn. Diversity in business, politics and society is not an act of charity, but an engine for excellence. Companies are under high social pressure: if they want to win over excellent specialists to implement innovations, they have to focus on diversity.
How do you tackle such changes?
You have to recognize the problem as a manager and then decide top down. Anything else will not work.
Why are changes so difficult?
The problem already begins with the education system: there is always complaint, women do not want to study STEM subjects. But that falls far too short. When my daughters chose math courses at school, I found that women learn very differently from men, they benefit much more from group work because they are much more team-oriented and communicative.
In order to get women excited about tech jobs in which they have so far been underrepresented, you have to start with changes in the education system. But I see that a new generation is growing up, which demands equality much more naturally than the previous generations.
Greta Thunberg is a young woman who is preparing to change the world. What can you say about them?
I met Greta Thunberg. It is exceptional. But it is very sad that such a burden lies on a sixteen-year-old. We must not make it so difficult for young people - especially old people like me. These are topics that we adults are responsible for. I admire your strength and persistence. She always speaks very clearly about the current climate crisis and is always aware of the problems. This is a clear message to all of us to do more.
For example, she asked me: Do politicians really understand the scientific aspects behind climate change? And I had to confess: 98 percent of the time they don't. The problem is that politicians don't always lead, they often just follow. In the fight against climate change, the importance of young entrepreneurs with expertise is growing.
But the Fridays-for-Future movement should not be reduced to one person: Gretas are everywhere. I see courage and I see innovation and I see idealism. We are in a situation where we are asked to do something. This is also important: we need all hands on deck. The good thing is: we no longer have to convince these people, they have recognized that climate change is real.
What can entrepreneurs do specifically to bring about the necessary change?
We have to find technical ways to reduce our C02 emissions. Therefore, fields like clean energy and better water use hold great promise for start-ups. The corresponding startups also earn good money with it. The potential for green technology is there, but it is not enough just to find technical solutions; they also have to be accepted by politics and public opinion. To counter the global climate crisis, young companies, governments and society must work together.
There are also a variety of entrepreneurial innovations that will take our world further. I am thinking in particular of the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example in traffic and urban planning, in medicine or in living, which can provide valuable services to society.
Do companies take on the role of governments?
I learned that as President: Adaptation requires that the government and the public demand the introduction of these technologies. This also justifies subsidies for renewable energies: just like now the solar and wind industries, oil, gas and coal also benefited from strong government subsidies and influence at the beginning of electrification. We cannot expect such a big change to happen without government support.
Unfortunately, politicians often have to be made aware of the innovations that are necessary. You have to be persistent as an entrepreneur, in every respect. And in the end, what brings prosperity also benefits society. And change is sometimes easier than expected.
How important is Silicon Valley for the development of innovation?
The Silicon Valley ecosystem is very easy to copy, even if too little is invested in startups outside of Silicon Valley and most of the venture capital only reaches a handful of young companies. Universities in particular are an important anchor to build a startup culture and invest in research. Without access to capital, all of this is useless.
And there have been fewer startups and IPOs in the US lately. One reason for this is the dominance of large corporations, especially from the Sillicon Valley, which leave less and less space for new companies.
Do tech companies like Google or Facebook be smashed?
At least you have to talk about how more competition could be possible. Managers need to understand that they need public trust - especially when it comes to future issues such as artificial intelligence. With change processes, you have to make sure that you take everyone with you. Innovative companies often have great ideas, but sometimes they don't think things through.
Digital changes in particular make many people afraid and this leads to conflicts that we cannot ignore. At the same time - on both sides of the Atlantic - it is time to think back to a healthy combination of community spirit and personal responsibility. Countries like Singapore, Norway or the US are successful at other times mainly because there is a combination of freedom and Sense for the common good.
Entrepreneurial thinking and community spirit - how do they go together?
Some companies are better at it than others; in fact, I have friends, or let's say people I know, among the top managers in Silicon Valley who adhere to liberal culture and don't want to pay taxes. That scares me. Because entrepreneurial culture begins with a society that invests in its children.
Silicon Valley, in particular, was created by the good schools and top universities in California that were financed from tax revenues. I'm a little worried that we think all the great ideas will continue to spring up in the future without investing in our education system.
Should regulation interfere with entrepreneurial development?
Strong competition authorities are needed. It is like a forest that sometimes has to be balanced to make room for new trees. Without adequate regulation, the undesirable effects are in danger. Startup founders love this romantic idea of being successful without being regulated. And you have to admit too early interventions in the development of young companies can be just as problematic.
However, if you want to see a country that is completely liberal, you should travel to failed states like Somalia without roads and police. This shows that complete regulation is not a good thing.
In the face of anti-democratic and nationalist developments, it is time to regain awareness of how well society is doing. The bottom line is that our societies have never been healthier, better educated, more prosperous, and more tolerant and diversified than they are today.
Where does optimism come from?
If your name is Barack Hussein Obama and you made it to the White House with that name, then you can only be optimistic. I would never have got there without optimism.
What is the life of a US president like after the presidency?
In our society it is considered chic not to sleep: sleep is an absolutely undervalued thing - I only noticed that after the end of my presidency. And now I also spend more time with my wife and family. And I noticed that I can now deal more intensively with a problem. As a president, you often only react. Today I can pick certain topics that are close to my heart. Such as climate change and sustainability.
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German edition: ISBN 9783965964341
English version: ISBN 9783965964358 (Translation notice)
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