WASHINGTON – The tenure of the Worldwide Partners Conference went from “Google sucks” to “Save Haiti” as former President Bill Clinton spoke Wednesday morning.
In his 90-minute talk and Q&A session, Clinton encouraged technology companies to think about the challenges facing countries, especially how to finance small and medium-sized businesses in post-earthquake Haiti.
It was a striking contrast for the crowd of 13,000 with the session before, a sales pep rally led by Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner against competitors Google, Apple, VMware, Linux and Oracle.
“It’s something I wish you could help me with,” Clinton said. “In most really poor places, small and medium businesses provide lion’s share of economic activity. There’s almost no financing for small and medium-sized enterprises for poor countries.”
Clinton began his talk at the Verizon Center offering a framework for how he sees the world, starting with the question: How does he keep up with “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars,” new research on human evolution and subatomic particles called muons?
“We live in the most interdependent age in history,” he said. “The positives are obvious. But it’s too unstable, unequal and unsustainable.”
A more interconnected world makes solving the problems an urgent need, he said.
In a wide-ranging speech, he spoke of the need for the U.S. to invest in wind and solar power and build a better health-care system. Rich countries need to reduce the rigidity in their systems, he said, while poor countries need to build up systems. For instance, he said, Haiti needs an educational system that can be high quality, low cost and universal in access.
He challenged the attendees, who are in D.C. this week to hear about Microsoft’s new products and how they can make money selling them, to think about what they take for granted and what people living in poor countries can’t take for granted.
“You would be surprised if the lights went out. You would be surprised if the air conditioning went out and we started sweltering. You don’t have any problem drinking the water,” he said. “I spend my time in places where none of the people can take that for granted.”
He did a short question and answer session with Corporate Vice President Jon Roskill afterward, who posed some questions from the audience, such as about how Clinton is using social networking in his new work with his foundation.
Clinton said he is on Facebook and answers questions on the social network site. “We actually now do tweets from time to time to keep people up with what we’re doing, which I never thought I would do,” he said.
Global economic development in poor countries was clearly a theme, and Clinton said economic development would create more business for companies at the conference.
“I would like to know that within two years you could have a meeting like this in sub-Saharan Africa with people from 130 countries,” he said.
Next year’s Worldwide Partners Conference will take place in Los Angeles.