A "youth bulge" in the demographic of the Maghreb has caused high unemployment among young people. (Shirley Li/Medill)

WASHINGTON – Like most students in Morocco, 18-year-old Lina El Yakhloufi wanted to work for a company – not start one.

But after she attended Injaz Morocco, a program recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative that teaches high school students how to start and run businesses, she abandoned her original intention of  becoming an engineer. El Yakhloufi began Youth Yell, a design company that creates custom graphics and works with street artists to produce T-shirts and poster artwork.

“I had no idea about entrepreneurship,” she said. “Students go to universities for engineering schools, management and business schools to graduate and get a job in a company. They don’t think that they can have their own business because there’s just no chance for you, if you fail.”

Despite her concerns, Youth Yell made a healthy profit and won the Most Innovative Product award at the 2011 Middle East and North Africa Regional Competition for the Best Arabic Young Company. She wrapped up the business after six months.

Motivated to restart and expand her business in the future, El Yakhloufi attended the first U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference in 2010 held in Algiers, engaging other aspiring business leaders from the U.S. and the Maghreb, a region encompassing five countries in North Africa.

Since President Barack Obama launched his initiative to work with youth in the Middle East and North Africa in a 2009 speech in Cairo, American entrepreneurs have looked to the Maghreb as a target for growing businesses. North Africa, in turn, has sought the support of the U.S.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez, who spoke at the second annual U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference in January at Marrakech, Morocco, said in a recent interview, “We felt, as we started looking at the region, that this was a place where we thought we could do some good.”

“In the U.S., entrepreneurship has been the leading job creator in the last 10 years, and it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the leading job creator in North Africa, but it’s certainly a powerful tool to try and deal with unemployment,” Fernandez said.

Scratching the Surface

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when many young North Africans protested against their governments, more youth in the Maghreb are coming to grips with the ailing economy and high unemployment. But they can’t do it on their own.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jose Fernandez speaks at the U.S.-Maghreb Entrepreneurship Conference in January 2012. (U.S. Department of State)

That’s where the U.S. comes in. While American  involvement in the region has historically been small, America’s  role in global business is too large for North Africa to ignore.

“For the U.S., it’s a strategic area at this point,” said Vanessa Zuabi, associate director of the Aspen Institute’s Partners for a New Beginning, the organization’s North Africa initiative. “I think that the U.S. can play a critical role in supporting a transition to new economic policies in the region. We traditionally have the best practices in entrepreneurship and business development that can definitely be used in the region.”

The U.S. has been working to help foster entrepreneurship, because the North African region is a budding market, Zuabi added. Four business sectors are on the rise: information technology, renewable energy, hospitality and tourism, and agribusiness.

“I think we’re scratching the surface,” Fernandez said. “It’s taken us a while to get started, in part because the situation in the region has been quite fluid, but I think we’re showing results.”

“There’s both an appetite and a need for young Americans to venture abroad and create new businesses abroad, to bring their expertise, their skills, their enthusiasm,” he said. “I think if they do that, they will find a hearty welcome.”

But Zuabi said the U.S. is not hosting such conferences to grab the leading role. Instead, these exchanges are meant to allow the U.S. to support a path to entrepreneurship, not control it.

“This is not about a bunch of Americans going to these countries and telling them what to do,” Zuabi said. “We’re not trying to give aid here; we’re trying to make sure both partners are equally invested and equally putting in resources.”

Struggling Youth

Despite the U.S.’s efforts to help them, youth in the region face an uphill battle. According to Fay Beydoun, Executive Director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, one in five people living in the Maghreb are between the ages of 15 and 24.

Fernandez said the region is experiencing  a “youth bulge,” in which the demographics are “heavily tilted towards the youth population.” Coupled with high unemployment ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent depending on the country, the area has seen unrest because of dissatisfaction with  the economy.

“These people are looking for jobs, they’re looking for work, they’re looking to make a living, to better their lives, with the extent to this largest group of young people will become healthy and productive members of society,” Beydoun said.

The root of the problem can be found in the region’s education system, which Zuabi said “needs to be completely restructured.” Much of North Africa still uses the old version of the French system of education, she said, focusing on “rote memorization [that] doesn’t encourage creativity and innovation.”

For El Yakhloufi, the answer lies with entrepreneurship – young people in the region willing to take risks, start up their own businesses and eventually create wealth.

“It’s not that the Maghreb only suffers from unemployment, the whole world suffers from unemployment,” she said. “The only solution is entrepreneurship. People will have to take initiative instead of waiting for the government to create jobs again.”

She said she plans to restart Youth Yell after finishing school and believes keeping the business in the Maghreb can be advantageous.

Having attended the entrepreneurship conference, El Yakhloufi has found connections with other business leaders in the region and in the U.S., and is optimistic about the Maghreb’s prospects.

“I’m confident about the coming years and it makes me excited that the future holds great potential for the region,” she said.