Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Project Artemis in Arizona: Training and Transformation for Women Afghan LeadersPublished: December 01, 2010
On a chilly day in early November, a group of women visitors from Afghanistan -- slipping in and out of side conversations in their native Dari -- gathered in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Some emerged from the elevator, toting suitcases behind them, while others sat down to chat with program coordinators, calling on their resident translators when necessary. The women's colorful headscarves framed warm, if not weary expressions: Today, their three-week adventure in America would come to an end as they prepared to board a plane back home to Kabul.
These 10 Afghan businesswomen, the final group of an original 19 scholars, arrived in the U.S. in late October as participants in Project Artemis -- Afghanistan, a business-skills training program at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, that aims to build the entrepreneurial skills of promising Afghan businesswomen. Ten of the 19 scholars were also graduates of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program in Kabul, an academic partnership between the American University of Afghanistan and Thunderbird to teach Afghan women valuable business skills. The women spent their first two weeks in Glendale for advanced business training and a final week in Washington, D.C., for leadership training and trips and meetings in the nation's capital and New York City.
While new knowledge was most certainly the objective during the Afghan women's busy three-week schedule, the learning was reciprocal, says Amanda Bullough, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Thunderbird and academic director of the school's 10,000 Women initiative. "Everyone on campus was enamored [of] their strength and passion for being the leaders of their country, roles they are very proud to hold despite the obstacles of the war and being surrounded by negativity," notes Bullough. "They all said passion and determination are critical to being businesswomen in Afghanistan. They feel that all Afghan women have the same strength and determination that they do -- it's a requirement for survival. These ladies all display quite a bit of resilience, self-confidence and a belief in their abilities. Those characteristics set them apart."
Observing Orderly Shelves
During their Thunderbird training, the scholars spent hours in the classroom learning hands-on business skills such as marketing, accounting, human resources and negotiation. They also ventured out on several field trips, visiting area organizations like Starshine Academy and the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. The women were each assigned a mentor from the business community who will work with them for the next two years on entrepreneurial issues. "The Arizona training was extremely beneficial and I learned many things about leadership, human resources, negotiation, finance and employment," says Fatema, owner of a carpentry business in Kabul. While out shopping, Fatema took special note of packaging and merchandising, particularly how products are arranged on store shelves. "In Afghanistan, we make chairs and couches and things, and we don't really present them in an orderly way," she adds.
Fatema especially appreciated a training session on the importance of taking care of herself and her health, a practice that is not always embraced in Afghan culture. Notes Masooma, the owner of an electrical engineering company in Kabul: "We had training about customer service in which we were also taught to think about ourselves rather than other people. Afghan women are always thinking about others: family, children -- but we never think about ourselves. I was like that, too. I decided to think about myself because if I break down, there is no other person to help."
Bullough observed another influential connection to family among the visiting Afghan entrepreneurs. "The hardest obstacle for them to overcome when wanting to venture out of the household to go to school, to work, or to start businesses, is their families," notes Bullough. "They all felt that once you win the support of your male and female family members, the rest is almost inconsequential. With their families behind them, the Taliban and other negativity are no match."
The Taliban Threat
The messages of strong leadership and personal empowerment running through the Thunderbird sessions extended to the women's time in Washington, D.C., where the first few days at Georgetown University focused on leadership training with Phyllis Magrab, director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. "We wanted them to step back and [consider] the different ways of thinking about themselves as leaders," says Eva Weigold Schultz, executive director of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, which hosted the women's trip to D.C. "Phyllis talked about the different styles of leadership -- collaborative leadership in some instances or more directive leadership in others. They also talked about how women can build their networks and strengths together, which is a new idea to women in countries like Afghanistan."
While they appreciated the leadership training, the Afghan scholars were most taken with their travels outside Georgetown, which included a gathering of the U.S./Afghan Women's Council; a luncheon with the American Chamber of Commerce and the Friends of the American University of Afghanistan; meetings with the Foreign Affairs Committee, leaders of financial services institutions working in Afghanistan and the White House Council on Women and Girls; and a trip to the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York City. The Afghan businesswomen had a chance to connect with key organizations working in their country and to address the challenges they face at home.
"It was awesome," says Malalai of her conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while in a meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council during her trip to the U.S. Malalai sells silk scarves in Kabul. "One thing that I shared with Secretary Clinton is concern over the reconciliation process with the Taliban that is going on right now," adds Malalai, who was elected executive director of a group of 10,000 Women scholars in Afghanistan. "That is a very deep concern. If this ever takes place, it is going to change the environment for all Afghan women entrepreneurs because there will be so many more restrictions."
The voices of Malalai and her fellow scholars needed to be heard, stresses Schultz, who is encouraged by the number of people and organizations that have followed up to stay in touch with the Afghan women and offer their services. "It's important for people here in Washington to be reminded of the progress that's being made that doesn't get covered. This is why we need to stay the course in Afghanistan and continue to be partners with women like these."
For the women it is about support, a precious resource that has been lost amidst the chaos of war-torn Afghanistan. "The friendships we have all made were as though we knew each other from many years ago," says Masooma. "In my country, you can't find a person to talk with to discuss your problems. There is nobody to encourage you because every person is busy with his or her own lives. When I'm here and people are encouraging me, it is a very good feeling that I can't find in my own country."