Peace Through Business: AT&T Empowers Women in Afghanistan, Rwanda

DiversityInc, July 16th, 2010

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By Sam Ali

Growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, planting and harvesting wheat and cotton, entrepreneur Terry Neese learned early about the value of taking risks. "You are dependent on things you can't control, like weather and insects," she says.

"You plant the seeds and you never know what you are going to harvest because you don't know what is going to happen. Being a farmer is true entrepreneurship."

So when she got a cold call from the State Department in 2006 asking if she would be interested in designing a program to help women business owners in Afghanistan, the farmer in Neese kicked into high gear.

Neese, a successful small-business owner herself and the former national president of the National Association of Women Business Owners, had spent the bulk of her career advocating and empowering women small-business owners all over the country. As founder of the nonprofit Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, she was a nationally recognized motivational speaker and published author on the topic of economic expansion and empowerment of women business owners.

Still, Neese admits the prospect of going to Afghanistan in a 50-pound flight jacket on a military plane flanked by body guards threw her for a loop. But after giving it some more thought, Neese had a change of heart. "My motivation was to build peace and bridges in Afghanistan," she says.

Today, Neese's Peace through Business program is entering its fourth year, training women entrepreneurs in war-torn countries on basic business practices.

Promoting Gender Equality

Research shows that education is a key ingredient when it comes to promoting gender equality across the globe. The impact is felt not only in women's lifetimes but also in the health, education, productivity and economic well-being of future generations, Neese says.

With generous donations from major corporate sponsors such as AT&T, No. 3 in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity®, and financier T. Boone Pickens (a personal friend and "fellow Okie," according to Neese), the program has grown to include not only Afghani women but Rwandan women as well. Neese says they hope to add a third country next year.

"It is so rewarding for us to have the opportunity to connect women on a global level," says AT&T Senior Vice President of Talent Development and Chief Diversity Officer Cindy Brinkley. "No matter who we are–Afghan, Rwandan or American–we all have to start somewhere as women in the business world. Our challenges–and opportunities–are more similar than one might expect."

The AT&T Foundation donated $100,000 in 2010 to help support the program. The company says it became involved because it provided an opportunity to shape AT&T's reputation in the worldwide diversity community and to profoundly impact the economic prosperity and progress of women in developing countries.

Leadership Development & Mentoring

In June, 24 women business owners in Afghanistan and Rwanda who successfully completed an eight-week training course in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Kigali, Rwanda, came to the United States for three weeks of leadership development and mentoring. This involved high-level business leadership and public-policy training at Northwood University in Cedar Hill, Texas.

After leadership development, the Afghani and Rwandan women spent about 10 days with American women business owners in matched professions, living in their homes and going to work with them each day. This year, for example, the program matched a dairy farmer from Rwanda with a woman dairy farmer in North Carolina and a bee keeper from Afghanistan with a woman bee keeper with 600 hives in upper Michigan.

Empowering & Educating Woman

Afghan student Sakina Ibrahimi, 35, a businesswoman and women's-rights activist who attended this year's program, says she hopes her U.S. training will empower her to expand her shoe factory into more provinces and have a stronger voice in the public-policy arena. Ibrahimi has organized public demonstrations against unjust laws toward women.

"In the past, women haven't had any impact on public policy or social activity," Ibrahimi says. "But after having this protest, I was awed. I realized I can be independent and can have everything men have. Now, we must change the minds of men."

Neese founded her own small business, Terry Neese Personnel Services, almost 35 years ago when she was only 21. She was schooled on the importance of politics and public policy the hard way: "I purchased a building in 1976 in Oklahoma City for my personnel service and I got a great deal on the building," she says.

What she didn't realize was that construction for a major interstate was about to get under way, blocking access to her building for nearly three years.

"I didn't realize you could reach out to elected officials and ask for help. That learning experience really made me focus on public policy. You never know if you are going to need an elected official, and when you need them is not the time to get to know them," she says.

Neese now trains women business owners, both here and abroad, on the importance of getting to know their local, state and federal officials.

Paying It Forward

An important element of the Peace through Business program is the promise that these women from Afghanistan and Rwanda will "pay forward" their education to other women in their countries. To understand the program's impact, one need only track the progress of some of its alumni.

Taj Sirat, a 2007 graduate of the program, ran a business hand-sewing soccer balls and volleyballs in Afghanistan. When she first came to the United States as part of the Peace through Business program three years ago, she employed 40 women and earned $6,000 in annual revenues. Today, her revenues have increased by 400 percent and she has hired an additional 160 more women.

"She now has 200 employees and she is running for parliament in Afghanistan," Neese says proudly.