In the Business of Peace

 

Written by Rachel Jones in the August 2009 Issue
Tens of thousands of American soldiers currently watch over Afghanistan. Their mission: restore stability to a broken country. Freedom and democracy don’t flourish in unstable countries. Dr. Terry Neese of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women shares that mission. But she pursues it in a different fashion. Her organization hopes to bring stability to Afghanistan’s economy by tutoring, teaching and supporting female business owners in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries.

“I really believe this is an extension of what our soldiers are doing in Afghanistan,” says Neese. “If you teach and educate women in developing countries, they’ll educate their families and their villages. These women go back with all the knowledge they gained here and teach other women in their country about freedom, entrepreneurship and democracy. Teaching them those leadership skills is vital to rebuilding their country.”

Founded by Neese in 2006, The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women is a nonprofit organization in Oklahoma City that educates and mentors women in the U.S. and abroad who have the desire to grow their businesses and become more involved with public policy.  Shortly after its founding, the organization began another program, Peace through Business, designed to help women business owners in Afghanistan. Neese’s first thoughts about working with businesses in Afghanistan were daunting, but when she saw the need and the opportunities for the women there, she knew it was a calling.

The Institute brings Afghan women to the U.S., where they participate for four weeks in an entrepreneurial program and earn a mini-MBA. The women are then mentored by local Oklahoma City women business owners, living and working for one week to experience their classroom knowledge in real situations. After the program’s first summer in 2007, the president of Oklahoma Christian University contacted Neese, asking her to start a similar program at the university for Rwandan women. Now, more than 100 Afghan and Rwandan women have been directly educated through the Peace through Business program. Fourteen Afghan and sixteen Rwandan students will make the journey to America this month.

This year when the students come to the U.S., they won’t be coming for mini-MBA’s and four-week classes. They’ll already have their basic business training because for the first time, 2007 and 2008 Peace through Business alumni returned to their home countries in Afghanistan and Rwanda and taught business classes, educating other women businesses owners.

The students coming in August will attend a conference in Dallas, where they’ll take leadership development classes and participate in an International Women’s Economic Summit. They’ll be able to focus on their own countries and how leaders can make differences in infrastructure, job creation, and economic development, instead of learning basic business practices.

After the conference, students travel the country to be mentored by American women business owners. A coffee bean plantation owner from Rwanda was placed with a woman who owns a coffee bean plantation in Pasadena, California. A dairy farmer from Rwanda is going to North Carolina to work with a woman who owns a dairy farm. In Oklahoma, 23-year-old Afghan Roqia Razia Sajjadi has been placed with Edmond resident, Nancy Hyde, owner of Hyde and
Company CPAs.

“I thought I was out of luck because there are probably not a lot of accounting businesses in Rwanda and Afghanistan, but lucky for me there are,” says Hyde.

Sajjadi started her business, a financial consulting services company, and hopes that through her efforts and education she can help rebuild Afghanistan. But their choice of business ventures isn’t the only thing they have in common, either. “She has three employees now, but when I started my business I had four. I’ve gone from four to eighteen so I still remember what it was like when it was smaller. She wants to expand her company in Afghanistan,” says Hyde. “Even if the businesses were different, the issues that we deal with are the same, whether it’s with employees, cash flow, or customers’ claims. The business side is a lot of the same things that we all deal with.”

“The success that these women are having is incredible,” says Neese. “One owns a soccer ball manufacturing company that hand-sews soccer balls, volleyballs, and footballs. When she came here in 2007, she didn’t know how to put a financial statement together, didn’t have any idea what her annual revenues were and didn’t have a business plan. Today she can tell you that her revenues are up 17 percent, she’s hired 53 new people since going through the Peace through Business program and now has 253 women that sew for her. She’s also running for parliament as a free-market candidate. That’s huge.” One by one, women business owners are creating a brighter future for countries like Afghanistan and Rwanda.

To learn more about the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women and the Peace through Business program, check out their website at www.ieew.org
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