July 30, 2013

Women from Rwanda and Afghanistan learn how to expand their businesses

The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women is hosting an 18-day program to help women from Rwanda and Afghanistan learn how to expand their businesses.

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Zuhal Latif sells art in her native Afghanistan, but if her business is to flourish, she must tear down some barriers — from stereotypes about artwork in her homeland, to security worries, to learning how to make a business plan and market herself globally.

“When we start our businesses, we don’t know how to do business,” said Latif, whose business is the ASA Arts Association Center in Kabul.

Helping business women empower themselves to help developing economies is the mission of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women.

The Oklahoma City-based non-profit highlighted issues facing business women from Rwanda and Afghanistan during the Peace Through Business Program, an 18-day effort that includes mentoring sessions with U.S. business women, an economic summit and a graduation ceremony.

This year, the economic summit portion of the program was at the AT&T Training Campus in Irving. AT&T and the T. Boone Pickens Foundation were among the sponsors.

Twenty-one women participated — 14 from Rwanda and seven from Afghanistan. The program has been offered for seven years and culminates with a push to take what they learn back to their communities. Participants travel to this country for training with the help of business sponsors.

“Marginalized and oppressed”

Terry Neese, CEO/Founder of IEEW, said their focus is to empower women economically, socially and politically to help build stronger countries around the world. IEEW was started after she was invited by the Bush administration to help women in Afghanistan in 2006.

“Women were marginalized and oppressed,” Neese said.

Since 2007, when she first began the business training, Neese has seen the entrepreneurship shift from largely handicraft efforts to technical ideas such as mobile Apps and e-payment software companies.

“They are improving economic development in their countries and they are creating jobs,” Neese said.

Through the Peace Through Business program, participants receive training and mentoring from women business leaders in the United States. They mentored with women in several different cities; including Oklahoma City and Raleigh, N.C.

Emily Mutoni Butare, who owns a shipping/forwarding company in Kigali, Rwanda, received help from Susan St. Germain of Houston. St. Germain owns TransProject LLC, a shipping/forwarding company in Houston.

The two tackled how to help grow the Rwandan company and develop contacts in the industry.

Mutoni said she wants to take what she has learned back to her community in hopes of seeing the private sector grow stronger, especially because in Rwanda access to investment capital is a particular challenge for women with business ideas, she said.

Taliban worries

Monica Smiley, publisher/CEO of the magazine Enterprising Women, mentored Latif, who learned how to build a strong business plan, deal with customers and work to make a profit.

Smiley said part of their work included meeting with professionals at Raleigh’s ArtSpace to gain insight about maturing her art business. Smiley helped link Latif to public relations professionals who suggested that she partner with a restaurant to offer an exhibition on certain nights.

Latif said she will take these ideas back to Afghanistan and share them with other Afghan women, who have made gains in education and work since the Taliban lost control of the government in 2001.

But Latif said many in her country worry that gains made in recent years will be lost when U.S. troops leave the country, especially if the Taliban regains control.

Malala Yousafzai, 16, recently brought attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan during her speech to the United Nations. Malala was shot in the head on her way back from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in October because she was campaigning for girls to go to school.

“Some people say maybe the Taliban will come,” Latif said, adding that it won’t be possible for women business leaders to grow under such leadership. “They don’t let girls go to school.”

This story includes reports from wire services.

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