11.05.10

Risky Business for Afghan Female CEOs

Fatima was 15 when she launched her own business—a construction company in war-torn Afghanistan. On a visit to New York, after graduating from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women program, she talked about the future of her country, and the challenges ahead.

At an age when other kids have barely graduated from the lemonade stand, Fatima started her own business. She was 15 years old—and headstrong. Not only did she choose a line of work not normally associated with teenage girls—heavy-duty construction work—but she started her company in Afghanistan, the war-torn country where she'd grown up.

Today, eight years later, Fatima—an engaging, clear-spoken woman now 23—employs 76 engineers and construction workers who are spread out across Afghanistan's restive provinces. And although she is reluctant to talk dollars and cents, it is clear that her business—rebuilding her country's roads, among other things—is booming.

Almost a decade into the U.S. occupation, Afghanistan remains a country infested by corruption and riddled by a lack of reliable electricity and infrastructure. There is also the ever-present threat of kidnapping and violence. And for women in Afghanistan, the future is especially uncertain.

"If the U.S. leaves," Fatima predicted, "the situation will be very bad."

After a Wednesday luncheon in New York to honor graduates of Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women program in Afghanistan, Fatima spoke on a panel with Dina Powell of Goldman Sachs and Gayle Lemmon, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and contributor to The Daily Beast.  Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, moderated the panel.

"It's hard enough to launch a new business anywhere—but try doing it in a place where, thanks to decades of war, pretty much everything is imported, where women are constrained by their culture—frequently not allowed to work outside the home, or travel without a male escort," Brown said. She added that Fatima and three other Afghan women who took part in the event—Masooda, Malalai, and a second Fatima—had all overcome those obstacles. (The Afghan women could only be identified by their first names because of security concerns.)

"Every morning, stand in front of the mirror and say, 'I am a woman and I am powerful.'"

In Washington, there has been much talk about July 2011—the date that President Barack Obama has set as the deadline for the beginning of American military withdrawal.

But what that means for Afghan women, such as Fatima, is rarely discussed in foreign-policy circles. And women have not been invited to sit at the table during much debated reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, even though one of the original fig leafs for the U.S. invasion was the liberation of Afghan women. As Lemmon wrote recently: "The question Afghan women ask now is: In the world's rush for an exit from their war-scarred nation, will they again lose their rights?"

"It's very, very hard right now," said Powell, who runs the 10,000 Women campaign, adding that the Afghan women's hope and courage "need to be doubly recognized" because of it.

Doing business in Afghanistan as a woman is complicated not only by security and logistics but also by traditional gender roles. Many women find they have to take on a male business partner as the meet-and-greet required by marketing products carry stigma for a woman—and possible danger. "I get treated as a second-rate person," said Fatima, later adding that she had not been threatened directly but had received several anonymous emails warning her that it wasn't right for a woman to do what she was doing.

"Security is a big challenge right now," agreed Masooda, who began a jam- and pickle-making business after she realized that many such products in her hometown near Kabul were imported from Iran and Pakistan, and she could make and sell them at a competitive price.

"The obstacles are endless [but] people are always finding ways around the challenges," Lemmon told the gathering of women that included Gillian Tett, the U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times; television host Kathleen Parker, and former Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend. Also present were Joan Ganz Cooney, co-creator of Sesame Street, and Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now business executive, who with her husband, Nicholas Kristof, wrote the book, Half the Sky, about how to realize the economic power of women.

Clearly, during their first trip to America, the Afghan women had learned to polish their elevator pitch—and to mingle.

Marketing skills is one of the things the 10,000 Women program teaches as part of its on-the-ground business curriculum. The $100 million program, inaugurated a little more than two years ago as the bank's primary philanthropic effort, now helps women in 21 countries, including Nigeria, Peru, and Rwanda. The program in Afghanistan is run in conjunction with the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Asked what she had learned taking the program, Fatima said it had helped her draw up a business plan and expand her company. But the most valuable lesson was empowerment, she added.

"It was something my teacher told me," she said. "'Every morning, stand in front of the mirror and say, 'I am a woman and I am powerful.' And I realized—there is no difference between me and my brother."

But, when it comes to return on the dollar, there is, as countless studies have shown.

When Goldman Sachs researchers, for example, investigated the best use of philanthropic funds before launching 10,000 Women, they found that, dollar-for-dollar, women are a better investment than men—as Kristof and other columnists have also pointed out.

It was a message the four Afghan women had the opportunity to present directly to the administration. Before their trip to New York, they had gone to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke as well as department of Defense officials.

So what did the women say in D.C.?

Masooda put it bluntly: "Don't forget the Afghan women."

Louise Roug is an editor at The Daily Beast. She previously worked as a foreign and national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, living in Baghdad and the Middle East for several years. She is a Pulitzer finalist and a recipient of a Hal Boyle Award from the Overseas Press Club. She just finished her first book.