04.10.137:00 AM ET

Dr. Hawa Abdi: Empower Somalia's Businesswomen

After years of fighting, Somalia is ready to rebuild its economy. Nobel nominee Dr. Hawa Abdi and Dell's Steve Felice speak about the importance of investing in women in emerging markets.

At the close of the Clinton Global Initiative University this past weekend, former president Bill Clinton told Stephen Colbert that the one lingering problem he’d most like to tackle is "the disparity in treatment between boys and girls and women and men." Earlier in the day, two leaders from seemingly unrelated worlds—Dr. Hawa Abdi, a co-host of the 2013 Women in the World Summit, who has provided refuge to more than 100,000 displaced people since the start of Somalia’s civil war, and Steve Felice, president and chief commercial officer of Dell—took part in a panel, moderated by Chelsea Clinton, that addressed this very issue. Afterwards, Abdi and her daughter Deqo Mohamed sat down with Felice, bringing together the worlds of a remote displaced person’s camp and big tech to connect on common goals—and shared challenges.

Sarah J. Robbins: You’ve established initiatives that seem very different but that each promote women’s entrepreneurship. Dr. Abdi and Deqo, your foundation has a Women’s Education Center. Why, with the many needs in Somalia, have you chosen to do this?

Deqo Mohamed: After we started the education center in 2008, the goal shifted from just providing education to fight malnutrition and female genital mutilation—practiced by 98 percent of Somali people—to include language and math instruction. You see, many of the women living with us were already in the market, selling vegetables, fruit or clothing. Though they had businesses, they couldn’t succeed—since they couldn’t do their own calculations, someone else was taking their profits. We gave them basic knowledge to empower them, as well as the skills to make handcrafts, which they can also sell.

Steve, tell me about the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network.

Steve Felice: As we realized that in both emerging markets and the developed world, the small businesses have been creating more economic developmentthan the big companies, we also saw the emergence of women who were getting into the workforce from an ownership standpoint. I was blown away by these entrepreneurs’ level of skill and creativity but also by their networking ability. We thought: We need to get these capable people together who aren’t competing against each other but working together—it’s good for our business, and it’s also good for the global economy.

What is the biggest challenge right now when it comes to trying to empower women in the developing world?

Hawa Abdi: In Somalia, it’s skills and education. We’re past the mode of war—we just had our first election—and people are eager to take their life over and to make a difference. So our first challenge is to educate them, to expose them to new ideas and channel their energy properly. We have fertile land, for example, but we need training for smart farming. We also need tools—tractors, and engines for pumping water and irrigation. We have a huge seaside, rich in seafood, but our people are dying of starvation because we are lacking education and tools to fish.

Mohamed: Having technology is also important, to motivate both girls and boys as they see that they have access to the world. To show them what’s going on in Pakistan, for example, to tell them about Malala, that will teach them to pursue their own education and stand up for their rights.

Felice: That relates to the number one constraint that I see: access to capital. Women need the technology, but in order to get it, they need money. It shouldn’t be difficult—the ideas are great, the businesses are sound—but the conventional way that institutions loan money doesn’t always work. Some of what we do to help is provide basic training on how to produce a business plan, and on how to simply ask for money—something that many women are afraid of. We’ve also created some of our own funding methods, and we’re part of many other initiativesto influence policymaking so that more credit can become available.

Dr. Abdi, are the women that you’re working with Somalia afraid to ask? How has the culture there and the constraints of years of rule by fundamentalist Islamist militants affected them?

Abdi: For years, just being a woman, you weren’t allowed to have capacity. I wasn’t allowed to run a camp or a hospital—and I was even attacked for it—for this simple reason.

Mohamed: Somali women are active—they are breadwinners—but they don’t take credit for the fact that during the civil war, when the men were fighting, they were the ones sitting in the market, selling. As we give them the opportunity to have their own business, we also have to give them self-confidence: We say, If it wasn’t for you, Somalia wouldn’t have survived.

How have the women in your networks expanded on the work that you started?

Abdi: Sixty percent of thousands in our camp arewomen and children. Over the past 22 years, we have taught them that they were equal to their husbands, that they could defend their rights, to do any job. We’ve employed many of them as nurses and midwives. They have learned from each other’s example, and now, they are ready to become self-sufficient.

Felice: This is the network’s fourth year, and we are just entering a period where we’re going to see exponential growth. There is so much evidence that the thousands of women in our network are already paying it forward, helping each other and bringing new entrepreneurs into the fold. This year we want to challenge 10,000 women to help 10 people each, and then to get that 100,000 to help 10 people. So by 2015, we will impact a million women. The scale is exciting, and we see ourselves as an enabler—it’s really the doers that have the great ideas. And some of our success is personal—it can’t be found on a spreadsheet. For me, really, a lot of the impact can best be felt sitting and meeting with women and seeing their potential.

And on the flip side, Deqo, what have you learned about the commitment of companies like Dell to the type of work that you are doing?

Mohamed: I think the world is getting better. Before it was rich companies in their own world, while the rest of the world is suffering. Now there is emerging an understanding, a willingness to support—an idea that if you don’t fix a problem, it will get to you. We’re losing this ego, this “us and them.” We’re developing a “we.” Even if these companies don’t give anything, or give a small amount, it’s inspiring to feel know that they understand what we do.