Women Entrepreneurs: Right Under the Noses of the Taliban

Your initial image of Afghanistan is probably war, Taliban, bombings, insurgency, and corruption. And you'd think of girls and women as victims. Think again. Think innovative, successful women entrepreneurs. Indeed. In her numerous visits to Afghanistan and other conflict and post-conflict regions in the world, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon discovered another reality as well: that it is commonplace for teenage girls and women to build successful businesses in order to support and feed their families while the men are fighting.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

The Dressmaker of Khair KhanaIn her new book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, Lemmon brings this point to light by telling us the compelling story of one heroic teenage girl—Kamila Sidiq. In the spring of 1997, Kamila and her little sisters began what became a thriving business in her home in Khair Khana, just outside of Kabul, right under the noses of the Taliban. After sewing and selling a few dresses to feed her family, she ultimately built an enterprise that would train and employ many dozens of relatives and friends so that they could support their families as well. At tremendous personal risk, Kamila sourced fabrics, developed markets for the dresses among area shopkeepers, established an assembly line process, priced the goods, and managed sales and human resources—including the carefully timed flow of employees over an 18-hour cycle in order to escape notice of the Taliban.

"Women have survived and succeeded as entrepreneurs during times of war," Lemmon told me in a private interview. Lemmon has been an experienced journalist and correspondent for NBC, ABC, and the Financial Times; she is a Harvard MBA graduate and a Fulbright Scholar. She is the daughter of a single mother who held two jobs so that Lemmon would have an education and help change the world for the better. "My charge," said Lemmon, "is to balance the ledger—to remind people of the work that women do every day for their families in communities here in the U.S. and around the world. These are stories of survival and success."

Lemmon's research involved numerous visits to Khair Khana from 2005 to 2010 to meet with Kamila, her family and friends, to hear the story in order to share it with the world. "These women are the unsung heroines who are saving the world," said Lemmon. In a discussion among VIP women at Fenton,one person asked Lemmon how she could withstand the fear and danger of walking the streets of Kabul, knowing that it was not uncommon for fellow correspondents to be kidnapped and killed. Lemmon responded that she often asked herself the same question, but was motivated by her passion "to tell the story."

Bear Witness. Tell the Story. Take Action.

Several years ago, I froze in my place by the signage over a Holocaust exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It said, "Bear Witness. Tell the Story. Take Action." This was and is so powerful to me. I often refer to those three "commandments" in training nonprofit boards. And I thought of that as I listened to Lemmon. At such great risk to herself, Lemmon traveled to Kabul to meet with Kamila, her relatives, and friends so that she could bear witness. And Lemmon wrote the book and speaks all around the world to tell the story.

For Lemmon, I believe that one of her actions is in fact telling the story, since she is tireless in that role; she feels a responsibility to Kamila and the women who embraced her and trusted her with their stories. Lemmon also sees her role as being an active advocate for investment in women entrepreneurs, making the case that they are this country's best allies in building more stable and prosperous communities in war-torn countries.

I asked Lemmon what roles others can play. She encourages companies and our government to help provide access to capital and to markets—the two biggest obstacles to women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict countries. She urges lawmakers to target and support loan guaranty programs (such as USAID in Bosnia that helps to provide risk capital); shipping companies and others to find creative ways to help women entrepreneurs to export their goods to markets (or via public-private partnerships); and aid programs to help subsidize the export of goods. And Lemmon lists a number of NGOs and nonprofits at the back of her book for all of us to support.

Lemmon praised Bpeace, a nonprofit that involves business volunteers in providing training and mentoring to women entrepreneurs in war-torn countries. Actually, Lemmon found Kamila through Bpeace. And the host for the Fenton VIP discussion with Lemmon was Susan McPherson, Senior V.P. of Fenton and board member of Bpeace.

Lemmon also commended Goldman-Sachs's 10,000 Women for its work in advancing entrepreneurs. And Lemmon serves on the board of directors of the International Center for Research on Women, a highly effective organization in facilitating for-profit/nonprofit collaborations for innovative programs that are evidence-based.

Women, Money, and Power

Lemmon quotes Kamila explaining that, "Money is power for women ... If women have their own income to bring to the family, they can contribute and make decisions. Their brothers, their husbands, and their entire families will have respect for them." In her conversation with me, Lemmon further elaborated that once women build businesses, they also quite naturally engage in politics, where decisions affect their enterprises.

In 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited Kamila to address members of the U.S. Congress, diplomats and business people, Lemmon reports that Kamila "spoke about how business and education transformed women's lives, and how this change had led to another extraordinary development: women in Afghanistan taking part in the political process. 'This partnership between America and my country, it's a good and helpful beginning. Together, I believe that we can and will make even more progress in building a more stable and successful Afghanistan.'"

Take Action: Read an Amazing Book

The Dressmaker is a riveting and important book. Lemmon wrote this book seeking to change the conversation about women. She's already making great headway. And as to our despair about war-torn countries, Lemmon says that, "Women are not only resourceful breadwinners," but also that, "Entrepreneurs are optimists." When so much is wrong all around us, this story helps show the way forward—advancing women entrepreneurs.

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