Between the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the recent questions raised about the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s, Three Cups of Tea, Afghanistan is once again in the American consciousness. For these reasons alone, it’s a perfect time to read the new bestseller by veteran journalist and Harvard MBA, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
In the book, Lemmon describes how a family of sisters struggles to live and thrive against insurmountable odds in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Initially, I was drawn to the story to understand a country in which the U.S. plays a key role but whose people, culture and history remain mysteries to me. And I wanted to learn how I could continue the momentum behind the important effort to help the women and girls of Afghanistan.
What I didn’t expect, however, was that Kamila Sidiqi, the young, brave Afghan dressmaker, would become the inspiration that I needed to move my business forward. Like me, any business owner who reads her harrowing tale can’t help but think, “If Kamila Sidiqi can do it, then I certainly can.”
By way of background (and not give too much of the book away), Kamila Sidiqi is a young woman living in a section of Kabul, Afghanistan called Khair Khana when the Taliban take over. Life radically changes especially for women.
Formerly a proud student, Kamila and her sisters are not only forced out of school but are required to completely cover themselves in public and to be accompanied by a male when leaving the house. If they don’t, they are beaten (or worse) by Taliban enforcers who police the once prosperous and teeming streets of their town.
Already struggling to figure out a way to earn money, their circumstances deteriorate further when her parents and older brother are forced to flee Kabul. Because travel is too dangerous for the remaining children, Kamila is faced with the challenge of how to feed her sisters and brothers. Even though she has never sewn a piece of clothing, she decides dressmaking will be her family’s answer … and so her amazing story begins.
She quietly builds her thriving business under the nose of the Taliban. And she intuitively follows key principles that are important for any business owner to remember if he or she wants to succeed:
1) Stick with what you do well and hand over everything else to others. When she realized that her lack of expertise in dressmaking was going to limit the volume and quality they could produce, she convinced her sister who was an accomplished seamstress to move in and help her. The other girls took turns watching the sister’s frail twins allowing her to work. This freed up Kamila to focus on what she did best–marketing and sales (albeit under constant threat of arrest and having to rely on her younger brother to serve as chaperone and translator to the male shopkeepers they supplied).
2) Give your business a social purpose beyond the products and services you offer. Word spreads amongst the suffering families of Khair Khana that Kamila Sidiqi had found a way to make money and feed her siblings. Soon other girls and women show up at her front door asking for work. Kamila then begins training these women to start businesses in their own homes. She understands that “Money is power for women.” Showing them how to make it was an indirect way to fight the oppression of the Taliban.
3) When one door shuts, another opens. Being resourceful, brave and persistent will pay off. The miraculous successes that result from the bravery of this one young woman are remarkable … read to find out more!
Kamila Sidiqi is resilient, creative and persistent in the face of seemingly endless roadblocks that make the issues entrepreneurs encounter in the developed world seem inconsequential.
As my grandmother once said to me, “You’re a healthy, educated woman living in the U.S. today. Your life is all runway. Fly high.” I can go out in public wearing whatever I choose. I don’t need to be accompanied by a male chaperone. I can talk to whomever I want, whenever I want. And I don’t have to worry that I will be beaten if I dare to challenge those rules. There’s a responsibility not to waste that freedom and opportunity.
After hearing Kamila Sidiqi’s story, all of the little day-to-day challenges and roadblocks that keep me from taking my business to the next level seemed less daunting. If the dressmaker of Khair Khana can do it, we all can. In fact, on some level, we must.
What do you think? When the open runway is part of your normal, daily life, is it easy to become overwhelmed by challenges and roadblocks that, in comparison, are inconsequential? Do we have a responsibility to honor the bravery of women like Kamila Sidiqi and leverage our freedom and opportunity to their fullest? What is our responsibility to support them directly?