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Big City Smarts for Afghani Women


A three-part series on the efforts of the Business Council for Peace, a group of American businesswomen, to foster female-owned businesses in the world's conflict-prone regions

Peace Through Entrepreneurship

Aiding Afghanistan with Style

Big City Smarts for Afghani Women

Rangina finds it hard to stem her tide of tears. It's just after noon on a hot spring day in New York, and she has just heard that an acquaintance and supporter of her business has died in a bomb blast in Kandahar, Afghanistan, earlier in the day.

Afghani business owner Rangina, 29, who is among a group of women entrepreneurs from the country on a tour of U.S. fashion companies, muses, "It's tough to do business when there's the possibility of dying every time you step out." (BusinessWeek Online was asked, because of security considerations in Afghanistan, to use only the women's first names.)

The news casts a pall on the group of 12 Afghani women, who are spending the day visiting a variety of businesses, including trendy discounter Target (TGT), yarn manufacturer Lion Brand, chic Soho boutique Calypso, and high-end retailer Jeffrey.

TARGET AUDIENCE. The tour is part of a three-week intensive workshop organized by the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace), a New York-based nonprofit that won a seed grant from the U.S. State Dept. to bring talented Afghani women entrepreneurs in the apparel, accessories, and home-décor businesses to New York's fashion center to address their most critical needs -- training and access to the global marketplace.

"The objective is to have these ladies touch, feel, and see how U.S. retailers and manufacturers design, market, and price their products," says Toni Maloney, Bpeace's board president.

The first stop this day is at 8:45 a.m. at the Target store in Brooklyn. As the women enter, large cardboard signs proclaim that the store's wares are "way cool." The Afghan ladies are just getting to understand the concept of "cool" as not a temperature gauge but a popular expression for hip or trendy. Inherent in that is lesson No. 1: They have to ensure that their products fall in the "cool" category to make it to the shelves of a store like Target.

TIME TO SHOP. Inside the store, the various brightly lit sections beckon the women in all directions. Before long, they're all dispersed.

Hanifa, 45, who distributes embroidered clothing and accessories in Afghanistan, can't stop marveling at the beauty of the home furnishings, including the place mats and runners that fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi has made for Target. "It would be so easy for any of my tailors and embroidery women to make this," she coos. Bpeace volunteers want Hanifa to learn that success comes not just in making a good product, but also in keeping the quality consistent.

Many of the women also decide that this is a good place to make a few quick purchases. They find the products very expensive compared to prices in Afghanistan but are told that this is the cheapest store they will be visiting today. While underwear is the most popular pick, others choose products that are useful but not available in Afghanistan. Mahboba, 48, who would like to start a guest house for women in her country, picks up a small coffee grinder. "I can grind spices in this," she says.

LABEL LESSON. While the stores, from Target to Calypso in the trendy Soho section of Manhattan, are an eye-opener for many, they don't impress Rangina, who grew up in the U.S. before returning to Afghanistan. That is, not until she hits Jeffrey, the upscale store that features fashion labels from top designers. On one of the racks are dresses and T-shirts from Project Alabama, which features hand-cut and -stitched recycled apparel from artisans in that state.

The price tags -- $350 for a t-shirt, or $3,000 for a dress made of recycled T-shirts -- raise eyebrows. But Rangina's sharp eyes discover something that she could definitely use. A tag hanging from the outfits says something like: "Due to the hand cut and sewn quality of this garment, the size color and stitching will vary between each garment." Now that's something she could apply to the clothes that come from her own artisans.

After a few more stops at other retail stores, the mood in the bus gets a little melancholic as the news of the bomb blast filters in. A detour for ice cream is a diversion and cheers them up a little before their final stop at designer Behnaz Sarafpour's design studio in lower Manhattan.

For 20-year-old Palwasha, the trip to the hot young designer's studio is the highlight of the day. Born in Iran, Sarafpour is petite, soft spoken, and speaks Farsi, as do almost all of the women. Dressed casually in jeans, she connects with and stirs the women, most of whom are also in the clothing business and can understand at least some of the business challenges she had to surmount.

DANGEROUS RETURN. Sarafpour talks about how she derives inspiration from around the world, how she chooses fabric, and how she ensures that the factories don't make mistakes when translating her designs. "I make sure my trusted seamstress makes the first dress that can act as a sample for the factory," says Sarafpour.

The tips are invaluable for these women, and Sarafpour is an inspiration for Palwasha, who hopes to go to design school one day. "I don't know how I will do it, but I want to learn to design," says Palwasha, who supervises the clothing production for the Kabul office of Tarsian & Blinkley, a high-end clothing company founded by designer Sarah Takesh, whose work features Afghan artisanship.

The day ends on a high note, as they take pictures with Sarafpour and head out to an event to meet with Iranian civil rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. The tears may have dried by then, but Rangina is well aware that unlike the business owners that she has visited, she will return to Afghanistan, where the fear of bomb blasts or the kidnapping of any of her 300 female employees looms. Hopefully, though, the business lessons fostered by the trip will help pave the way to end those fears.

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