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Spreading the Word in Iraq

In Oakland, small-business consultant Ted Hilliard works for retailers, light manufacturers, and service companies. But just a year ago, Hilliard was serving a vastly different clientele: fledgling Iraqi entrepreneurs.

As part of a nine-month assignment with the U.S. Army's 351st Civil Affairs Command, Hilliard designed entrepreneurial training materials, organized a small-business conference, and counseled would-be business owners in Kirkuk. As he recently told Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein, he also learned to live with daily violence, wrote a blog, weekonthebeach, and survived a bomb attack. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

It's a long way from doing small-business bookkeeping to dodging bombs in a war zone. How did you make the journey?

I was in my late 20s and looking for something exciting to do in my spare time. I had been an Eagle Scout and enjoyed a sort of military atmosphere, so I went to a recruiter and said I was good at figuring things out and solving problems. He suggested that I become a reservist with the Special Operations Command, which includes Civil Affairs.

This was back in 1997, when it was probably hard to imagine that the U.S. would be embroiled in a war in the near future.

Absolutely! For the first few years I went on one-, two- or three-week missions, mostly to Asia, doing things like helping local governments build schools and organizing medical civil action plans. I got to help people and see life outside the U.S. It was much more rewarding than I could have imagined.

When did you learn that your next assignment would be in Iraq?

I got a call on a Monday night in July, 2004, telling me about the mission and asking how quickly I could be ready. I said I could report that Saturday.

How did you manage to keep your business running during your absence, and what did your family think?

I'm fortunate because I have a wonderful staff of 18 that can execute the processes needed to allow a successful business to run, and my dad is a retired accountant, so he steps in to help out when I am not around. My two daughters, who are 11 and 13, were kind of excited but they were also worried about how much they would miss me. They were my biggest concern, but I want my kids to be proud of me, and this gave them something to be proud of.

What did you spend your time doing in Kirkuk?

It was more or less similar to what I do right here in my role working with the Small Business Development Center, with the huge difference that I had to put on body armor and check my weapons and race through town to get to work safely. I have developed training programs for startup entrepreneurs here in the Bay Area that I was able to adapt for the citizens of that region and have translated into Arabic.

So I was teaching programs in business accounting, finance, computers, office administration, marketing, sales, and human resources. I also set up a research center to analyze the existing local businesses and identify the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises there. Our goal was to help the Iraqi business owners understand how a global business should be run so that they can become competitive with China and other developing countries.

How sophisticated was the local business community you were serving?

Much of the population there had never seen a computer. There have been two generations of people who only worked for the government, so they don't understand things like customer service, profitability, or human resources, especially equal opportunity and the idea that you can't discriminate by hiring just people from one ethnic or political group or another.

But there is great enthusiasm and many people who are really excited about starting their own businesses now that the markets are opening up. I had my staff send over copies of QuickBooks accounting software, and the people were thrilled to get training on it so they could update their bookkeeping systems.

How receptive was the population to learning from the U.S. military?

I set up the Kirkuk Business Center to function like a not-for-profit, even though it got its funding from the U.S. and the coalition. I wanted people to feel as comfortable as possible going there.

At first, a lot of them were very sensitive and untrusting. Some of our local staff members had to quit after they were threatened because they were working for us. But really, I found that people are the same everywhere. Everybody wants the opportunity to feed their family, rise up to a higher status in the world, and make a difference.

What was the security situation like?

Kirkuk is safe compared to Baghdad and Central Iraq, but needless to say, there were things blowing up every day. On a bad day, there'd be one or two car bombs. On a good day, we'd only have IADS [integrated air defense systems] and rockets or mortars.

I lived in a secure compound with Kurdish guards and I went to work at a Kirkuk government compound that was inside a secure area. The tough part was making the seven-minute, fast-and-furious race through the city in an armored vehicle to get to work and back again.

By far the scariest moment was on Oct. 28, 2004, when I was driving my team home and we got blown up by an IAD. My gunner got hit with shrapnel when two chunks of metal came at us, shotgunned the inside of the vehicle, and blasted holes in the air conditioner and the seats.

The car wasn't disabled, so somehow I was able to keep driving. We were only 500 meters from our compound, so I was able to get us in before there was any secondary attack. That was a hair-raising event.

I would say so! What was the most rewarding part of the job?

I was able to get the Web site up, do some one-on-one counseling, and organize a large business conference with corporate sponsors. I felt like I was able to help plant the seeds with a group of local business and political leaders in the region about ways to improve the small-business environment. I also drove down to Baghdad, which was a wild ride, and presented a program about the opportunities in Kirkuk at an international business enterprise conference.

Surely the best way to improve the business environment would be to improve the security situation there.

Yes. But we found that there's a direct correlation between opportunity, hope, and security. People who have hope and opportunity don't have the frustration that leads them to turn to violence to change things.

If they have a goal and they can see that there's a plan for themselves and their families, they can choose the nonviolent route. Even with all the scary things that happened, I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was wonderful to be able to help people and to see that what we were doing there was starting to work.


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