When women have an economic stake in their communities, they'll have a stronger hand in shaping their communities and ultimately in promoting peace. That's the main contention of the nonprofit group Business Council for Peace (www.bpeace.com/). It was formed in 2002, when a handful of American businesswomen attending the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a gathering of 700 religious and lay women in Geneva, Switzerland, decided that the best way to achieve a lasting peace was to help women in war-torn countries develop sustainable businesses.
Currently, Bpeace's coalition of over 130 American women from the ranks of such companies as American Express (AXP), Citigroup (C), and Lehman Brothers (LEH) support female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and Rwanda, as well as Israeli and Palestinian women. Their mission is to provide the fledgling businesswomen with mentoring and training in the development of regional and global markets for their products and services.
Along with Avega (an organization of some 25,000 Rwandan genocide widows), Bpeace has helped a collective of women members of the once-warring Hutu and Tutsi tribes sell their handcrafted baskets in the U.S. The project, which has brought in more than $350,000, has helped to make the baskets one of Rwanda's largest nonagricultural exports. And last year, the group helped bring together an Israeli-Palestinian partnership to produce candles, which were marketed in the U.S.
For the past two years, Bpeace has been working with a group of Afghani entrepreneurs engaged in textile, apparel, and other cottage industries. The organization brought 22 of them to New York in late May for an intensive three-week program, working with business leaders, retailers, and educators.
BusinessWeek Online reporter Stacy Perman recently spoke with Toni Maloney, Bpeace's board president and the founder of Maloney Group, a marketing-strategy firm based in New York, about the organization, the prospects of building peace through small businesses, and the effort to create women-led Afghani businesses. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Many nonprofit programs help women in business, such as microfinance initiatives. How is Bpeace different?
A:Our strategy is to focus in these regions on what we call the "fast runners." These women are literate in their own language and already have fledgling businesses. Our program isn't to simply help women directly but to help them create peace in their communities. To do that means job creation. Many of the nonprofits typically focus on the most needy. We focus on businesswomen in regions of conflict.
Q: Why did you choose Afghanistan, Rwanda, and the Middle East as the areas in which to direct your efforts?
A:We identified Afghanistan and Rwanda as a result of UNIFEM [the U.N. Development Fund for Women] pointing us there. These women in particular were marginalized and would benefit from the business training and an opening up to international markets.
In the case of Israel/Palestine, that came from several women in Bpeace who had expressed an interest in working with the women there. We struggled to define projects in each place. We had to go there and meet the women and listen to what their needs might be.
Q: Will you be expanding your geographical areas of focus?
A:Yes, we're businesspeople, we're ambitious, but we're also pragmatic. We want to make sure we're strong in the three regions before we scale to other regions. While we have activity going on, activity doesn't necessarily translate to success on the ground. We want to make sure this has a positive effect on the women, their families, and communities, and creates jobs.
In terms of the current Afghan trip, our metric isn't a flawless three-week trip to New York but in six months or a year, are their businesses larger, have they made profits, have they created jobs? We're taking things slow.
Q: What have been some of the biggest challenges?
A:One of the biggest is simply traveling to these regions. Bpeace members fund them out of their own pockets. Our trip to Afghanistan cost us about $4,000 per member. Then there are security issues in going to these areas. Often, they're under U.S. State Dept. travel advisories.
Next is to identify women with the characteristics of business leaders in these places. There's also the challenge of long-distance mentoring. The idea of mentoring isn't intuitive to many of them. And there are the challenges of language and technology. Not all of these women have access to computers.
Q: Describe some moments in which you've seen your work make a real impact.
A:We were in Kabul [Afghanistan] in February, and we brought a former J.P. Morgan mergers-and-acquisition analyst. We asked him to teach the women a class in finance. We gave them calculators.
People told us that these women wouldn't respond to this content. But literally, you could see the lightbulbs going off in their heads. He was talking about direct and indirect costs, and they understood why they weren't making money. They didn't want to let him leave, and they asked him to come back for a second day of training. That was a big moment.
Also, we've received letters from some of the women in Rwanda who were survivors of the genocide there. They told us that the sale of these baskets not only brings them an income but self-worth. Baskets were something they grew up making, but finding that the rest of the world finds them valuable is very meaningful to them.
Q: What are you hoping to accomplish in bringing these Afghan women to New York?
A:The problem in Afghanistan is that the women have excellent embroidery and tailoring skills but have been isolated for so long. The world has passed them by in quality standards. Even in the local market, Afghanis are not buying Afghani products. They aren't as good quality as those mass-produced in India, China, and Pakistan.
They have to understand what quality is in the 21st century. Also, they need to have a better sense of what people are willing to buy. We're hoping that through inspiration here and nuts-and-bolts design and product development we can help them to create products that consumers demand.
Q: What's the next step in terms of sustaining their operations and expanding to help other women and regions?
A:Two Bpeace members will escort the women back and stay in Afghanistan for two weeks and try to give some stickiness to what they learned in New York, and to apply it right away. They'll leave here with a 100-day plan developed with their mentors.
We have to help these women through encouragement and simply to offer other tactical help to create a multiplier effect. These women collectively employ 450 people. They need to spread what they learned to inculcate their employees, and we want them to go and educate other Afghans. We want to give them training tools so they can spread the word.
Q: Clearly, you're focused on the women entrepreneurs, but what about the men in these communities?
A:We have done things to keep the men motivated and have included them in English classes and computer training. Women are agents of change and peace, but we don't want to be exclusionary to men and have unintended negative consequences. Many businesses are family-owned. The women in our programs haven't have gotten far without a strong male, husband or father, and we recognize that.