Growing the World’s Next Generation of Women Entrepreneurs
After Dr. Terry Neese, turned over her staffing and executive search company to her daughter eight years ago, she started The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, a nonprofit aimed at educating women entrepreneurs on the importance of public policy. By 2006, the nonprofit was doing well, and she was on a 14-city tour to promote a book she had written.
And then she got a phone call from the U.S. Department of State. Would she like to help women start businesses in Afghanistan?
One plane ride later and she was in Afghanistan, complete with a 50-pound flak jacket and two bodyguards, listening to stories from women who had run successful businesses before the Taliban took over, who were now trying to start them over again. These women saw a new vision for both their companies and their country. “I saw a whole new world open up to me,” says Neese. “I thought perhaps this is part of a legacy I can leave, to assist these women starting businesses and hoping to redevelop their country. I believe that if you educate a woman and her family, you educate her community.
With that in mind, Neese developed the PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® program, which teaches women in Afghanistan and Rwanda (which was added to the program in 2008) the basics of growing and running their own businesses, then connects them to women entrepreneurs in the United States who act as mentors. Applicants must speak English, be in business for at least year, and be registered or licensed to be in business in their home country. Ideally, the women should be at least 51 percent owners of their company. Once selected, the women take part in a 10-week program with a business curriculum provided by Northwood University, along with an e-mentorship program with an American woman business owner.
To graduate, participants must complete a business plan. Then the IEEW’s board, made up of women business owners, selects 15 students from each country to travel to Northwood University’s Dallas campus, where they spend 10 days learning about higher level leadership skills. The students are then matched with a mentor, an American woman business owner that owns a similar type of company, and they live and work with the mentor for another 10 days. The program concludes with a two-day summit in Dallas, and then, says Neese, “they go home, and it’s time for them to go to work.”
By the end of 2013, PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® will have graduated more than 400 women. Of those 400 women, 80 percent of their companies are still in business today. “That doesn’t even happen in the United States,” says Neese. “So we’re obviously doing something very right.” Some of the graduates have been appointed to political office, won entrepreneurial competitions, and started networking groups for women entrepreneurs. “They develop friendships here that help them continue to build their businesses back home. They also understand the importance of going back home and paying forward their knowledge to others,” Neese says.
That’s not to say that it’s all smooth sailing for the graduates. Like any business owners, these women face a large amount of obstacles to growing their companies. However, says Neese, “Their common problems are pretty much the same as our common problems here.” Trying to balance a business with a home life and family, staying focused on their goals, a lack of financing, and difficulty obtaining loans—in both Rwanda and Afghanistan, interest rates on loans are around 24 percent—are issues both the graduates and their mentors face.
The graduates and mentors often have so much in common that they often continue to talk for much longer than the required year after the program finishes. “Most of these women, if they mentored with someone four years ago, they’re still talking today,” Neese says.
“Being involved in the program, from an American woman business owner’s perspective, is really a highlight in your career,” says Neese. “The American women say, ‘I learn a lot more from them than they learn from me.’” Women business owners interested in taking part in the PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® program, either as a mentor or e-mentor, can visit the IEEW’s website at www.ieew.org.