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Women in business: 2,000 and counting

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Kathleen Parker
November 8, 2010
— Helen Reddy’s iconic “I am woman, hear me roar” is more likely to cause a cringe than goose bumps these days—more a comical anthem to bra-burning histrionics than the soundtrack to a serious movement aimed at greater equality.

But when those same sentiments are voiced by a young Afghan woman named Fatima, who has created her own construction business amid war, corruption and a culture that barely tolerates women, one is more inclined toward the goose bump.


“Every morning, I stand in front of the mirror and say, ‘I am a woman, and I am powerful,’” she told a luncheon gathering here. Hosted by Daily Beast founder Tina Brown, the luncheon was in honor of four Afghan women, including Fatima, who are recent graduates of Goldman Sachs’ “10,000 Women” business program.


Fatima’s mirror-mirror mantra is one of the things she says she learned from her teacher. “I realized—there is no difference between me and my brother.”


Sitting at one of several round tables set for lunch, admiring these women and hearing their stories, one couldn’t help thinking how surreal this—their first trip to the U.S.—must have been for them. Their heads covered and their faces revealing no trace of makeup, they were soft-spoken yet commanding.


Success has a presence all its own.


These women are, indeed, extraordinary successes given their circumstances, including the necessity of using only their first names to protect their identities. Needless to say, not everyone in Afghanistan is proud of their accomplishments. Security is still an enormous challenge. Fatima and others often have to employ men to do the “outdoor” work of making sales contacts, or at least keep a man nearby when they venture out.


Masooda, another graduate of the Goldman Sachs program who has a jam and pickling business, said all of her employees are home-based and illiterate. She employs 23 people, 20 of whom are women.


Fatima began her business when she was just 15. Now 23, she employs 76 engineers and construction workers, working to help rebuild her country’s infrastructure.


Even though she began her business long before Goldman Sachs appeared on the scene, she had no businesses or marketing skills.


It isn’t often one gets to speak glowingly of Goldman Sachs these days. But the global banking firm’s “10,000 Women” program offers a glimmer of light in these dark economic times.


Begun in 2008, the philanthropic program is a five-year initiative to promote social change through the economic empowerment of women. Thus far, it has reached 2,000 women in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Rwanda and the U.S.


The idea is that creating a women’s labor force is key to long-term economic growth. This would seem to be common sense rather than advanced economic theory, but such brilliance is scant in underdeveloped, war-ravaged countries or where women are often treated as subhuman.


Sometimes we need scientific research to advance the simplest of notions. Research for the program showed that investing in women would profit the human race through a multiplier effect. Not only would education lead to more employees for business and increased revenues (always the bottom line, right?), but more prosperous women would lead to better-educated, healthier families, followed by more prosperous communities and nations.


Hardly the stuff of stunning revelation. But whatever it takes. If the plus column of a spreadsheet means that women aren’t shot in the public square, that will have been a good day’s work.


Part of Goldman Sachs’ mission is to create global business school partnerships to improve business education. Today, more than 30 of the world’s leading business schools, including seven of the top 10, are participating. The program is coordinated locally through a network of nongovernmental and academic agencies.


Listening to Fatima, Masooda, Malalai and a second Fatima, I was struck by their humility, but especially by their courage. Not once in my crowded day do I have to worry about my safety as I go about the necessary machinations of a normal workday.


I have met numerous Afghan women the past year or so through various organizations working to help them, and each time they say the same thing. This time was no different: Don’t feel sorry for us. But please, don’t forget us.


How could we?


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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