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State Department Hosts International Women's Mentoring Program

Now in its second year, a U.S.-government-led program connects top businesswomen in the United States with businesswomen from around the world. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim reports on the mentoring program, created in part by a top woman at the State Department.

The assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, Dina Habib Powell, likes to quote the Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim, who once said "when you educate a woman, you educate a nation." She believes women are the greatest catalysts for change. So, with that in mind, Powell gathered together a team of top female leaders in America's corporate and non-profit sectors to create a mentoring program.

Powell says the public-private venture is an important cultural exchange that allows for the development of not only professional relationships, but human ones too. "We felt that (by) partnering with our colleagues here (the United States), not only could we help by empowering women that go back and have a remarkable multiplying effect, but they come here, as ambassadors for each of their nations and they teach Americans that there is a tremendous history and heritage and culture from which they come," she said.

This year, 32 women from countries from Peru to Rwanda participated in the three-week program. After a brief orientation in Washington D.C., the women went to work with their mentors at host companies, spreading out over 18 U.S. cities.

Powell recruited the U.S. mentors from an annual summit of highly successful women hosted by Fortune, the business magazine.

Ann Moore was the first mentor to sign up last year when the program began. The chief executive officer of media giant Time Warner's magazine division, Time Inc., says mentoring is one of the most effective ways of diversifying. Moore was paired with Mei Jingsong from China this year. Jingsong describes her experience as amazing. "I was thrilled to hear the news that my mentor is Ann Moore because, you know, I work in the area of media, so the editors are great. They just do everything they can to improve the magazines, to improve the content, to improve the quality. That's what I learned," she said.

The learning curve went both ways, says Moore. She too learned from Jingsong, who works as a supervisor at a Chinese online media company with over 20 million web users daily in China. "I was just fascinated to see how she's constructing something that's a very powerful force that may someday really open up China to my industry. We're a little closed off right now and I learned a lot about what she's up to and how fast the Internet is growing in China," she said.

But not all the matches seemed ideal, at least at first. Marie-Joe Raidy from Lebanon is a graphic artist and director of a printing company in Beirut. She says she was hoping for someone involved in a creative field. Instead, her mentor was Michele Mayes, general counsel for Pitney Bowes, a mail and document management company.

Raidy says she really did not expect to enjoy her experience with a lawyer, but she now says it was fantastic. Mayes says she tried to show Raidy the many sides of business. "We sat down and figured out, all right, what types of people would she be most enriched in meeting? And so we put together very intensive interviews. I also had her attend meetings with me. I also had her attend an (job) interview I did and compare it, and I decided not to hire the candidate, and we talked about why. I speak a fair amount at different events. I took her to an event at the City Bar of New York and had her speak with me," she said.

Rashmi Tiwari of India was paired with an executive at the Xerox corporation, manfacturer of office equipment. She says that for her, the program was about learning to help others. She came to America with a goal of improving her business practices as a director at the American Chamber of Commerce in India. But, in addition to that, she says, she returns with a sense of being socially responsible.

"The biggest thing which I learned from Xerox Corporation is don't ever give up. Lay the foundation and keep on working. We may not get the successes in our lifetime, or at this moment, but maybe people (women) who are coming behind us, it will be easier for them to achieve the goals," she said.

At the end of their program, the women came together in New York City to talk about their experiences. Emma Fundira runs a financial consulting firm in Zimbabwe. She says she was elated to be paired up with a director at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, and pleasantly surprised to find that power doesn't always mean arrogance.

"Who is Dina Powell to want to empower Emma? So why can't Emma think of other people for a change? You know, these are high-powered women in civic society who can be selfish if they want to be and there they are trying to empower other people," she said.

Fundira says she is returning to work feeling recharged and ready to empower others. But, she also says, she wants to use the networks she established here to expand her business.

Many of the women who participated in the program said the hardest thing was leaving family and children behind, but they say the experience was well worth it.

As for Dina Habib Powell, one of the key women responsible for the creation of the mentoring program, she is certain these women will make a difference. "Societies that incorporate women, whether in the private sector, public sector, non-profit sector, immediately get a return on that investment," she said.

An investment, she believes, that will pay off in countless ways.