News / Asia

Entrepreneurial Afghan Women Changing Perceptions

Graduates of the 2013 class of Project Artemis are seen with their diplomas.  (Courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management)
Graduates of the 2013 class of Project Artemis are seen with their diplomas. (Courtesy Thunderbird School of Global Management)
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, Zainularab Miri was a teacher in Kabul. The Taliban shut down schools for girls, and Miri fled to her home province of Ghazni where the Taliban had less influence.

There, she continued to teach secretly and opened a small, clandestine beekeeping and honey-making business, all the while fearing that if the Taliban found out about either, it could cost her life. She called the Taliban era “a black period for Afghan women.”

When the Taliban were overthrown, Miri was able to take her business out of hiding, but she really didn’t know how to run it, much less expand it.

In 2006, she was selected to take part in Project Artemis, hosted by the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. The program aims to bring Afghan women entrepreneurs to the U.S. for an intensive, two-week business skills course.

“I was running my business, but I didn’t know how to operate it well or track my accounts,” Miri said in a video about the program. “My ability as a businesswoman grew from Earth to sky. What I learned about management, marketing and leadership had a profound impact on my business.”

Now, she has hundreds of bee hives and has taught other women the business.

From black to gold

Miri’s experience under the Taliban was not uncommon, and many women had it worse. Some were publicly flogged; their movement was severely curtailed; access to health care was made difficult, and many faced forced marriages while still minors. Those were just a few of the burdens faced by women under the Taliban. Once the Taliban were forced from power, women still faced a host of new challenges.

While Afghan businesswomen still have many hurdles to overcome - they still may need to rely on men for many external dealings such as negotiations and making deliveries - Artemis is making progress toward changing how women are viewed by society at large.

This year’s class of 11 was the fifth class to participate. They were selected from over 250 applicants.They range in age from 22 to 39 and are involved in a wide variety of businesses, including dairy production, hand-carved wood products, media production and website design.

Funding for the program has come from both the private and public sectors, including the U.S. Department of State, Cisco Systems, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. But according to Ambassador Barbara Barrett, the founder of the program, the most important source of funding has been private individuals.

According to Thunderbird, 74 Afghan women have graduated from the program and their businesses employ over 2,000 women and men.

Just the beginning

The learning doesn’t stop after the two-week program.

Each Afghan woman is paired with a mentor who remains in contact with their mentee for at least two years.

One of this year’s mentors is Dr. Charlotte Cole, senior vice president of global education for Sesame Workshop. The Workshop produces local Sesame Street programs, seen in over 140 countries, including Afghanistan.

“I have traveled to Afghanistan and have been very touched by the extraordinary people I have met there. Despite the challenges confronting them, there is a sense of optimism and hope that is inspiring and motivating,” said Cole. “If there is something I can do to help - even in a small way - it would be an honor and a privilege to support an Afghan woman.”

According to Barrett, the business expertise of the Afghan woman entering the program has skyrocketed over the years, largely because of the networks early graduates established to pass on what they learned.

“One thing the original class committed to was to mentor at least 20 women back in their home communities,” she said.

Barrett said the women of the first class went way further and mentored more than 20.

“The first class was comprised of a lot of women who had only a very basic education or engagement in business,” she added. “Now we get the cream of the crop.”

“We were all blown away by this class of women,” said Amy Scerra, Project Artemis program manager with Thunderbird for Good. “They are resilient, they know what they want, and they speak up for what they want and what they want to do.”

It’s not only the women who directly participate in the Artemis Project who benefit. One of the most important aspects is networking and passing along skills to other women.

Asila, a graduate of this year’s program who runs a saffron business in Herat province, said that while she has big dreams to export the pricey spice overseas, she also plans to share what she’s learned with other women in her province, giving them the opportunity to become entrepreneurs as well.

Cultural shift

Perhaps even more important than what is learned in the classroom and from mentors is the psychological impact the program seems to have on the women.

“The other part of it is the empowerment,” said Scerra. “For the first time, many of them are feeling like they’re supported and people are believing in them. The concept of supporting other women and networking was foreign. We emphasize team building and trust.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Asila, who said that in Afghanistan, when women say they want to do something like start a business, “most people don’t believe they can do it.”

As the women’s influence grows, the hope is there can be some fundamental change in how women are viewed.

Rangina Hamidi, a 2005 graduate of the program who runs an embroidering business, says when a woman earns money, it gives her power and prevents her from being seen as a liability to a family.

“Food, clothing, health, every aspect of [a woman’s] life has to be taken care of by a male figure of the household,” she said in a video about the program. “Now with an ability to earn money at home, they have an ability to be an asset to the family. Indirectly we’re also changing the social dynamics of the society, and that is an important step to changing women’s rights and women’s social reality. By the mere fact that they have money in their hands, they’re making decisions.”

But it’s not only women who are benefitting, said Barrett. During a trip to Afghanistan, she visited the Afghan Women Business Federation, which was primarily established by Artemis graduates. While there, she said she saw men learning computer and business marketing skills from women.

“Men were counting on women and learning from women in a big cultural shift,” she said.

Still, Barrett is realistic about how far Afghan women still have to go.

“We will be thrilled when we don’t have to give the women of Afghanistan a boost,” she said. “We have no perceptions that we’re close to a lack of need. There remains a great deal of need and while there is a need we will continue the program.”

Karen Brown, who teaches operations management and project leadership at Thunderbird, said it’s important to remember that these women all have to control their business and their personal lives.

“None of them have a house husband who says ‘Honey, I’ll do the chores’,” she said “These are courageous energetic women who are doing something that has not been historically common for women and they are to be greatly admired.”

Here's more about Miri's story:

Here's more about Hamidi's story:

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Comment Sorting
by: Margaret Lung from: Reston, VA.
February 12, 2013 4:36 PM
As an American nurse who lived and worked in Lashkar Gah and later, in Kabul, for 5 years(pre Taliban), these two stories brought me to tears. A country is only as strong as its people and finally, the women are starting to learn how to use their power beyond being housewives and mothers. This can only strengthen Afghanistan.
In Response

by: Ali Shahidy from: Kabul, Afghanistan
February 13, 2013 3:35 AM
I really thank you for your constructive comment. And I appreciate your works & efforts in Afghanistan and for the Afghan people.
I do believe in the power of women. Our women can be the change makers. If they take the lead, the changes take place more rapidly. And that's what Afghans need: the women to be on the lead for changes.

We have many women who have great and inspirational stories to tell, just like Miri.

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