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Bpeace Blog Briefs

Stories of bravery, transformation and impact.

Central America

Fast Runners flower in the Arizona desert

Five Bpeace Fast Runners were recently accepted for a 2 week training program in entrepreneurial skills and business growth at Project Artemis in Phoenix, Arizona on the campus of Thunderbird School for Global Management.  Project Artemis and Bpeace work hand in hand with women in Afghanistan who show potential as business builders.  Four Bpeace member/volunteers were on hand last week to see our Fast Runners learn and grow.

There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd, as Bpeace Fast Runner Maryam led the Afghan National Anthem followed by the Star Spangled Banner at the graduation ceremony for the Afghan women in this program.  Maryam’s Bpeace Advocate Johnna Hobgood was there, cheering her on with great pride.  Johnna has worked closely with Maryam in the Bpeace Race to Innovation, and as a Fast Runner, finally getting to meet her in person.

Maryam owns Bibi Maryam Private High School which currently operates grades 1 through 5 with 112 children.  Her vision is to expand this school through grades 12 so that children can complete their high education, and add an Internet café to allow the children as well as all women in the community to have access to the Internet and computer technology.  Johnna said: ‘I was so proud of Maryam as she walked across the stage at graduation, and it was an amazing experience to spend the week with her and the other Artemis fellows and mentors.  They really are a key to big changes for their country."

Bpeacer Mojdeh Barros says  “I spent four days with the Afghan women and I am overwhelmed by their high energy, bravery, enthusiasm and optimism. Most of these women have a day job and at least one business on the side (why they are in this program), they are very much involved with local politics and community work."

Donna Fleetwood met her Fast Runner Latifa in person after working with her for a year on her "Kitchen Queen" business, providing solutions for efficient kitchens and wire products for use in hotels, apartment buildings and war damaged homes as Kabul rebuilds.  Latifa is working on her product and price list and plans to hire 6 skilled workers in the next 6 months.  Donna said: "Being able to spend some personal time with Latifa was life changing...I feel that not only am I an Advocate for her business but now also an Advocate for Afghan women to let everyone know of their open hearts and beautiful spirit."

Former Bpeace Board Member Athena Katsaros led a full day workshop with the Afghan businesswomen and their mentors to help them put together concrete goals and plans to work on together once the Artemis graduates got back to Afghanistan.  “Knowing these smart and courageous women makes me feel hopeful that Afghanistan will see peace and prosperity sooner than we expect.  These women are breaking out of the traditional ideas of what’s possible for them.  They are creating a different future for their children.”

Topping off the astonishing moments was an evening trip to Rawhide in Phoenix, where Bpeace Fast Runners Maryam and Masooda took up country western line dancing and we believe they may be the first Afghan cowgirls.  With headscarves intact, they caught on quickly and added a few moves of their own.

Face to face time with our Fast Runners gave us new ways to connect the dots in their business plans and collaborate on next steps for each of our entrepreneurs.   The strength and commitment of these women touched us and they want what we all want: a strong economy, a healthy family, and peace.

Mojdeh says:  "Their last words to us as we were saying goodbye was 'Please don’t forget us, we need you in order for us to be successful, don’t leave us!'  On her way back to Boston, Mojdeh remembered this poem by famous Persian poet Sa'adi:

"All Human beings are in truth akin
All in creation share one origin
When fate allots a member pangs and pains
No ease for other members then remain
If, unperturbed, another's grief canst scan,
Thou are not worthy of the name of man."

Afghan hats off to New York

For the Fast Runners, Tuesday was their first day in NYC started with morning orientation at Fenton Communications. Then sandwiches ("Why do Americans like cold food?) and off on a double decker bus to tour Manhattan. There are 6 young men in this group, four women, plus Fahim our Entrepreneurial Advisor in Mazar, and Soraya our Afghan Country Director based in Kabul.

Bpeacers jumping on and off the bus with the Afghans were giddy to see the city through their eyes.  The Fast Runners were interested in everything---the people on the street, the architecture, the fact that the buildings were so tall, the lighted billboards in Times Square. When the group reached Battery Park they had such an appreciation to be so close to the water!

Agnes Terestchenko: "The most striking part for me is that they all wanted to go to the Apple store! amazing coming from Mazar! A big Hourrah to Steve Jobs!"

Gita Patel found it fascinating that "they were very interested in taking pictures of buildings under construction (not just Iqbal who is in construction)."

Escorting the Afghans to the film Secretariat, Liz Wald reports "they took everything in stride. At one point the movie cut out completely - right at a climax moment of the final race of the triple crown!! - and they joked about how they had power outages in Afghanistan all the time...ha!"

Peaceful change

The end of this journey’s road took us to the Salvadoran countryside. The green was a welcome break from the asphalt streets, cement shopping malls and traffic jams of busy San Salvador. Some of the team visited a women's cooperative making the wine we had already found in Wal-Mart. Bottles at home didn’t stop an impromptu tasting on the go. . .

On Friday afternoon Steve, Gita and Kate went on a rolling green, curve hugging, volcanic vista, sugarcane sweet road trip to the western corner of the country. Led by Eduardo Cader, Bpeace’s fast driving, enthusiast and unshakable liaison for this week, we were taken on a tour of his favorite places in the stunning yet humble mountain villages of this coffee region.

Eduardo has a long family history here. His great great grandmother is buried in a local church. But today the building faces a town plaza abuzz with the sounds of marching bands and the joy of a Children’s Day parade. We grabbed a pastry at a corner shop and onward we went. We walked the cobbled streets of villages where old women in the park called out hellos at our passing, dogs wandered or dozed, their occasional sound breaking the quiet of a sunny slumbering afternoon.

As we marveled at the beauty of these towns’ fading architecture we couldn’t help but feel the nostalgia for something soon to pass. A few smart shops, creative and colorful cafe murals are emerging. San Salvadorans and tourists are beginning to discover these untouched places. Even Wal-Mart has landed here as the chain has developed a small town Salvadoran model. Change is afoot. Will it impact the poverty productively? Largely unmarked by violence, will development bring conflict?

But for today we enjoyed the view and felt peace and safety. In many ways these small villages represent what is possible here -- the graciousness of a beautiful and rightfully proud country. Yes, the spirit of El Salvador has captured both our hearts and our intellect.

This is the beginning of Bpeace's exploration, not the end. In the coming months we will need to skillfully map Bpeace's path here, deploying equal parts of heart and mind to address the country's opportunity gap in the Bpeace way -- creating jobs, creating hope, reducing violence.

It's complicated but promising

We are emerging from our one week immersion in El Salvador with some early insights.

No surprise that our meetings with significant business leaders, public and private associations, government ministries, private equity firms, private foundations, educational institutions, media companies, not for profits (some working directly with gangs), and security organizations has refined our initial assessments. They are too many to mention by name, but we thank everyone who invested their time with Bpeace this week. Each greatly advanced our knowledge and thinking.

One highlight with big implications for us: The Salvadoran web-like gang organization model means there are few recognized leaders to convince or influence. Uncertain as to where the gang webs reach, broadly the business community's response is to layer in security costs and minimize risk by reducing investment, and importantly to minimize gang contact. The solution to break the stalemate of gang violence is not as simple as employment of at risk youth.

But we see unique opportunity here.
Bpeace's approach in El Salvador can be custom designed for maximum result. The design must include not only what small and medium size businesses we support but also to what, where and how these businesses engage the causes and impact of violence.

What excites us most is that the approach can and must include the Salvadoran resources we can leverage-- a small but existing middle market economy, young educated professionals, innovative entrepreneurs and business people, an emerging CSR (corporate social responsibility)  interest and partnership among those organizations and institutions who have been engaging successfully here.

Before we leave the country we will take a trip to the Salvadoran countryside where we hear there is a little peace and quiet to be discovered. Stay tuned...

Finding the Salvadoran middle market

This is Latin America and joblessness and poverty challenge the social and environment fabric of society.   It is why we are here.

But in El Salvador, we are discovering there is life in the economy and a middle market business sector which presents real tipping point potential for Bpeace. Why? Because with revenues of $250,000 to $1 million, these businesses have starting scale and momentum.  A Bpeace push can deliver the kind of significant job expansion that brings One Million jobs closer.

And yet there is also another middle market outside the city centers. Smaller in revenue size, but with big ambitions, these agri-businesses include entrepreneurs making Jamaican Rose Wine...available for sale in local Wal-Mart stores...and yes we bought some.

Who among these middle market companies can best impact the violence here? We are on day four of wall-to-wall meetings with some of the best minds and organizations in El Salvador and we continue to explore.

Start-up entrepreneurs are present too and the Bpeace team visited some of the country's newest at the First Tuesday Marketplace where hopeful business founders presented their ideas to potential investors.

Thunderbird University's satellite program at ESEN is teaching the next generation.  Bpeacer Gita Patel (Class of '96)  invited us to meet her fellow alums for pupusas (a local tortilla must try).  Young, smart, and passionate, these grads are working for the top national and multi-national companies in the country.  Some are launching big bold business ideas like "Coffee to Go" mobile coffee carts targeting the caffeinated Salvadoran.

How can this energy and talent be leveraged to achieve Bpeace aims here?

Oh my, so much to take in an analyze in the days ahead as we craft the Bpeace go forward strategy.  But we can't leave today without mentioning the beauty and energy of this place. The green presence of Volcan de San Salvador marks our bearings at every turn and the local markets continues to take a piece of our wallets.

But for now there is another meeting and some of that wine…

Our first look at the contrasts in El Salvador

"We are a country of 7 million people. 20,000 gang members can not bring the country to its knees." Director of an NGO working with El Salvador's gangs.

It's 48 hours and counting. A Bpeace team has arrived in El Salvador and we are sucking on the fire hose of our experience. Began the moment we stepped off the plane. Juxtaposition and disparities -- Slums and BMW dealerships surprise our eyes. Subway sandwich shops and Mister Donuts present familiar middle class landmarks . . in neighborhoods too dangerous to leave the car. New shopping malls offer Zara sportswear while traditional mercados griddle 5 cent tortillas. We sit in traffic jams passing abandoned coffee plantations and new subdivisions. We are in El Salvador and learning big time in this -- Bpeace's first fact finding expedition!

The AHAs:
This is a beautiful dynamic country with a vibrant middle class and complex economy. Poverty is not the story in the capital city, rather wealth disparity.

International and local brands abound in San Salvador and an active consumer is at every income strata. Salvadorans shop. Manufacturers make product. Distributors import and export across numerous industries. There is market space here for new businesses to grow.

Yet security issues and political transition are constraining both economic growth and optimism for the future. 20,000 gang members increasingly enable the illegal drug industry. Their extortion costs impact even big company P&Ls. How can so few impact an entire country's view on the opportunity ahead?

Because we see so much more than gangs. Front page newspaper headlines are not of violence but cover a hotly contested Sunday football match. We attended and cheered as part of our liaison Eduardo Cader's culture immersion effort (our adopted team Allianza won)!

Everywhere we experience some of the best customer service in the world, evidence of both pride and great training programs. Salvadoran warmth, delightful weather, verdant volcanoes and black sand beaches drive a growing tourism industry where surfers ride top waves.

And we find the most beautiful sight in the world for a Bpeacer -- entrepreneurs busy in the art of creation. Many in micro but also medium size business too. Their entrepreneurial spirit an expression of hope and purpose. And did we mention that women run the majority of small enterprises?

Over the coming days we will continue to drown and digest, learning and framing where Bpeace can intersect with these entrepreneurs and impact the violence. There is an entire country to explore. Stay tuned.

Peace, moms and hospitality

For three days we worked one-on-one with the Fast Runners on their Bpeace Forward Plans. In exhausting and exhilarating intimate two-hour dialogues, we helped them reach their aha moments on the steps they need to take to progress their business ideas. Peace comes at a cost for the Mazar Fast Runners. They are anticipating the day when business contracts funded by various western military and aid organizations will disappear and are already thinking of ways to transition their businesses with more customers from the “private sector.” Conversely, peace can’t come soon enough for the Kabul Fast Runners who cite security issues as the #1 barrier to them succeeding.

Both the women and men in our program told us how important their mothers were to their success—or hopes for the future. All had highly supportive mothers and in some cases fathers who wanted more for their children then they had available for themselves. A number of our Fast Runners are first in their families to be college educated and some of the women were the first in their families to work and are a role model for the other women in their families.

The Afghan hospitality is inspiring—it speaks to their culture and also speaks to the relationship we have with them. We spent time with Mobina and her husband and baby and also Ferishta, her husband and child. They both ask after Bpeacers by name. The new crop of Fast Runners actually envied jewelry manufacturer Khan Aga who entered our program 2010, six years after his wife first did. When he entered the room on the first day he got a hearty welcome from us all—a real lovefest. Actually, it was a wonderful unplanned non-verbal display of the relationship that they can have with Bpeace. It also showed our commitment to our Fast Runners.

Broadcasting success in Mazar

We were invited to lunch and tour Radio Rabea Balkhi, operated by Mobina, our 2007 Bpeace Fast Runner from Mazar. In just five years, this 31 year-old journalist and entrepreneur has expanded her radio station into one of the most successful in the region.

Remarkably, she has over a half a million listeners, despite focusing most of her programming content on informing women on social and economic issues. The radio station is named after a famous Afghan female poet, Rabea Balkhi, known for her beautiful poems about love and feminism.

Mobina beamed with pride giving us a tour of her radio station, which was fitted with modern radio broadcast equipment juxtaposed against home-made sound proofing made of egg crates, foam and fitted sheets. She talked about how she has applied what she learned 18 months ago when Bpeace arranged for her to visit radio stations in New York, D.C., and Allentown, Pa. Today, Mobina has 26 employees and we are pleased to accept her marketing manager into our 2010 group of Fast Runners, believing we should help our most successful entrepreneurs also develop their middle management.

Just recently Mobina acquired a second radio station—this one focused on farmers. Like we did with Radio Balkhi, Bpeace created a logo for the new station.
We were delighted to see the advances she has made to her business and her family with a recent addition of her first child. To our surprise Mobina was back at work a month after delivering her son!

Mobina was born to an illiterate father and spent her entire life in Afghanistan. However, she pursued her education, which gave her the confidence and knowledge to seize the right opportunity and become an economic success and a force for social change.

Afghans rising

We’ve known them on paper for months, but this trip—we call it the Mazar Summit—was the first time the Bpeace volunteers were meeting our new group of Fast Runners in person.

Soraya Omar, Bpeace’s Afghan Country Director, and our new hire in Mazar—Dr. Fahim Qaderi—planned the week-long Summit for five volunteers from the U.S. to meet 26 Afghan Fast Runners. And for Bpeace—two big firsts. The program is based in Mazar (with 8 Kabul Fast Runners) and includes men in addition to women! Having men is a surprising non-issue for the women—we believe this is because this is our youngest group of entrepreneurs—age range 21-35. Though on the first day the men and the women were sitting on separate sides of the room waiting for the icebreaker. That quickly changed and by dinner day two you can see the mixing for yourself in the photos.

Bpeace is a witness to the growth and change in Afghanistan, and the business sophistication and worldliness that is emerging. (Of course this doesn’t get much airtime anywhere.) Example: six years ago, the only businesswomen we could find were in handicraft. Three years ago, only 15 percent of our entrepreneurs spoke English and knew how to use a computer, and none had ever heard the term HR (human resources). Today, 70% of our group speaks English, we have women entrepreneurs in IT, electrical engineering and shoe manufacturing, and men in industrial cleaning and jewelry design. (We are giggling with delight at being a part of this.)

After two days of training, dinner was a family affair. We dined under the stars al fresco (oops we’re not in Tuscany, though it felt like it, so in Dari we dined “mila”)with our entire group. Special guests included Mobina and Ferishta from our previous group of entrepreneurs and we met their husbands and babies too.

Speaking of family, our new Fast Runners include the daughter of Fatima, from our previous group; Khan Aga, the husband of BahktNazeria from our first group; and Azam, the husband of Taj of our second group. Entrepreneurship in families is spreading!

Sightseeing in Mazar-e-Sharif

Mazar-e-Sharif should be a destination of choice in Afghanistan. It feels like an Afghan city at peace--a beacon of hope for the rest of the country.

The people in the streets appear relaxed; there is no obvious military presence, stunning beauty at the Blue Mosque, and ice cream shops everywhere in the summer heat.

If you’ve been anywhere else in Afghanistan as a foreigner, you appreciate all of this. The positive energy here is palpable and you don’t see the evidence of war all around you—no bombed out buildings, no bullet holes in the walls, and there are trees and grass.

You do see the evidence of development. Modern glass shells around old buildings—a sort of construction face lift, new universities and schools going up, Mazar’s own McMansion neighborhood adjacent to spotless traditional domed mud huts—the dome an architectural design to withstand earthquakes.

Our entrepreneurs from Kabul visiting here with us in Mazar, marveled at the clean air and streets and they were so delighted to be able to take a safe walk on those streets after dinner.

Good food is easy to find and our item of choice is the local bread—which we’ve renamed the Magel—the Mazar bagel because it’s round, doughy and tastes just like a bagel.

Planning and plotting on the way home

How refreshed we still looked on our last day in Rwanda with Richard and Monique Schmidt of the Akilah Institute for Women.

About 8 hours later, as Donna, Fran and I sat at the Starbucks at the Brussels airport we knew we were closer to home. We brainstormed, of course Fran and I took the Brooklyn approach and Donna, as she has done throughout the mission, was the voice of reason who captured our energy and told us what we were saying in a manner that was calming. There's a special place in heaven for Donna with Fran and I on the loose.

We used the time to discuss Bpeace's future in Rwanda.

We realized that Bpeace has seeded a lot of human capital in Rwanda. Richard consults and Susan has a job that leverages their Bpeace experience. Our first group of Fast Runners have created jobs and formed their own networking group, and there is that amazing Business Club formed by applicants to the Bpeace Race to Innovation.

As we look to the future, and Bpeace's desire to leave as much on the ground as possible--is there a way to advance the Business Club as future Fast Runners and stay true to our vision to create jobs? Is there a way to assist the graduated Fast Runners network? They have been maintaining and sharing the Bpeace Brand by instinctively creating a "Bpeace Family" as they call themselves.

Donna, Fran and I are now in our seats on the plane going in various directions and still sending each other "love ya letters"

Thanks for all of your support.

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