Terry Neese believes in challenging the odds.
In late 2006, the founder and CEO of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, an Oklahoma City nonprofit, came up with the quixotic idea of encouraging oppressed women in Afghanistan to become entrepreneurs.
Two years later, Neese added women in genocide-ravaged Rwanda to her initiative, Peace Through Business.
The idea is that countries with stable economies are more likely to have stronger democracies and are less likely to wage war with one another. And women are at the heart of stable economies, says the 70-year-old Neese.
Twelve years into it, Peace Through Business is living up to its name, having graduated more than 800 Afghan and Rwandan female “peacekeepers” who have created 16,000-plus jobs in their homelands.
This includes eight Afghan and 13 Rwandan students, ages 24 to 60, along with three trainers from each country, who showed up in Big D last month, determined to learn leadership, planning, marketing, management and export skills.
Success has come in large part to support from big corporate sponsors and private foundations — including AT&T, Bank of America, EY, IBM, Office Depot and the T. Boone Pickens Foundation — that cover the $20,000-per-student home-country training and U.S. boot camp costs.
Its curriculum partner is Northwood University.
“Everybody that has come on board is still with us, which is a testament to the fact that they feel we are doing yeoman’s work,” says Neese, who ran for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma on the Republican ticket in 1990.
Jill Calabrese Bain, head of small business for Bank of America Merchant Services in Boston, has been active with program since the bank became a major sponsor three years ago and was among the speakers at the leadership training.
Peace Through Business aligns with Bank of America’s goal of investing in partnerships that “connect women entrepreneurs to the mentoring, training and capital they need to help them achieve success,” she says, adding that the participants have all the qualities needed: “ambition, resilience and passion for their work.”
Terrorist action nearly derailed attendance by the Afghan women.
On April 18, most of the hopeful participants stood outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, waiting to start the process for visas. A couple more were walking that way when two car bombs went off on Embassy Road, immediately shutting down the building.
Terry Neese, founder and CEO of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women, smiles at graduation ceremonies for attendees of the Peace Through Business entrepreneurial boot camp.
Afterward, heightened security and a clogged process made obtaining a yellow travel card much more difficult.
The week before the scheduled departure date, only one of the 15 hopeful participants — Manizha Wafeq, the in-country program facilitator — had her yellow card.
At that point, Neese canceled airline tickets, food and lodging reservations, and released mentors around the country from their tutoring commitments.
Then, at 4 a.m. four days before the program’s opening session, Neese received word that another 10 Afghan women would be allowed to come to the United States — sending her into itinerary recovery overdrive.
“Fortunately for us, we were able to get most of the mentors back on board,” says Neese, before a dinner and movie screening of Hidden Figures at AT&T’s Center For Learning campus in Las Colinas, where the women were staying. “We’re blessed that AT&T was patient and flexible and allowed all of the women to be here.”
This was the first year that Peace Through Business was able to take its program to the provinces in Afghanistan, teaching 100 women in the rural areas of Herat and Mazar, in addition to the 30 women trained in Kabul.
Neese had planned to hold two-week classes in Jalalabad, but a deadly suicide bomb went off the day Wafeq got there.
Wafeq, a 32-year-old graduate of the inaugural class of 2007, remains surprisingly upbeat about business opportunities for women in her country.
Yes, Afghanistan is in constant turmoil from terrorism, she says. “That’s one part of the story. But at the same time, good things have also happened. That part of the story doesn’t get out to the rest of the world.”
For one thing, after getting advice from Afghan first lady Rula Ghani, Wafeq went before the High Economic Council in October and received official approval to create a women’s chamber of commerce that now has 289 members.
The diversity of this year’s Afghan participants shows that the program is reaching a broad spectrum of businesswomen, Wafeq says.
A woman from Harat produces packaged cakes. One from Azar runs a small language institute.
Another from Kabul owns a neighborhood store that carries groceries and household items and provides delivery service like a mini-Amazon.
“Another one that I love is psychological counseling, which is very much needed in our country, because of all the stuff going on there,” she says.
Then there’s the nursery owner, who’s a botanist by education and grows dwarf, quick-bearing fruit saplings imported from Turkey and sells the mature trees to farmers. She’s come to learn how she and her two partners can establish their own lab in Kabul to grow their own saplings.
Terry Neese believes in challenging the odds.