Artemis offers Afghans hope

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

In sync with the processional music 15 Afghani women, in smart suits and headscarves, file into the auditorium. Thirty international flags line the walls and when the Afghani and US national anthems begin, faculty and supporters stand.

This is the graduation ceremony at Thunderbird's Garvin School of International Management for fellows in the Artemis project - an entrepreneurship training programme where Afghani women receive two weeks of "entrepreneurial training, coaching and mentoring and access to intellectual and capital resources".

The 15 fellows have been carefully chosen, with selection based on their professional records and plans to begin or expand businesses on their return to Afghanistan. They come from a range of backgrounds, including medicine, engineering, business and children's and women's rights. Many were forced to stop work or their studies during the Taliban rule.

As the women's names are called the crowd applaud loudly. Hamida Aman, president of Awaz, a Kabul public relations firm, holds her certificate high. "I am absolutely delighted," she declares. "I am honoured to be part of this programme."

The mood should be upbeat. The Artemis project, named after the Greek goddess known as a protector of women and children, was a first for the Arizona school.

Working with the United States Agency for International Development, the US Afghan Women's Council and the Afghan Ministry of Commerce, Thunderbird professors trained fellows in skills from writing business plans and marketing to generating venture capital. Fellows attended classes on entrepreneurship, communications and presentation. To graduate, fellows had to present a formal business plan on marketing and building their venture in Afghanistan.

"Basically we had to do a two-year MBA in two weeks," says Wahida Mohammed-Zai, a paediatrician wanting to expand her Kabul clinic into Afghanistan's rural areas.

Networking opportunities were ample. Fellows were paired with Arizona-based mentors working in their relevant field. There were daily meetings and tours, site visits to businesses around Phoenix as well as social events in the homes of local professional women. Artemis was tough, but well worth it, Dr Zai says.

Now, two months after graduation, the momentum continues. Homira Nassery, one of the fellows, was invited by the White House to sit next to first lady Laura Bush during the State of the Union address. Ms Nassery's plans to set up a venture capital firm for Afghan women are underway. Others are working on expanding their construction company or creating Afghanistan's version of Monster.com, the popular job-posting site.

Although the women have now returned to Afghanistan, they are still receiving support with access to resources such as laptops and software via USAid and other organisations. They will also be able to maintain contact with their mentors for support as they build their businesses.

For Thunderbird, Artemis is the first of a slew of events. Over the next few years the school plans to bring women in from Iraq, Africa and a second wave of women from Afghanistan, says Steven Stralser, clinical professor and managing director at Thunderbird.

This all fits with the changes in business education, he says.

"We are seeing an emergence of social entrepreneurship. In the last five years schools have been looking at business education as an agent of social change."

He cites as an example case competitions at the University of California at Berkeley and Yale where MBA students come up with business plans for a company producing bio-diesel fuel, as opposed to a for-profit venture. "We didn't see this before," he says.

However, there is concern that only a few business schools will become involved.

Mina Sherzoy, Director of Women Entrepreneurship at USAid, says it took three years to find sponsors and a school willing to host the two-week event.

"I have 100 more women lined up in Afghanistan who want to do this," Ms Sherzoy says at the graduation. "These women are amazing. Afghani women are fearless and I hope other business universities will do this."

Nor is the two-week diploma a magic bullet. Some fellows admit that their international degree helps, but executing their plan is not easy. Dr Zai desperately wants to stock her private practice with ultrasound equipment, x-ray machines and a laboratory. She has none. The plan she developed in Arizona - to set up more practices in the rural areas - is paramount too, but securing funding for individuals is tough, she says.

While government hospitals in Kabul have ample support, hospitals in rural areas where 80 per cent of the population reside still have no funding. International donors do not fund small non-governmental organisations or locals, she says. The degree and training helps. But finding money from private companies or donors will take a while.

There are also kinks in the programme to iron out. In retrospect,says Mr Stralser, two weeks may be too short a time to cram in the study and networking, especially when, prior to visiting the US, many participants had never used MBA tools such as laptops and PowerPoint.

Studying, meeting local business people, tours and final presentation, all of which are conducted in English, may be too much, he adds. As a result, the next programme may be extended to three weeks.

Nevertheless, with the mentors making weekly check-ins and the enthusiasm of the fellows, the programme was worth it. "Diplomas like this are a privilege and can only bring a positive impact on our career, business and the construction of our country," says Dr Zai.

"We absolutely need whatever help we can get."

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.