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Center for International Private Enterprise

ECONOMICREFORM Feature Service® November 14, 2011

Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference Gayle Tzemach Lemmon Author, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana Mary Schnack National Partner, Women Impacting Public Policy Selima Ahmad President and Founder, Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI)

Article at a glance • Entrepreneurship empowers women and contributes to the development of local communities and national economies. • Women’s entrepreneurship is not just about microenterprise — it is about businesses that grow, innovate, export, and create jobs for others. • Business associations play a vital role in strengthening women’s entrepreneurship by providing training, networking opportunities, access to finance, and removing barriers to doing business through policy advocacy.

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Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference

Women entrepreneurs around the world need access to finance, markets, and peer networks, whether they are in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or the United States. In this article, three panelists from CIPE’s Democracy that Delivers for Women conference discuss their experiences with women entrepreneurs in those countries, highlighting opportunities, challenges, and resources. To listen to their stories in full, visit

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Entrepreneurship under the Taliban When we think of stories of war, we rarely think of women. And yet, it is women who make sure there is a community to go back to when war is over. The narrative that we are used to sees women as victims of war to be pitied rather than as survivors of war to be respected. We overlook all that they do to make sure that families get through really impossible times. I went to Afghanistan in December 2005 when I was writing an article for the Financial Times about women entrepreneurs in war zones. As a female reporter, I felt like I was almost expected to apologize for writing stories about women because the world has somehow come to see these stories as “soft.” In truth, when you see the work that women do every day on the ground, it is really hard.

the Taliban reign. Although she was a teacher by training, the Taliban forbade her from following that career path. The Taliban also forced Kamila’s father and older brothers to flee out of fear of being imprisoned or forced to fight for the Taliban military. Kamila began her dressmaking business to provide for her five younger siblings, starting with one dress she sewed in her living room. One of the things that people do not realize about the Taliban period is that it is as much of an economic story as it is a political story. Under the Taliban there was no real economic growth. To get by, people were selling anything – baby dolls, shoelaces, doors, windows, and so on. That stagnation, coupled with women’s desperation to provide for their families, inspired potential entrepreneurs like Kamila. Kamila’s dressmaking business was successful because she filled a hole in the market. During the Taliban period, almost everyone with wealth had left Kabul so there was little demand for expensive Pakistani and Chinese dresses. Furthermore, male tailors were no longer allowed to make dresses for women, but no matter how bad things were under the Taliban, women still wanted to look good and have new dresses to wear to weddings and family gatherings. Therefore, there was a niche for women like Kamila who could sew dresses for other women. Kamila hired women and girls from around the neighborhood to work with her in her living room making dresses. The Taliban forbade this

In Kabul, I interviewed a woman named Kamila Sidiqi who said that money was power for women, and nothing earned respect like earning an income. In traditional societies, when women are seen as bringing money into the household, it makes fathers and brothers have more respect for the women in their families. That is as true in Afghanistan as it is anywhere in the world. She also believed that business would be the thing that pulls Afghanistan out of poverty, because long after the foreigners leave, local businesses will remain.

What Kamila did is what women around the world do everyday with





attention: she stepped up and took care of her family and

I asked Kamila why she was so passionate about business and she told me her story about her dressmaking business in Afghanistan during

community by creating a business. –2–

Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference

Center for International Private Enterprise

creating a business. She started with one dress that she learned to make from her sister, and grew a business with employees and a network of buyers all around Kabul.

There is a lot of good work that women do, but we have not yet reached our maximum

our own efforts by working in

Some people hear these stories and tell me that I am only talking about the exceptions. There are a couple of things I say to this. First, that is why such stories are called “news.” Second, these women entrepreneurs are as Afghan as any other women living throughout the country whether in conservative, rural communities or in Kabul. They have every right to have their story told and they are important homegrown role models that make a difference. Third, it is the exceptions, like Kamila, who change societies around the world.


Mary Schnack: Going Global

scale. I think that by working in associations we can advocate the policies that will help us get there, as well as strengthen

When I travel, I love to shop for unique things and handicrafts. Before I started my business, sellers would see how much I was buying and they wanted me to buy things to bring back and sell in the United States. After I returned home and distributed gifts, my friends would say, “Oh, my sister would love this. If you see this particular saleswoman or item again when you travel, could you bring me back another to give to my sister?” That is why I started my businesses called Up From The Dust. I import items made by women in developing countries and bring them to developed countries to sell.

type of activity, but Kamila and her seamstresses persisted because they felt the empowerment and sense of community it created for them. Eventually Kamila realized that she was a lousy seamstress, but an excellent businesswoman. So she did what all successful entrepreneurs do – find the opportunity, bring a good team together, and sell. Now Kamila has a business consultancy and travels around the country teaching entrepreneurship skills. For me, this story about one young women living in a tough place at this incredibly difficult political period stood for so many others that the world will never hear. There are many unsung heroines and inspiring entrepreneurs who are all around us, including in countries that most people do not visit. I wrote The Dressmaker of Khair Khana to alter the global discussion and recognize the power of these women around the world to create real change through entrepreneurship.

I work with women so that we can help our sisters grow their businesses around the world. I want to move the conversation beyond the neediest women at the micro level. I buy from women who are in the “missing middle” because a woman does not have to be sitting on a dirt floor to need help growing her business. For example, I buy purses from a designer in Egypt and people ask me, “Why does she need your help?” The answer is because right now she does not sell outside of Egypt, but to grow her business she needs to be able to export. Without exports she employs 14 other women, but if she grows her business she will create even more jobs. That is why

Such women often do not think of themselves as entrepreneurs. They just think of themselves as women who are pulling families through and they happen to be using a business to do it. What Kamila did is what women around the world do everyday with almost no one paying attention: she stepped up and took care of her family and community by –3–

Center for International Private Enterprise

Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference

By participating in the private sector, women create a space for their gender across entire societies. buying her purses really has a multiplier effect for women, and that is what I love about Up From The Dust. As a businesswoman, I think it is a mistake for any business owner to not belong to a chamber of commerce. For example, I am a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) here in the United States, and I joined it immediately after I quit my corporate position and started my first business. When NAWBO first came to me and said that they were going to start an international forum, I thought, “I’m one person and I’m too small to go global.” But NAWBO taught me that I was not too small. Six years later, I am employing people and every month I travel internationally for my business. That is why part of my mission with women in the United States is to help them go global. I also work with Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), and we took it upon ourselves to bring small business issues into the 2008 election debates. The campaigns took us seriously, which shows the impact that smaller actors can have by joining together in an association. That is why I think associations are key. Leadership is also important for women, which is why I am on the board of ATHENA International, an organization dedicated to supporting, developing, and honoring women leaders. Often women do not see themselves as leaders because they are not “command and control,” and they think that is the only way to be a leader. That, however, is not women’s style of leadership. Women are more collaborative. We help

others. We give back to our communities. Those are some of the tenets that need to be honored in a society. There is a lot of good work that women do, but we have not yet reached our maximum scale. I think that by working in associations we can advocate the policies that will help us get there, as well as strengthen our own efforts by working in solidarity.

Selima Ahmad: More than Microenterprise I was 16 years old when I married, and I was 17 when I had my first son. I had seen how voiceless my grandmother, mother and sisters were without education and economic empowerment, so I knew I needed to change that for myself. My primary concern at the time was flexibility because I had a son, I was married, and I was studying. I started with handicrafts and then established the first and only artificial silk flower industry in Bangladesh. I started a business consultancy with my male friends, but they left me two years later because they said the business was too risky and the risks were not distributed evenly. They implied that since I was married, I could still afford to carry on if the business failed. So I moved on to other entrepreneurial pursuits, eventually founding the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) to help other women entrepreneurs overcome the same challenges I was facing. When we talk about the women of Bangladesh, what do we talk about? We talk about women workers in the garment or textile industries, or we talk about microcredit and micro entrepreneurs. But are these micro entrepreneurs part of the mainstream economy? If not, how can we get them to go beyond the micro level? Microenterprise can support a livelihood but how much does it empower women holistically?


Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference

Although not all women can be entrepreneurs, many can be. Entrepreneurs need resources, however. Training and capacity building are very important for women entrepreneurs, as is access to finance and networking. Chambers and association can play a greater part in providing these services, which also helps bring women into the formal sector. If a woman’s business is not a legal entity in the formal sector, then she does not pay taxes, generate employment, or have a voice in policies affecting the private sector. Therefore, it is essential to bring women into the formal sector so that they can maximize their potential.

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These remarks are based on a plenary session titled, “Economic Empowerment, Entrepreneurship, and Small Business Development” at CIPE’s Democracy that Delivers for Women conference. To learn more about that event, please visit www. The remarks in full, as well as the follow-up Question & Answer session, are available on YouTube at watch?v=7J_93Vmupjo. _____________________________________________________________________________

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the New York Timesbestselling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining the Council, she covered public policy and emerging markets for the global investment firm PIMCO, after working for nearly a decade as a journalist with the ABC News Political Unit and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Her reporting on entrepreneurs in conflict and postconflict regions has appeared in the Financial Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, the Daily Beast, and Christian Science Monitor, along with Bloomberg, Politico and the Huffington Post.

Let me tell you about Shahanara, one of our BWCCI members. Shahanara came to the Chamber with some background in crafts. She was very punctual to all of our events and I noticed her commitment. Eventually I learned she had a background in several areas of business so I began to press her to see what she could do. BWCCI provided her with training on entrepreneurship, personal management, and financial management. Later we encouraged her to participate in a domestic trade fair and eventually she generated enough revenue to participate in a trade fair in Milan, where she got an export order. Now Shahanara is exporting her goods to Italy.

Mary Schnack is an award-winning writer, reporter, public relations professional and advocate. She has written for major national magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, McCall’s and the Los Angeles Times. She served on the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) national board of directors and was co-founder of NAWBO’s International Forum. She is a National Founding Partner and on the executive advisory board for Women Impacting Public Policy. She also is a Lifetime Charter Member of Boardroom Bound, a corporate governance and director candidate program, and graduate of their Pipeline seminar. She is a board member and co-chair of the International Committee of ATHENA International board of directors. Her website is and you can follow her on twitter at @MarySchnack.

Our members say that they were voiceless before they had their businesses and now they understand the benefits of running their own business. They say they have more mobility and more participation in decision-making, as well as more control over their own money. By participating in the private sector, women create a space for their gender across entire societies. Women entrepreneurs are about more than individual income generation and empowerment. Women entrepreneurs are also working toward lifting many millions of people out of poverty and toward a more prosperous Bangladesh. They can rock the cradle and shape the business world, too.


Center for International Private Enterprise

Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference

Selima Ahmad is founder and president of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Ms. Ahmad has worked with numerous trade organizations, including the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Bangladesh Automobile Assemblers and Manufacturers Association, and the Bangladesh Handicraft Manufacturers and Exporters Association. In the private sector, Ms. Ahmad currently serves as Vice Chair of the Nitol-Niloy Group. She has a held various top management positions in a number of companies, particularly in the areas of Finance and Human Resources, such as Nitol Motors Ltd, Nitol Cement Industries Ltd, Capital Services Lts, Central Properties Ltd, and Fidelity Assets & Securities Co. Ltd. The views expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). CIPE grants permission to reprint, translate, and/or publish original articles from its Economic Reform Feature Service provided that (1) proper attribution is given to the original author and to CIPE and (2) CIPE is notified where the article is placed and a copy is provided to CIPE’s Washington office.

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Women Entrepreneurs: Seizing Opportunities and Making a Difference