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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Arzu Studio Hope: A Sustainable Business Model for Transformational Change
It isn’t enough to
talk about peace.One must believe in it.
And it isn’t enough to believe in it.One
must work at it. – Eleanor Roosevelt
How do you lift women out of poverty in a country where
women are marginalized and defined by their subordinate status?According to Connie Duckworth, CEO of Arzu Studio Hope (Arzu),
you use the tools you have available to design and build a platform for
growth.“There is dignity in work and self –reliance,”
said Duckworth.“Women are amazingly
resourceful.Women do the work of the
world and are also the face of poverty.They are peacemakers and mothers everywhere want the same things.We want our kids to have opportunities, to be
healthy and to have a future.”
Arzu demonstrates that transformational change can happen
even in the world’s most horrible places.“Each one of us holds the power of hope and change in our hands,”
continued Duckworth.As a mentor to
countless women coming up through the ranks at Goldman Sachs and an advocate
for family focused policies like maternity leave, Duckworth has demonstrated a lifelong
passion for women’s rights and economic sustainability.Arzu is a reflection of that passion and with
Arzu, Duckworth has created a roadmap that could be replicated to impact women
globally. “We’ve developed a successful business in
Afghanistan, a conflict zone with no infrastructure, no power grid, no
internet, no roads,” says Duckworth, “if we can do it there, we can do it
The concept is based on the mantra, “she who writes the check
controls the agenda.”Women that have an
income can have a sense of independence that they would not otherwise have; with
an income women gain authority.The idea
for Arzu grew out of an identified need.Duckworth was asked to travel to Afghanistan as a business
representative of the US Afghan Women’s Council, a Council created to ensure
that in the restructuring of Afghanistan that women have a seat at the
table.They were the first delegation
allowed to overnight in the country.She
describes it as stepping back in time 2000 years.Kabul is a city devastated by civil war that
flattened whole sections of the city.On
the way back to the airport the group stopped by a bombed out Soviet-style
building and met dozens of women and children squatting for the winter with very
little in the way of clothing and no heat, electricity or water.Many, if not all, of these women were widows
with no education and no way to support their children – and it is not uncommon
for women in Afghanistan to have 7 or 8 children.
Struck by these images, Duckworth knew she was going to do
something to create a business to employ as many women as possible.The challenge: start a business with no
access to electricity, in a war-zone, without a shipping infrastructure or
banking infrastructure.While she did not have these things, she did
have a vision.She wanted to identify an
export product that would create enough cash to fund the back end of the
business including all the materials, all the social programs and provide for fair
Here is where the process begins to emerge.
Step one in starting a business is to get as much
information as you can.Duckworth hired
a woman at the UN to compile economic data.One drawback was that the data was from 1975 but it still provided some
framework to work from.Afghanistan is extremely
poor, extremely dry and access to water is limited – thus, no opportunity for
agriculture.To set the stage, there are
really no employment opportunities for women or men.
Step two was to use this information to identify the
product.Weaving is a culturally
acceptable activity for women, they can weave in their homes, and in theory the
business could be started that day.So, through trial and error, Duckworth essentially
backed into high quality Afghan rugs as the target product.
In life, success is
based partly on the cards falling your way.Bamyan Province has the first, and so far, only female governor, Habiba
Sarabi.She was appointed in 2005 and
she invited Duckworth to start an enterprise in Bamyan.Bamyan Province is home to the magical Buddha’s
and translated means ‘The Place of
Shining Light.’Bamyan is one of the
thirty-four provinces of Afghanistan.According to the Regional Rural Economic
Regeneration Strategies (RRERS),
is one of the poorest, most
mountainous, and agriculturally least productive areas in the country.
Much of the land is barren and inaccessible, with acute water shortages, small
landholdings, extensive food insecurity, and poor soil quality characterizing
much of the region. While specific communities in Bamyan have benefited from
short-term relief efforts and some infrastructure improvements, substantial
need for well-planned initiatives remains.
Duckworth made the
decision to start an enterprise around training and developing Afghan
talent.While still a segregated
society, the company is run by two production managers: one male and one female.
Step three is to negotiate or garner the support of family and community.To do this, Arzu went village to village and
house to house negotiating with the male heads of households to create a social
contract.The deal was that in exchange
for fair labor wages, the company would pay for “A” quality product and add a
50% quality bonus. These are highly
skilled and talented artisans. Each year
Arzu formally sits down with each family to negotiate and they truly understand
what a job can do to transform a woman’s life and her social position in the
One story that Duckworth tells is
that of a widowed woman weaver named Fatima.Arzu gives priority to widows.Before Arzu, Fatima was living in a refugee camp with her seven
children.Statistically, 25% of children
in Afghanistan die by the time they are 5 years old, 95% of women will never
have any medical care and Afghanistan has the second highest maternal death
rate globally.These women suffer from malnutrition
and illiteracy and 85% of them suffer domestic violence.If there is a history of being a sole wage
earner, however, that woman’s respect goes up dramatically.Fatima is now reading at a fifth grade level,
supporting her family and is a shining beacon of hope for them.
Why does this model work?Because, says Duckworth, these families are
being economically incented to support the model.“Follow the money,” says Duckworth.“We believe that for this to work, women need
to be empowered economically and also supported with an ecosystem.You can’t just pull one end of the thread out
of a ball of yarn.You need to bring in
education and promote health.”
Part of Arzu’s success is because
they consciously built an ecosystem of support that consists of three
components.First, the family must agree
that the women get released to Arzu for 2 hours a day for tutoring.One woman who realized this change in her
life commented that, “reading is like a blind woman getting her eyes.”It is amazing that things that we take for
granted can make such a huge impact.Second,
the family must agree that all children in the household go to school and Arzu
tracks compliance.Third, the family
must release the women for pre- and post-natal care health checks.It is
significant that since 2006 the community that lives within this ecosystem has
not lost a mother or baby in childbirth in a country with one of the highest
maternal death rates. The difference is
that the families have bought into the business model.They are economically incented to do so and
their success is based on their own performance.
“If you follow the money and
trace it back, you can figure out why people behave the way they do,” explained
Duckworth.For example, why do families
marry their girls off at the age of 12? Economics - the family gets money from selling the
daughter to the in-laws.If, however, we
can figure out how to provide employment to teenage girls they are worth more
to their families earning a consistent income.Whenever possible, Arzu employs teenage girls for part-time jobs.They are the teachers for the women weavers,
they help in the garden.Seventy female
students are attending college.The
equation is simple: income = girls get to stay in college.
Arzu demonstrates that if you can
show someone that they can be the catalyst to set their children on the path to
a better life, they will do what it takes to make that happen.The message to us is that no change happens
if you don’t start.“It doesn’t matter
what you do,” says Duckworth.“Just
start.If each of us just did that one
thing that we are capable of doing there could be a tsunami of change.”Arzu has created between 700 and 1000 jobs in
a place where there are no jobs, scarce resources, cultural challenges and
overwhelming destitution.Change happens
with baby steps and celebrating small victories.Arzu is an inspiration for promoting
transformational change through sustainable business models.
New technology, diverse energy resources and grid solutions can help redefine our energy landscape. Kelly de la Torre’s practice focuses on getting client's results by: finding solutions to market and regulatory barriers to energy development and for emerging technologies, by working with her client's to identify market opportunities and bring together the right parties and legal support to take advantage of those market opportunities.
By understanding the energy landscape and understanding the client's objectives, Kelly can help companies design strategies to achieve their objectives within the existing statutory and regulatory framework and advocate for changes if necessary.
Kelly has a B.S. in biochemistry and an M.S. in chemistry both from the University of New Mexico and a J.D. from the Rutgers-Camden School of Law in New Jersey. She is licensed to practice in New Mexico and Colorado and is a member of the U.S. Patent Bar.
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