By building their own businesses, women in Afghanistan are sustaining their communities through years of conflict. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon's recent book tells one of their stories.
Even in the most favorable business climate, starting a company is no small feat. Imagine daring to set up shop as a woman under the Taliban regime. That's just what Kamila Sidiqi did. Upon the Taliban gaining control of Kabul in 1996, Sidiqi's parents and older brother left the city, leaving her to care for her younger siblings. But because the Taliban forbade women from leaving home without a male guardian, she was barred from working outside the home. To provide an income for her family, Sidiqi started a tailoring business. Her business grew to employ more than 100 women in her neighborhood.
In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, published this month, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon tells the story of Sidiqi's unlikely entrepreneurship. Lemmon, who worked for ABC News before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School, spent three years in Afghanistan interviewing Sidiqi and other women who launched businesses during the Taliban's rule. Lemmon, now a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke with Inc. senior reporter April Joyner about the continued growth of women's entrepreneurship in Afghanistan.
It's impressive that Kamila Sidiqi sought to build a business that would provide jobs for others, not just herself. Did you find other women with similar aims, or were most of them running businesses for their own subsistence?
I saw both. You see a lot of "necessity entrepreneurs": women who start businesses because there are no jobs they see as working for them and their families. They don't necessarily see themselves as entrepreneurs, but what they're doing is, on a small level, entrepreneurship. And people immediately understand the benefit of job creation, because otherwise, so many men would be supporting on their own 12, 13, 14 family members. Having a woman who earns income not only earns the woman respect but creates so much positive change for the family. So you see women who are very driven to create jobs and some women who are driven simply to make sure that they can support their families.
Sidiqi had limited business options under the Taliban regime. Is there a broader range of woman-run businesses in Afghanistan now?
Yes. During the Taliban years, the businesses had to be home-based. So you had women selling cotton, women who were making dresses, women who were making burqas. Now you see much more diversity. You see women in construction, women in business consultancy, women who are selling dried fruits and nuts, women who are exporting soccer balls.
What is Afghanistan's business climate like today?
The overall business climate is very difficult for men and women. Afghanistan is particularly difficult because the terrain is so difficult, and it's so expensive to export from there, and it's so expensive to import, because almost everything has to be imported from Pakistan or Iran. But it's particularly difficult for women, because women are often farther outside social and economic networks. So it's often harder for them to get access to capital, harder for them to avoid corruption.
But women are continuing to start businesses, despite the obstacles. I think they are very adept on the ground at identifying market opportunities, because people really understand the power of business to make a difference. People have a very strong, inherent sense of why business matters—because people want to be able to feed their families. And they feel very strongly that the thing that will be there long after the internationals leave is entrepreneurship.
How are women able to start businesses despite minimal access to capital? Or is entrepreneurship largely restricted to women who already have financial support?
I think for larger-scale entrepreneurship, it's true—for men and women—that people who already have capital tend to do better. But for very small businesses, women just invest anything they're able to earn. So they get around the challenge of access to capital by starting small and then reinvesting all their profits. So they might sell, say, dried fruits and nuts. You work with a cooperative, and then the money you earn from getting a contract, let's say you supply a hotel, then you go back and maybe buy equipment from there. It's a slower path to growth, but it does work over the long term for many.
What do you think would be most beneficial for enhancing entrepreneurship opportunities for women in Afghanistan?
I think there are probably two things. One is governance in general, so that businesses can function. I think corruption is a real issue. It's very difficult on small business owners because it takes a lot off the top. If they're able to win government contracts, they're often expected to give a percentage of that in bribes. The second issue is access to capital and business training. I think that 10,000 Women from Goldman Sachs and other programs that are on the ground are doing a very good job of helping start some of the training and helping women get access to world-class management training, but the challenge is that there's no way to get capital to start businesses afterward. I think that helping women to have better access to small business loans—loan guarantee programs in particular—could make a big difference.
You've also covered entrepreneurship among women in Rwanda and Bosnia. Did you see any similarities to Afghan women in their paths to starting businesses?
Yes. I think entrepreneurs are born and not created, and so I think you see a lot of similarities among entrepreneurs in different parts of the world. Their backdrop may be very different, but their drive to create a business and to create jobs remains very much the same, whether it's in Silicon Valley or Kandahar or Kabul. In some ways, you almost have to be entrepreneurial to survive a war economy. Even during the Taliban years, the economy really collapsed. It was entrepreneurship that pulled a lot of people, such as Kamila's family, through because entrepreneurship allowed them to find openings and make them real opportunities.
Are there any lessons we can take from Afghanistan for encouraging entrepreneurship in the United States?
I think that sometimes people are frightened to take the risk of entrepreneurship. The one thing you learn from looking at places like Afghanistan is that the power of business to do good is enormous. In some ways, there are so few viable alternatives that it makes taking that risk less frightening, because there are so few other jobs that you might want to go to that are competing with your entrepreneurial drive. But then there are people like Kamila who are turning down very well paying jobs in the international community because they believe in the power of entrepreneurship. They are, I think, great examples of just how much entrepreneurship can do for not just one family but for a whole community.