Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Female Afghan Entrepreneurs and Their Fighter Pilot Angel Investors

By the time Wasil arrives at the Bagram Air Base bazaar, he has already had a taxing day. The commute to the outskirts of the American installation takes over an hour, and the security screening process another hour. He then opens his shop to sell his wares to curious servicemembers. In his off time from being an entrepreneur in a wartorn country, he studies economics at a local Kabul university.

Cross Cultural Solutions
It was in selling his goods that he happened across three young American Air Force officers. Capt Jonathan Hudgins and Capt Ryan Bodenheimer are F-15 Eagle drivers, and Capt Joshua Carroll the intelligence officer from their squadron. They arrived at Bagram in September of 2011 to complete a six month deployment with the 335th Fighter Squadron out of North Carolina.

In the course of conversation one day, the four hit it off. The language barrier was a challenge at first, with some phrases being lost in translation, but soon, they were talking of everything from politics to education. Eventually they started discussing the most pressing question on Wasil’s mind: The Future of Afghanistan.

After a few visits with Wasil, it became apparent to these three innovative officers that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan would have catastrophic consequences for many that had come to depend upon foreign and American aid. They knew it was their obligation to find a creative solution to foster entrepreneurship outside of normal military or government channels.

Wasil’s mother runs a local non-profit organization devoted to employing widowed Afghan women who make handmade artisan scarves. Jon and Josh asked Wasil if his mother would want to partner with them to create an international cooperative so as to sell the scarves in the United States. The offer was enthusiastically accepted.

This model of supporting third-world entrepreneurs was most famously formulated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhamed Yunus using the Grameen Bank. Instead of microlending, however, Josh, Ryan and Jon wanted to create an international marketplace for the women’s goods.

After months of filling out IRS, import and customs paperwork, Flying Scarfs began to take shape. It is still in the nascent stages, but has already imported scores of scarves to the US.

More than just fostering entrepreneurship in a society very different than ours, Flying Scarves aims to support one of the most oppressed groups in Afghanistan: women. Even with the end of formal Taliban rule, women in Afghan society are subject to antiquated and unjust judicial proceedings. The worth of most women comes from the social standing of the husbands. Widowed women are thus even more socially outcast. Flying Scarves is an avenue for them to continue to contribute to their local societies.

The three social entrepreneurs have learned from firsthand experience that by specifically targeting female entrepreneurs, and putting money directly in their pockets, the money is most effectively spent. The money they earn goes primarily to their children in the form of education and community projects. It is a small, but necessary, step in helping to close the severe gap in gender equality.

By relying on the already established talents of local Afghans, Flying Scarfs has mitigated the need for costly and bureaucratic government-run training programs. This model empowers oppressed women to seek self-employment as a means of creating lasting economic opportunity.

Furthermore, local development is more efficient than siphoning funds through the US budget – very little, if any, of which actually goes directly to the wages of female Afghans. The average American making $40,000 pays $1694 a year in taxes for the military operations in Afghanistan. Jon and Josh, from their observations, see most of this money getting lost in the foreign aid shuffle, rather than into the hands of the Afghans who need it most. Flying Scarfs is intended to deliver those resources directly into their pockets.

Flying Scarfs currently employs over 300 local Afghan women. The $30 spent on a scarf, equivalent to a week’s worth of wages, is rewarding productive impulses and supporting the development of an above board economy. It directly infuses much needed capital to the Afghan people, especially when a corrupt government disruption system struggles to allocate funds to the right places.

Winning Hearts and Minds
Apart from Flying Scarfs, Josh and Ryan are working to create a more broad-based organization called “Onward Generation” devoted to finding entrepreneurial solutions within the military. With their first venture a success, it will be interesting to see what other ideas they develop.

Wasil still studies economics and sells daily at the Bagram bazaar while helping his mother export handmade scarves abroad. He summed up the strategy of Flying Scarfs best by saying “there is no reason to join the insurgency because I have a job.” These three officers, by thinking outside normal paradigms, are trying to ensure this becomes a reality for more Afghans one scarf at a time.

Please visit the Flying Scarfs website to learn more about their venture.