Caring for Women’s Rights She Thought, Those Could be My Children

There are certain things that you’re just passionate about and it could be anything.  Mine has always been women’s rights, and particularly women’s economic empowerment.  That has been my personal soapbox, I think since I was in high school.   –Connie Duckworth, founder and CEO, Arzu Studio Hope

Arzu studio hope, connie duckworth, rug weaving, Afghanistan, arzu
Credit: Arzu Studio Hope

In 2003, Connie was a retired partner of Goldman Sachs.  She had four school age children and a calendar full of board and speaking responsibilities.  She wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but she was looking.  This interview is the story of her journey from Wall Street partner to social entrepreneur, from working in a world of privilege to one in which the need is overwhelming.  Arzu Studio Hope commissions women in Afghanistan to weave top quality rugs for sale in the United States and Europe.  ARZU addresses three interdependent needs: consistent and improved employment, access to education, and access to basic healthcare, with a particular focus on maternal and infant care.

You really don’t have an international affairs background?

No, not at all.  And I had never done anything remotely in Washington.  But I looked at this and I thought, “Wow, this is exactly my sweet spot.”  Here we’re talking about the most abused women on the face of the Earth, which is my passion, and it’s in the international arena, which I was becomingly increasingly interested in.

When you sort of look up from your day-to-day life and post 9/11, I think we all were jolted into a new reality about the larger world.  So it just was like being in the right place at the right time.  I was asked to join this commission. It’s called the US Afghan Women’s Council.

But we had just forced the Taliban out along with the whole coalition.  It just was a topic that was extremely interesting to me, but I didn’t have any particular qualifications for this and didn’t know what I was expected to do.  And that’s part of the journey aspect of all of this. We had few conference calls and meetings and then in January of ’03 we got on a military plane and we flew into Kabul.

It was the most extraordinary trip I’ve ever taken.  It really was the catalyst, if you will, for this embarkation on the journey that I’m now on in terms of having founded Arzu.

I didn’t know how to respond, basically.  It was like going back in time two thousand years. It was so different in every way from anything that I had ever experienced in our culture here.  Kabul looked like Berlin after World War II.   It had just been flattened in the various bombings.

We went to a bombed out school building, a cinder block building and as it was January the temperature was in the twenties.  There were dozens of women and children living in this bombed-out building, no windows, no heat, no electricity, no running water, no food, no furniture trying to live through the winter, squatting through the winter. I looked at these children’s faces-that goes back to it could be me-and I thought those could be my children. I literally went back on the plane and thought, “I am doing something, I don’t know what it is, but I am doing something.”

We see the world through our own lens and my lens is business.  So my response, basically to this situation is that these women needed jobs.  Because it goes back to the power of the purse and my personal belief that economic empowerment is the driver for women’s larger empowerment.

And so I hired a young woman part-time who had worked at the UN to help me do some research.  I tried to think whether I could encourage industries to bring factories into Afghanistan.  The fact of the matter is, particularly years ago – this was still basically a war zone, and it was just not realistic to expect private capital to come in and invest

There was no civil society and no education.  This is a country that has nothing.  It was a disaster of epic proportions on every single level of society: environmentally, health-care-wise, education, rule of law. It’s the most heavily land mined country in the world… just huge hurdles.

Through that research, I went ahead and I incorporated a 501c3 (a non-profit) with the mission of Arzu, which is to in effect try to help restart the rug industry, which had been a very vibrant industry for centuries.

What state was the rug industry in then at the beginning of 2003?

There had been massive dislocation because of almost twenty-five years of war.  The supply chain was disrupted and the reputation of the Afghan carpet on the international markets had fallen way off because the materials were shoddy. The weavers themselves were displaced.  Millions were in refugee camps in Pakistan.  The whole rug industry was in disarray.  But the reason that I hit on that was it was one of the only things that I could see that women could actually do that was culturally acceptable because they could do it in their homes.

How did you come up with the idea, do you remember?

The rug? Basically by starting to look at Department of Commerce data and UN data on industries and economic flows in Central Asia.  Even the U.S. Department of Commerce had a white paper that said that the rug industry was probably Afghanistan’s best near-term hope for a legal economy.  Because there’s obviously a huge opium trade, though that tends not to be women.

So I started picking up the phone and calling rug people.

What were you asking them?

I was saying this is who I am.  I’m trying to think of ways to plant some seeds in the private sector in Afghanistan. Can you help me?  They all took my calls; they all met with me and gave advice.  And that’s how I learned about the rug industry.

Because when I started this, truly, I knew nothing about Afghanistan, I knew nothing about rugs and I knew nothing about international development.  But I know about business.  I guess the lesson is that it’s just like starting a new job, trying to attack one of these social problems that you’re interested in.  You really don’t know how to do it until you start, but you just have to start. You just have to show up the first day and you learn.

So anyway it was one foot in front of another.  I had one rug expert tell me there was no way we could do this, no way it would ever work. What did I know about rugs?  Well he was right, I didn’t know anything about rugs and then I met with the same guy about six months later and went through where we were and he said, “You know you have learned a lot in the last six months.”

But it’s still a big leap from getting advice to actually getting up and running…

That’s right.  A lot of it was sort of common sense and again I think about this organization that we’ve created over there very much like a business.  It’s a charity, I work completely pro bono and all of the proceeds from the rugs go to support the organization and the mission.  But mentally I think about wanting it to be very, very profitable because what we’re trying to do is to create what people in international development have told me is a “new template in post-conflict reconstruction”.  The first time I heard that I was like, “Well we’re just trying to do a little rug business.” It’s bringing private sector thinking to a public sector problem. I think not having any kind of international development background was probably helpful in a way because I didn’t have any of the biases about how things should be done. We just made it up as we went along.

So we started with a staff of one half-time person working and later we hired a full-time person here in Chicago.  We’re now up to a staff of about twenty people, most of whom are in Afghanistan.  We have fifteen people in Afghanistan, all Afghanis.  That was one of the decisions.  Again we set the ground rules, because we were creating this thing and made it up as we went along. One of the rules for us is that this is not about is us. It’s about them.

That’s the new template for international development.  We are creating real work there. We’re talking about very high-quality, export quality, high-end, natural-dye carpets that you would be proud to have in your home.

Interview excerpted from Be the Change, by Lisa Endlich.
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