Fatima Akbari, Afghan Mother, Role-Model, Social Entrepreneur and Business Owner

Last month you were introduced to Toni Maloney and her non-profit social enterprise:  Bpeace, the Business Council for Peace.  You also learned a bit about a 19 year-old Afghan entrepreneur, Shahla Akbariwith her shoe manufacturing business.  I promised to write more about Shahla in the next post, which is today’s.   However I decided it was best to first introduce you to her role-model and mother:  social entrepreneur mother, Fatima Akbari Shahla worked with her mother’s business for awhile until she herself found an economic need to be filled in Afghanistan. That need was for locally made shoes to be sold to Afghans.  Shahla’s shoe manufacturing business is applauded by the “Buy Afghan, By Afghan” local made in Afghanistan initiative.  Before I tell you more about Shahla and her Afghan Women Initiative Company, handmade shoes for men and women, I would like you to meet her mother and her first mentor as a woman business owner.

Being creative and artistic is a natural trait in Afghanistan culture. Shahla and Fatima Akbari’s businesses are representative of the artistry that comes out of Afghanistan.  Their businesses also fill a need through the visionary eyes of women entrepreneurs.  Shahla’s mother is a 45 year old widow and the mother of four children.  She is the founder of the carpentry school and furniture manufacturing business, Gulistan Sadaquat Company, in Kabul Afghanistan.  Shahla and her mother’s business are considered non-traditional for women business owners, even in the United States.  Mother and daughter were accepted into the Bpeace Fast Runnerthree-year program with Fatima completing the three-year program in 2010.  This incredible program gave Fatima and Shahla the opportunity to be matched with Bpeace volunteer business professionals who commit to mentor and guide the Afghan entrepreneurs for three years.   During the three years the Afghan entrepreneurs come to the United States to apprentice at American firms.

Fatima Akbari is both a mother and a true social entrepreneur role-model. Fatima Akbari’s story is one of a woman, like many disadvantaged women in the inner cities of U.S., who needed to provide for her children after the death of her husband.  She had no means of support.  However, in Afghanistan widows usually end up as beggars on the streets.  Fatima wanted no part of that lifestyle.  She worked in Iran on construction sites and when the time was right, returned to Afghanistan to pass on her carpentry skills to other Afghan widows and now their children (boys and girls).  In 2003 she founded the Gulistan Sadaqat Company as a carpentry school and furniture manufacturing  business:  handcrafted Afghan wood furniture, toys and ornaments.

Now you may be wondering how is it that Fatima Akbari is a social entrepreneur role model?   Fatima’s goal is to help the poorest people in Afghanistan. She employs nearly 100 people right now.  A large percentage are widows or wives of disabled men from 30 years of war in Afghanistan.  These women are normally the very poorest and illiterate.  They learn carpentry to feed and educate their children.

The carpentry school and business is a non-governmental organization (NGO) and is a lifeline to these women and provides them with a means to help support their families.  In addition Fatima provides childcare for her employees while they are working as well as a one-room school house.  The employee’s children may learn the carpentry trade as well and are allowed to work when not in school and during holidays.  You can read about it in an article on Wahdat News entitled Women of Hazaras and Modern Afghanistan (click here).

How an Afghan woman created a business in a male-dominated trade and culture: Today Fatima’s business has five locations with a goal to be in 34 provinces of Afghanistan.  Do you know what is amazing about Fatima with her business?  It is her attitude towards starting a business in a once dominated male industry-carpentry!   Think about it ladies.  Carpentry is still considered a male dominated business even in our own country.  Fatima realized technology had replaced some of the “labor” in a carpentry business.  In her eyes women work just as hard as men, even in a physical business like making handcrafted wood furniture and toys. She has used this understanding to create a business to help not only her own family but hundreds of other people.  Most of the money made in the business is given to the staff because they need to support their families.  Today supplies are limited and Fatima is considering using recycled wood and supplies.   The workmanship of Fatima’s staff is becoming well known and respected to the point that traders come to Gulistan Sadaqat Company to purchase products.  Hazara People blog adds more the story of Fatima and Gulistan Sadaquat Company.(click here to read the article on Hazara People.com).

Fatima was accepted into the Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative in 2009 at the American University of Afghanistan.  Through this program and Bpeace, Fatima gained the business management skills needed to grow her business even more.  Like all entrepreneurs she needs to network to promote the business, gain customers and raise money.  The concept of social media marketing is not an option in a country like Afghanistan.  Therefore Fatima attends female business luncheons and travels at home throughout Kabul and abroad to promote her carpentry school, gain customers and raise money.

In my opinion Fatima Akbari’s total and unselfish commitment to her daughter Shahla’s business quest as an entrepreneur and those of other women in Afghanistan puts her ahead of many others.  From the tribute given to Fatima by Vital Voices for its Economic Empowerment Global Leadership Awardher statement says it all:  “I support my daughter and I guide her in her business so she can be successful and build our home country.”  She is also supporting many more women in Afghanistan through her training and business by giving them an opportunity to learn a trade and work to provide for themselves and their families.  Fatima Akbari is helping to rebuild her homeland of Afghanistan through education and social entrepreneurship (http:vitalvoices.org/vital-voices-women/featured-voices/fatema-akbari)

Fatima did not set out to have a successful business to be honored or to receive an award.  I doubt very seriously if she ever expected or thought about becoming the recipient of honors or awards for her work as a social entrepreneur helping women in Afghanistan.  As I noted above, she was awarded Vital Voices Economic Empowerment Global Leadership Award.   This was bestowed upon her on April 12, 2011 during the Tenth Annual Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards.  I think you will see from the videos I have included and the links to articles and interviews with Fatima how she is a role-model for her daughter Shahla and other women and girls in Afghanistan as well as to other women in war-torn countries.

Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative: In closing Fatima and Shahla are both esteemed graduates of the Goldman-Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative Fatima is hailed as a trailblazer with the program because not only did she encourage and help her daughter start a business; she encourages women in general to become business owners.  She is a true vision of the Afghan women’s perseverance and passion to make a difference in their country while taking care of their families. Additionally Fatima represents how Goldman-Sachs Foundation’s 10,000 Women Initiativeis successfully educating underserved women around the world with a business and management education.  You will want to watch this video interview with Fatima and Greta Van Sustern on April 1, 2011, as well as being inspired by her click here.

My next post will be about Shahla Akbarias I promised.  By learning about her mother you can see where Shahla gets her tenacity and business drive.

You can learn more about the Girl’s CEO Connection and teen girls creating entrepreneurial enterprises on Facebook at  www.facebook.com/girls-ceo-connection.

About Sylvia Scott

I am the Founder and Managing Director of the GIrl's CEO Connection. The mission is to equip teenage girls and young women as a new generation of entrepreneurs and future women leaders. I am passionate about the growth of women entrepreneurs at all stages of business growth. While taking courses for an MBA at Babson College in Wellesley MA I developed a passion for helping Afghan women and girls to become entrepreneurs.
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