Starting a Business in Tough Times

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Yesterday, I had the privilege to teach, and learn from, some amazing women entrepreneurs from Afghanistan. Twice I had to turn away from the group because my eyes had filled with tears. Can you imagine starting a business where being a business owner is looked down upon as a disgraceful thing? (In this case, it’s true just for women).

This is the 3rd time that Project Artemis has brought women entrepreneurs over to spend 2 weeks with women business leaders. I was honored to be asked to help out with the teaching yesterday.

There were also representatives from American University in Kabul and a very cool lady who is heading up the Goldman Sachs “10,000 Women” campaign. Goldman Sachs found out about Project Artemis and instead of helping small groups, they are extending the project out to developing nations around the world with the goal of teaching 10,000 women each year.

The group was clearly some of the brightest and sharpest of a nation, but they lacked foundational skills. There is no credit in their country. In fact, banks really don’t serve the country at all. Everything is cash. No checks. No credit cards. Cash. They didn’t understand the difference between income and assets. The biggest breakthough, though, happened when I was talking about the “Power of ‘And’”. (My portion was a mixture of practical with contextual business growth strategies)

Throughout the event there was one row that I was struggling to connect with. It’s always harder to talk through a translator. For one thing, you’re not sure exactly how the words are being translated and then timing is off. There were two doctors and another lady, all in their late 40’s. They were pleasant enough, but you could see I wasn’t getting through. Then I started the part on the Power of “And.”

I explained about the old school approach of win-lose negotiation which was improved with the “you win a little and I win a little” approach of compromise. “And” style collaboration takes it even bigger. You get everything you want AND I get everything I want. The only way this works is to make the deal bigger than either of us imagined. It’s a positive, inclusive way of viewing the world, and business.

I started off with a story about my son David. It’s always handy to use my 17 year old son as an example. He’s always up to something! So, David wants a motorcycle. I want him to be safe. How can he have what he wants and I get what I want? Well, the answer is that he really doesn’t want a motorcycle, what he really wants is to be cool. Now, that we can work with. He wants to be cool and I want him to be safe. And he doesn’t have to have a motorcycle.

The 3rd row just melted when I told that story. They all talked about their crazy teenage sons. Apparently that’s universal!

I then mixed up the group and put them into groups of 5 each to do an exercise where each wrote down a goal or dream, turned them upside down and put them in the center of the table. They drew out two of the goals and then brainstormed how to make it bigger with the power of “and.”

I could see the head of the American University in Kabul react strongly as the exercise progressed. The energy level was really high in the room and I didn’t want to disrupt it, but was curious why she was so animated in the back of the room.

I found out later that she’s been working in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and has worked with hundreds, maybe thousands, or groups like this and NEVER been able to get them to network. During the terror of the Taliban, women were kept inside and deprived of freedom and liberty. In the stifling atmosphere, they fought constantly amongst themselves in the houses. As a result, Afghan women don’t trust other Afghan women.

For the first time ever, they networked. They came up with idea after idea as the room just exploded with possibility.

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know if I will ever see these women again. I hope I do. I hope they’re safe. The Taliban is rising in power again and there is a lot of fear that the repression could return. I do know that yesterday will be one of those days in my life when I can say that everything changed.

And one thing I know is that I am immensely grateful for the opportunities and freedoms we have in this country. This economic uncertainty might feel like it’s all-encompassing, but it’s not. We’ll get through this and be stronger on the other side.

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