Weaving empowerment in Afghanistan

Connie Duckworth has created a compelling model of social business for others to emulate. She is the founder and CEO of ARZU STUDIO HOPE, a textile enterprise operating in Afghanistan and selling to markets worldwide. To date, the organization employs over 600 weavers and provides services to several thousand people in Afghanistan. I sat down with her recently during the 2010 Skoll World Forum at the University of Oxford.
Thanks so much for speaking with us. The idea for ARZU was inspired on your trip with the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council in 2003. What about that experienced sparked the idea for a women’s textile venture?

The Council itself is a great bipartisan organization. It is still going strong and remains a bipartisan effort after eight years. My first trip was in 2003; We were the first delegation to overnight in the country. The seminal moment for me was our last stop—it was a bombed out, cinderblock structure with dozens of women and children, who were huddled together for the winter — I have four children of my own. The universality of motherhood was what got me. I came back determined to do something.

How was the experience of recruiting the first weavers, and requiring education and healthcare for women in their families?

From January 2003 I took eighteen months to get organized. I hired a part-time economics researcher from the UN to gather data about Afghanistan. We sort of backed into rugs. This is a longstanding, artisanal craft that’s woman-made. On the international market, the Afghan rug had a shoddy reputation. We wanted to return the craft to its roots. We ran a pilot in a displaced persons camp outside Kabul. In the capital was a “Wild West” mentality about development, and a two-tiered labor market, so we moved out to the rural areas. It was logistically harder but our impact was more dramatic. We expanded to seven villages through trial and error.

On a related note, ARZU states that none of its pre- and post-natal care beneficiaries have died in childbirth. That’s remarkable.

It’s enormous. Women tell us, “I would’ve died if I wasn’t in your program.” We’ve set up emergency cellphones for women in labor. We transport them to clinics, and get them maternal care; both resources are unprecedented for these communities.

Also, we’ve paid to help Bamiyan develop health infrastructure and training. A couple of couple of months ago, a masonry wall fell on two children. One died immediately. The other child, a boy in a state of shock, was picked up by our health monitor. We took him to the local hospital. Once they determined his back needed serious medical attention, our regional director flew this boy and his mother to a children’s hospital, brought them food and stayed with them. Thankfully his back wasn’t broken. We took him back two weeks later, and he was walking. Everyone in the village knows that story, and they have very long memories. We are trying for now to fill gaps, not replace infrastructure.

ARZU is also conscious of working with religious and cultural sensitivities. What has the experience been for the Americans on your team to work with your local partners in navigating these cross-cultural interactions?

We wanted a multi-ethnic and religious spectrum, and a mixed-gender staff. The men in our organization work with men, and the women with women. We address village councils and ask the village heads for permission; if they say no, we don’t move forward. When we reach the weavers house-to-house, we explained rights and responsibilities [of joining ARZU]. At first we faced resistance and skepticism. After we paid our first fifty percent bonus, it spread like wildfire.

You won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2008. What was going through your mind when you found out your were receiving this honor, and what impact has joining the Skoll community had?

I was unbelievably honored. I also felt humbled. I go through this cycle and then I’ll meet Paul Farmer, then I’ll think “Get back to work!” And I’m grateful. We wanted to explore solar solar alternatives—our Social Programs chair went to Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College to learn. This year, we’re sending someone there to learn about water access and technology.

What are the current priorities of ARZU as an organization?

We are not currently hiring additional weavers, but building our brand and real, sustainable distribution channels. On the distribution side, at first we sold off the looms to friends and friends of friends. Now, as we’ve migrated from a pure inventory model to a custom contract model, we sell through the Architectural and Design community for both commercial and high-end residential projects. In January, we also launched a website that was more 2.0, e-commerce enabled and have gradually set up with a dozen high-end, interior decor stores, like Robb & Stucky. From the outset, we have only worked with one rug dealer, Minasian in Evanston, IL, which has been providing us pro bono showroom space and advice. I want every socially-responsible CEO in America to have an ARZU rug in their office. I can fit a rug into their mission.

You worked at Goldman Sachs for over 20 years. How would you characterize moving from investment banking to social business?

I went to Wharton, which gave me the tools to enter a financial career. My time in business, the skills, are directly translatable to social business. It’s given me a pragmatic and efficient outlook. When I left Goldman, I wondered if I would find as interesting a job or colleagues. The answer to both my questions is an emphatic yes. I’ve gained a new interest in Islam and interfaith dialogue, engaging with the Interfaith Youth Core for example, and a desire to learn more about Afghanistan, two interests that were undeveloped before ARZU. What I least expected—that I would still be doing this seven years later. It’s completely engaging, and I couldn’t see myself anywhere else right now.
Abbas Jaffer is a Contributing Editor to Altmuslimah


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