"I didn't know anything about Afghanistan or rug making before starting Arzu: Studio of Hope," Connie Duckworth admitted while proudly showing me the dazzling array of hand-woven carpets in the Evanston, Ill. oriental carpet store showcasing her co-op's work.
Having broken through investment banking's glass ceiling as one of Goldman Sachs first female traders and managing partners, Connie decided to make a major career change in her mid-fifties.
"I've always been interested in empowering women and I was ready to give something back," she said.
Connie's career change took her seven thousand miles from Wall Street to Bamiyan province in Central Afghanistan, in the middle of a war, to start a women's rug making cooperative in the shadow of the mountain face where the Taliban destroyed the towering Buddhas. When I was there as an embedded reporter with the Special Forces, I never saw a women on the streets, yet alone one doing any kind of business.
"It's the old rule of follow the money,'' she prefaces her brief on Arzu's fundamental business proposition. "We cut out the middlemen who traditionally get far more money from the sale of the mostly female rug weavers labor and artistry."
That money is used to fund the educational and health services Arzu provides for the women working in the co-op. Their children must go to school there as a condition of their mother's participation.
"Our intent is to prove out a new economic model where we can run and fund many social benefits through the cycle of rug sales," is how Connie explains her "triple bottom line" approach to social entrepreneurship and creating a sustainable business.
"I'm not interested in just selling cultural tchotchkes and funding this primarily with donations and good will."
By applying her hard-earned business skills and contacts to her new venture, she hopes to make it as professionally successful and personally rewarding as her previous involvements.
"I think No. 1 you have to realize how much time it is going to take," she said. "You're going to have to think about it with the same passion and dedication as your prior career."
In addition to working with interior decorators on custom carpets to minimize unsold inventory, she is working her corporate contacts to buy rugs as both a design and a social and philanthropic statement.
"The traditional rugs are too expensive to ship over to sit in showroom for a long time until someone wants that particular color or design," she said.
One of her more surprising joint ventures for expanding the business is the U.S. Marines Corps. Major General Richard Mills, the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan, flew Connie to the embattled Helmand Province to advise the Marines on creating businesses local Afghans could work on as part of their civil affairs mission. The result: Peace Cord wristbands the local women weave out of parachute cords and sold online now being worn by Mark Harmon and others as a symbol of solidarity with the Afghan people and the troops.
"When I saw Afghanistan and saw the plight of women there I knew that whatever I did it would be an improvement so I just sort of jumped in the pot," Connie said.
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