Sunday, July 14, 2002

Business builder sold on Afghanistan




By Rhonda Abrams
Gannett News Service

        My friend Nancy Glaser loves entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur, she helped drive the growth of the Gap. As a venture capitalist, she helped companies such as Gymboree and Fresh Choice. And to help Russians become entrepreneurs, she spent two years in St. Petersburg, working to establish an apparel industry there. But recently, Ms. Glaser took on her toughest assignment — Afghanistan.

        Building a business is tough anywhere, so just imagine how much harder the task is in Afghanistan, ravaged by war for two decades, roads and buildings bombed, little or no infrastructure in telecommunication and utilities, half the population kept from even rudimentary education.

        But building a commercial, capitalist society is a critical task if Afghanistan — and neighboring countries — are going to regain stability and become hospitable for democracy instead of terror. That's why the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation funded a task force of seven people, including Ms. Glaser, to travel to Kabul and to come back with a plan to create ARISE — the Afghanistan Retraining Initiative for Self-Employment.

Raw materials

        For three weeks, Ms. Glaser and the others met with organizations, politicians and entrepreneurs. They returned home with a plan and hope.

        “I couldn't believe there was a war there just a couple of months ago,” Ms. Glaser said. “The place was bustling.”

        Kabul was, to her surprise, a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. The streets were packed with vendors who had developed specialty areas.

        “One street was all housewares — wheelbarrows and so on. On another street stores were selling spices. Another, just bicycles and bicycle parts; another, carpet; another, food.

        “Everything becomes the raw material for an entrepreneurial venture,” she observed. “Aid containers that carried food get turned into shops. A person with a sewing machine inside a former aid container becomes a tailor's shop.”

Finding hope

        Ms. Glaser spent more than two years in Russia after the Soviet fall, but she found Afghanistan more promising.

        “This was unlike Russia. There, the people were depressed, and they had to learn to be entrepreneurial. But the attitude in Afghanistan was the most encouraging aspect. Compared to Russia, I thought, "This isn't going to take very long.' ”

        The task force identified immediate targets for business development.

        “There are lots of consumer electronics and cars, but there are no maintenance or repair services,” Ms. Glaser said. “Right now, women tend to make carpets and sew, neither of which pays very much. We'll also be training for construction trades, agriculture and health care.”

        “If we don't do our part, it will be unforgivable,” she said. “The country has to be made secure. ... Unless we help, it can be a disaster.”

        Building businesses will be part of the solution.

        Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Organizer. For free business tips, write her at 555 Bryant St, No. 180, Palo Alto, CA 94301.

       



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