Changing the Economic Equation
Interview with Connie Duckworth, Founder, ARZU STUDIO HOPE

“What happens when you give women jobs, real wages, and benefits? You change the economic equation. This extends far beyond the household… this is the kind of change that transforms lives.” – Connie Duckworth

On November 17th, 2013, Ms. Connie Duckworth, recipient of the 2012 UNICEF Chicago Humanitarian Award and the Wharton School’s Dean’s Medal, visited Penn’s campus as a keynote speaker in the Joel and Lois Social Impact Lecture Series. Prior to the event, I had the opportunity to briefly speak with Ms. Duckworth about her work as the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of ARZU Inc.

ARZU, which means “hope” in Dari, a Persian dialect in Afghanistan, provides a steady income to Afghan women by sourcing and selling the rugs they weave. Current projects of the organization include providing women with equitable access to education and healthcare, maintaining a family park and two women’s centers, educating women and children, and providing eco-friendly housing to families in need.

Q: How does ARZU’s model work?
A: We’re a “for-benefit” corporation, using private sector practices to create jobs and pay women higher-than-market wages for the rugs they produce. We’re able to do this by getting rid of the middleman so that the women we employ, who are very skilled, actually get the money they deserve. In order for women to be able to work with ARZU, their families must agree to send all children who are under the age of 15 to full-time schooling, and the women in the households must be allowed to attend our literacy classes. By creating social contracts with the communities we work with, we’re able to stabilize entire families and ensure that their basic needs are met.

Q: Why are you passionate about economic empowerment for women?
A: I believe in and follow the mantra that she who writes the check controls the agenda. It’s true of any sector – following the money provides an accurate explanation for why women often believe the things they believe. Trace the money back and you’ll see that often the most self-inhibiting thoughts are fundamentally related to economic issues. So I wanted to focus first on jobs for women.

Q: What has been your greatest barrier to working in Afghanistan?
A: Afghanistan has been in crisis for over 35 years. In a country that is a conflict zone, you can expect no business norms. We’ve had to train around that, and in remote areas too, where the arid land precludes more agrarian opportunities.

Q: I had the opportunity this past year to interview a woman who runs a microfinance organization in India. She told me that her greatest barrier to success was the initial lack of trust, as people initially considered her an outsider. How have you earned the trust of the communities you work with? Have issues of trust posed a problem to you?
A: I think of trust as a precursor, not a barrier. We went to villages and met with the male village leaders. We explained what we were doing, we got their approval; on top of that, we went door to door to get the approval of each respective man in the house. We were very clear about what we were doing, and in exchange for their trust, we provided their families with substantially better wages. As I said before, follow the money: some families were skeptical of us initially, but shortly after they saw us place the bonus money directly in the hands of women, we were over-subscribed with willing participants.

I want to make a quick note about microfinance, too. We are absolutely not a microfunding organization. I think that that model is good for the urban poor, but when you go to rural, conflict-ridden environments where women are already in debt and cannot afford to feed their families, putting them in further debt through a loan makes no sense. Job creation does. You look at the US and you find that the large majority of people work for a paycheck and benefits. Some are entrepreneurs, but most aren’t. In the US you don’t expect everyone to be an entrepreneur – that’s why microfinance is just one arrow in the quiver in tackling these larger systemic issues in the developing world.

Q: How, exactly, do you avoid being perceived as an “outside” voice?
A: We use an all-local staff with a Regional Director and teams of monitors from Bamyan and Faryab, the provinces where we work. We’ve been very careful over the past decade. We hire all local people – all from within the community. We don’t impose anything in a top-down way. We look to the community to set the agenda, and we work closely with principals and all types of community leaders.

Q: What projects is ARZU currently working on?
A: We have a lot going on right now. We have two women’s centers, a preschool, playground, and garden. We have a park for these women and we’re working on housing development using low-cost earth building techniques that are good for the environment. In the area of healthcare, we provide transportation to clinics for pre-natal and post-natal visits, as well as standard children’s immunizations. We also conduct health workshops on an annual basis to inform the community about sanitation, preventive care, and nutrition.

Q: Where do you see ARZU in ten years?
A: I see it becoming more and more sustainable. We’ve just established a footprint and we’re not profitable just yet. I see ARZU being locally run and managed. We’ve overcome lots of different challenges in making a model that is both scalable and replicable. I want professionals running it, not just me, and I want to continue to innovate, so that we can bring a fully successful model to other countries.

Q: Finally, on a rather tangential note, I’m wondering if you have some words of wisdom for women at Penn. Having had such stark success in the business and nonprofit worlds, could you share some thoughts on how being a woman has or has not factored into your own success equation?
A: I graduated from Wharton in 1979. Throughout college and growing up the way I was raised, I expected no limitations. I marvel that we are still having the same conversations we were having 30 years ago. We need to look at women power relations as a spectrum, not as dichotomies. Each woman must decide on her own goals and then look at how to execute these goals. I’ve been able to accomplish what I have in part because I married into a partnership, where it’s easier to shift along that spectrum of responsibilities. My advice to women is that if you want full-on careers and full-on families, then do it; you can have the best of both worlds.

ARZU STUDIO HOPE believes in a holistic approach to sustainable poverty alleviation achieved through artisan-based employment that empowers women. Women, earning fair labor wages, weave exquisite hand-knotted rugs at home. Innovative social benefit practices drive transformational change by providing grassroots access to vital education, healthcare, clean water and sustainable community development programs.

Visit ARZU’s website to purchase a rug or Peace Cord: http://arzustudiohope.org/

Dubbed Woman Extraordinaire in 2012 by the Chicago International Women Associates, Ms. Duckworth is a retired Partner and Managing Director of Goldman, Sachs, & Co., where she was named the first female sales and trading partner in the firm’s history. You can follow Ms. Duckworth at http://www.stirblog.org/

Samantha Osaki, Vice President of Research, conducted this interview.

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