(WOMENSENEWS)–Sometimes you get a second chance in life.
This time, the Business Council for Peace–better known as Bpeace–vows to get it right.
Founded more than two years ago, Bpeace is a nonprofit coalition of more than 130 business consultants and entrepreneurs who work at companies such as American Express, Bank of America and Citigroup.
Members of Bpeace, based in New York City, put their business contacts and expertise at the service of women in war-torn and post-conflict regions. The idea is to help such women build businesses that will nourish the local economy and build the prospects for peace.
Nearly two years ago, the United Nations Development Fund for Women or UNIFEM, a Bpeace partner, brought a project to their attention; women from opposing Hutu and Tutsi tribes who had lost their husbands to the genocide in Rwanda and were now, as part of the reconciliation process, working together to make “peace baskets” to sell to the world.
Bpeace member and co-founder Amber Chand, offered to sell the baskets through Eziba, an online catalog and retail company that she helped found in 1999. The company, based in North Adams, Mass., had annual sales of about $10 million and specialized in handcrafted products from around the world.
By most business measures, the plan worked out.
Between March 2003 and December 2004 all of the several thousand baskets were sold, generating tens of thousands of dollars for the widows, says Toni Maloney, Bpeace’s chair.
Eziba bought the baskets at $22 each from AVEGA, a national support association of 25,000 widows of the Rwandan genocide, which provides members with healthcare, housing and other forms of support. Eziba sold them for $54 and kept the profits, according to Willa Shalit, a co-founder of Bpeace and a paid media consultant for Eziba. Shalit said that Eziba gave some portion of the proceeds to Bpeace.
Balances Still Due
Trouble was, by May of 2004, the widows hadn’t received all the money they were owed, a balance of some $23,000.
According to press reports, Eziba had run into financial trouble. Sales were slumping. This past January Eziba filed bankruptcy, with the widows still unpaid.
Shalit, Eziba’s media consultant, took it upon herself to fight for the widows from Rwanda, where the per capita income is $1 per day.
For about eight months she worked behind the scenes, lobbying on their behalf. She succeeded. She persuaded Patrick Byrne, CEO and owner of Overstock.com, which in April 2005 acquired Eziba through Bankruptcy Court, to pay AVEGA the widows’ $23,000 balance.
While the women eventually were paid, Shalit was so disappointed that Bpeace didn’t fight harder for the widows that she resigned from the governing board in March.
Maloney says Bpeace did insist that Eziba draw up a schedule for payment to the widows, but that once the company filed bankruptcy it was not required to honor their debts. The agreement, in other words, became moot.
Maloney says Bpeace was trying to figure out how to drum up the balance, when Shalit moved more quickly. “We never would have allowed the widows not to have gotten paid. Willa, on her own initiative, moved the process along on the fast track,” says Maloney.
The young organization has learned some tough lessons.
“Most people have good intentions, but it doesn’t mitigate the need for rigorous checks and balances,” says Maloney.
As Bpeace puts the debacle behind, its new playbook is visible in its project to mentor female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, where for six years under Taliban rule, women risked beatings and death if they were caught conducting any sort of business, even home-based activities.
In June 2004 Bpeace volunteers journeyed at their own expense to Kabul to look for women to attend a business workshop in New York the organization, along with Women for Afghan Women, based in Flushing, N.Y., was planning.
Working through the Afghanistan Ministry of Commerce, UNIFEM, and the Kabul-based Afghan Women’s Business Council, the scouts found 22 qualified businesswomen. “We identified fast runners; women already in business, literate in their language, who would be in the best position to create more jobs and handle sustainable demand,” says Maloney.
Among the candidates, 12 women from Kabul, Kandahar and Herat were able to make it to the three-week workshop, which ended earlier this month.
During the program–operated with assistance from the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, both based in New York–participants attended on-site work sessions with designers such as Tracy Reese, Eileen Fisher and Cynthia Steffe and retailers like Dress Barn and ABC Carpet and Home. They also attended classes at Fashion Institute of Technology about apparel and accessory production, design and marketing.
Collectively, the women who attended the program–backed financially by the U.S. State Department and retailers such as New York-based Coach, Inc., and Dress Barn, Suffern, N.Y.–employ more than 450 Afghans in industries such as apparel, construction, hospitality and transportation.
One of them is Nasima, who only wants her first name to be used out of concern for her safety. Since 1996 Nasima has been a manager of a Kabul retailer that sells a variety of embroidered, silk woven handicrafts. Now that she’s learned how to run a shop she would love to have her own one day.
“Right now there are lots of problems in Afghanistan. There is no real possibility of me having my own shop, given the economy and the political situation at home. But I hold on to my dream, that’s why I’m here,” says Nasima.
In addition to the workshop–with which it plans to be involved for at least two more years–Bpeace also has a new program in place in Kabul that trains female entrepreneurs to deal with buyers, request deposits and set payment terms. Bpeace also introduces participants to global retailers. The program includes local computer and English trainers and instructional videos and DVDs, which Bpeace hopes will help women not only with their own work but will help them train others.
“And we will vet retailers before we make introductions,” says Maloney. “Going forward we don’t want to be in a position to have to pick up after the failing of a retailer. We can’t police everything, but we want a framework to ensure the success for everyone”
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