When Anne West Butler heard Connie Duckworth speak at a luncheon in Chicago, she knew she had to find a way to bring Connie’s inspiring story to Louisville.
“I thought this one woman was so amazing to help thousands of women and children in Afghanistan,” Butler said. “I thought how can I help? So I selected a committee of 17 very talented women to help bring her here.”
One of those women was Deborah Greenwald, who assisted Butler in setting up various venues in Louisville for Connie to speak about ARZU, Inc., a non-profit organization she founded in 2004 that offers sustainable income to Afghan women by sourcing and selling rugs woven by them.
A few weeks before her visit to Louisville, we spoke to Connie, who serves pro bono as Chairman and CEO of ARZU, to learn about her life-changing experience in Afghanistan and how she’s changing the lives of women living in the war-torn country.
Why did you start ARZU?
I’ve been to Afghanistan four times. I was the initial business representative of the U.S. Department of State’s U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, which was formed right after the Taliban fell. The first trip in January 2003 took us to Kabul, Afghanistan. It was a seminal event for me because Kabul was just in ruins. It looked like photos of Berlin after WWII. Before we went back to the airport, we stopped at a bombed-out, Soviet-style cinderblock building where dozens of widows and small children were camping out. There were no windows, no heat, no furniture – it was really dreadful. The conditions were quite exploitative and basically destitute.
I looked at those beautiful faces of those women and children and thought that could be me and my children. I thought about it on the whole way back wondering what am I going to do to try to help these women? I felt that the best thing I could do was to find a way to create jobs so they could support their families. I didn’t immediately hit on the rug idea. It was after research and figuring out what these women could do. I wanted to help them create a big enough product so that if we could get the quality to world-class standards, then this could be a real cash-flowing business.
How has ARZU grown since its start?
We started June of 2004 with about 30 weavers and we’ve grown to now employ over 1300 individuals. When we started, the Afghan rug had kind of adopted a bad reputation in the international market. We knew to make this venture successful we had to get the rug up to international standards. We have now won several international awards for our rugs. We were a Gold Award Winner for the 2011 Edison Best New Product Award in the Lifestyle and Social Impact category; and The American Society of Interior Designers selected ARZU STUDIO HOPE as the first recipient of the 2011 Nancy Vincent McClelland Merit Award.
Especially since the recession, we have become the perfect product for this moment in time. We’ve seen a number of socially responsible corporations building new buildings or remodeling buildings and choosing ARZU rugs. The rug industry after the sex industry is the most exploitative for women and children, but we created a fair industry based around community development. I tell people that somewhere in their building is an area rug where the public will see it. I tell them, you can have our award-winning rug that benefits women in Afghanistan – that we have products with a purpose. And, (these products) resonate with people in our world because people see how globally connected we are. You feel really good when buying an ARZU rug because it’s something very direct that transforms lives of women in Afghanistan.
Besides rugs, the women also sell bracelets. Is that a new addition to your organization?
Our newest initiative is bracelets. That idea came out of my last visit to Afghanistan. I visited Camp Pendleton and was asked to visit the Helmand Province, the focal point of the war. I embedded about a week or so at Camp Leatherneck and visited a number of small cities and troops. The general there challenged me to come up with a small product, and at the very end of the trip, my eye was caught by a bracelet woven out of a parachute cord. And, then I saw another woven out of bootlaces. We played around with (the idea) and came up with the Peace Cord™ bracelet.
Where can you buy a Peace Cord™ bracelet?
We sell online at www.peacecord.org. The cost is $10 for a plastic bracelet and $15 for the insignia. Our goal is to have these bracelets become the new Livestrong bracelets. Americans rooting for peace in Afghanistan can wear these, and they can wear them in memory of the fallen. We’re also selling through small retailers who have asked to carry them and we’re exploring the corporate market, particularly with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We’ve worked with two service organizations who’ve asked us to develop custom logo bracelets for their organization, and we’ve started to reach out to schools and universities.
When you come to the IdeaFestival, will you be speaking about ARZU?
The topic at the festival is “From Wall Street to the Dirt Roads of Afghanistan.” I think talking at an innovation concert is apt because over the years ARZU has morphed from a rug project into what we consider a learning laboratory for innovation at grassroots economic development. We have virtually all of the positions associated with rug-making. We preserve traditional techniques which are culturally important, and in the last two years, we’ve started experimenting with small businesses that produce other kinds of goods for local people, such as briquettes for low-tech sustainability and superadobe for building homes and structures.
Basically, the biggest need is to develop human capital. We’ve also linked a program requirement to schooling. Women have to be released to attend our literacy classes. Our original ladies are now literate and numerate.
We also wanted to try to address the maternal death rate in Afghanistan which is the highest in the world. Ninety-five percent of women in Afghanistan never deliver a child with trained medical care. We track pregnant women in our program and take them to clinics and hospitals, give them post-natal care and take babies to clinics for immunizations. In five years now, we have not lost a single mother or baby.
What is your ultimate goal with ARZU?
We’ve been around for seven years and our goal is to become a social business enterprise. Our goal is to prove this model in the most difficult place to work in the world: rural Afghanistan. We want to prove that social and community development programs can become completely self-funding. This is transferable to virtually any developing country. This is a grassroots locally-based approach where local people are actively involved in every step, from management, to labor to monitoring. It’s a very different approach. And, I feel if you can empower women and support our troops doing humanitarian work, these are a direct benefit to peace.
Connie is a retired Partner and Managing Director of Goldman Sachs & Co. She is a trustee of Northwestern Mutual Life and Director of Russell Investment Group and Steelcase, Inc. She will speak at the Aegon Center from 11:30 to 1 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 20; and from 4 to 8 p.m. at an open house reception at Janet and John Conti’s home. She will present at the IdeaFestival from 4 to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the Kentucky Center, and will address students at Collegiate grade school during her visit in Louisville.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in attending one of Connie’s speeches.
Category: The Spotlight
About the Author (Author Profile)
Ashley spends half her time writing stories at The Voice-Tribune office and half her time out on the town conducting interviews, while occasionally dressing in wild outfits to fully immerse herself in the experience (aka Princess Leia at Comic Con). Ashley is a huge UofL fan and loves the Yankees and the Boston Celtics (she is fully aware of the irony). She hopes to one day outshine Erin Andrews on ESPN and enjoys running, Bardstown Road/Fourth Street, Breaking Bad and reality TV (she’s not ashamed to admit that).