Engaging Employees Through Educating African and Middle Eastern Women

How does a company benefit from developing women-owned enterprises in parts of the world where it doesn't do business?

For AT&T, No. 4 in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, education is the most important social and business issue facing the company, says Charlene Lake, senior vice president, public affairs and chief sustainability officer.

One of the educational programs AT&T supports is Peace Through Business, a program that trains women entrepreneurs from Afghanistan and Rwanda in business practices including accounting, marketing, human resources and business-plan development. The program is run by the Institute for the Economic Empowerment of Women, a nonprofit based in Oklahoma that supports women business owners.

"The message we're trying to get out is that we are absolutely committed to the empowerment of people to learn and grow in inclusive environments," Lake says. "We empower people through the support of education, and, fundamentally, that's what this program is about."

Peace Through Business

AT&T has been involved with the program since its inception five years ago, with the AT&T Foundation donating $125,000 this year.

"AT&T really believes that small businesses are foundational and fundamental to any economy," says Debbie Storey, senior vice president, talent development and chief diversity officer. "As a global company, we know the strength, stability and health of the global economy is critical to our own success. When women are involved, they are going to fight for equality, empowerment and peace."

The program receives support from AT&T, the T. Boone Pickens Foundation and several other companies and organizations. Each participant in the program is assigned to an American mentor who works in the same field, and they visit and work with them for one week. This year, 27 women graduated from the program, 12 from Afghanistan and 15 from Rwanda. Each graduate pledges to "pay it forward," mentoring entrepreneurs in her home country.

Graduate Astrida Uwera survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide of nearly 1 million people. She established and runs Agasaro Publishing, which includes an online publication that profiles Rwandan women entrepreneurs. "We make women's stories known. For many years, they have not been covered in media," she says. "They contribute so much to the development of their families and the country, so their stories deserve to be told."

Multicultural Philanthropy

More than half of AT&T's contributions benefit multicultural organizations, including those focused on education, such as Peace Through Business. AT&T is also No. 2 in The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for Supplier Diversity, up from No. 6 in 2010. Beyond spending with women- and minority-owned businesses, the company also mentors and financially supports its diverse suppliers. (See also: The Business Case for Supplier Diversity.)

"One of my basic beliefs about diversity and inclusion is that it's about giving everyone a voice," Storey says. "All of us benefit from making that global economy stronger and more stable, and the way to do that is to ensure that in every country—in particular, developing countries—that everyone can add value and is empowered to do their part to help the economic and cultural development of their countries."

Lake says that participation in Peace Through Business, and programs like it, benefit AT&T's employees. "We went into this with the objective to help these women and educate them so they could make a difference in their world. We were giving something to them. But they gave so much back to me," Lake says. "They gave us a profound inspiration that I've brought back to the workplace and that my colleagues have brought back."

The challenge for AT&T now is to get employees exposed to more programs like this. "Our employees love to mentor," Lake says. "Capturing that enthusiasm and applying it to other cultures is a big opportunity." (Read more about how companies benefit from employee philanthropy in Employee Volunteer Programs.)

Thinking Globally

Other corporations can take a lesson from AT&T, says Terry Neese, founder and CEO of the Institute for the Economic Empowerment of Women. "I have had corporations tell me, 'Oh, we don't do business in Rwanda or Afghanistan.' That's not what it's all about," she says. "It's about helping these economically deprived countries to build their economies. When you educate a woman, you educate her family, her community and her nation. AT&T knows that. Although they don't do business there now, one day they may, and they will already have their network built with these women because the women appreciate AT&T and the other corporations so very, very much."

Salma Noori, co-owner of Golden Day Media and Marketing Company in Kabul, Afghanistan, says she appreciates that corporations such as AT&T host women like her and provide mentoring opportunities. "I'd like to transfer the knowledge, skills and experiences that I learned from here to my Afghan sisters," she says. "The war affected all areas in Afghanistan. Women are especially victims. I want to help them because they missed opportunities, an education [and] they didn't get to work outside the home. I want them to earn money, run businesses and be self-sufficient."

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