Goldman Sachs program raises up women worldwide

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Helen Reddy's iconic "I am woman, hear me roar" is more likely to cause a cringe than goose bumps these days - more a comical anthem to bra-burning histrionics than the soundtrack to a serious movement aimed at greater equality.

But when those same sentiments are voiced by a young Afghan woman named Fatima, who has created her own construction business amid war, corruption and a culture that barely tolerates women, one is more inclined toward the goose bump.

"Every morning, I stand in front of the mirror and say, 'I am a woman and I am powerful,' " she told a luncheon gathering in New York. Hosted by Daily Beast founder Tina Brown, the luncheon was in honor of four Afghan women, including Fatima, who are recent graduates of Goldman Sachs's "10,000 Women" business program.

Fatima's mirror-mirror mantra is one of the things that she says she learned from her teacher. "I realized - there is no difference between me and my brother."

Sitting at one of several round tables set for lunch, admiring these women and hearing their stories, one couldn't help thinking how surreal this - their first trip to the United States - must have been for them. Their heads covered and their faces revealing no trace of makeup, they were soft-spoken yet commanding.

Success has a presence all its own.

These women are, indeed, extraordinary successes given their circumstances, including the necessity of using only their first names to protect their identities. Needless to say, not everyone in Afghanistan is proud of their accomplishments. Security is still an enormous challenge. Fatima and others often have to employ men to do the "outdoor" work of making sales contacts or at least keep a man nearby when they venture out.

Masooda, another graduate of the Goldman Sachs program, who has a jam and pickling business, said all of her employees are home-based and illiterate. She employs 23 people, 20 of whom are women.

Fatima began her business when she was just 15. Now 23, she employs 76 engineers and construction workers, working to help rebuild her country's infrastructure.

Even though she began her business long before Goldman Sachs appeared on the scene, she had no business or marketing skills.

It isn't often one gets to speak glowingly of Goldman Sachs these days. But the global banking firm's "10,000 Women" program offers a glimmer of light in these dark economic times.

Begun in 2008, the philanthropic program is a five-year initiative to promote social change through the economic empowerment of women. Thus far, it has reached 2,000 women in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Rwanda and the United States.

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