Educating Girls and Empowering Women Through Economic Self-Sufficiency
The confluence of two things kindled my interest in women’s entrepreneurship. When I moved to Saudi Arabia, I happened to read Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.
Up to that point, I was used to looking at international development through the lens of innovation. My focus had been on the power of technology to create wealth in communities, which I believed would trickle down to alleviate poverty and address other societal ills. I was at the time living in the Soviet Union, then Russia, working with researchers, entrepreneurs (both men and women), and their institutions throughout Eurasia. In the latter years I focused on Central Asia and the Caucasus region.
I had spent over a decade in the cooperative threat reduction space working to redirect the talents and expertise of former weapons of mass destruction scientists and engineers from both the nuclear and bio/chem complex. The effort was essentially economic development in the interest of international security by way of nonproliferation. Given the science and technology legacy of the Soviet Union, it is natural that my private sector development profession gravitated toward high-tech entrepreneurship and industrial collaborative research.
The same force that drew me toward the Soviet Union also pulled me to the post-9/11 Arab world. I am privileged to have witnessed both the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Arab Spring from the inside. As I was pursuing my undergrad degree, the world looked bipolar; Communism perceived to be the biggest threat to the United States. That world view led me to study Russian language and study abroad at Moscow’s Pushkin Institute.
Fast-forward a couple of decades: Muslim extremism emanating from the Arab world is perceived as the biggest threat. What drives me is the impulse to counter the prevailing stereotype by going deeper, up close and personal, to experience the individual diversity that makes up what is perceived as a monolith.
I was in the right place to internalize Mortenson’s message:
CAI [Central Asia Institute] schools should… focus on the enrollment of girls. ‘Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities…. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned.’ If you really want to change a culture, to empower women… the answer is to educate girls.
I had taken a job at the newest university in the Kingdom, moved my family including two teenage daughters to the compound just north of Jeddah, connected with Saudi colleagues – both male and female – and jumped through the bureaucratic hoops to co-found the local Girl Scout council. My avocation and my vocation aligned and something “clicked” when I read those words from Three Cups of Tea.
But I had to revisit my experience through the lens of gender as opposed to technological advancement, alone. I was discussing this predicament recently with a close colleague of mine who recently joined the Office of Science & Technology Policy in the White House. He asked me what I meant when I used the word “empowerment.” Reflecting on empowerment, I related my memory of my first ‘real’ job as a 14-year-old high school student. I worked at Milford Savings Bank, which was later a casualty (and causality?) of the S&L melt-down in the late 1980s. By the time I left for college, I had worked in just about every department from loan origination through special projects for the Treasurer. I enjoyed the satisfaction of reconciliation after a day of working as “substitute” teller. But the real satisfaction came on payday, when I took ownership of a very modest monetary asset: my paycheck. To me, my meager wages were more fulfilling to me than my good grades, performance in extracurricular activities, finishing at the top of my class, or gaining admission to a university. I felt empowered through my ability to earn a living because dependency inhibited my ability to control my own life.
This recollection then reminded me of the definition of ownership I first encountered in college, which focused on three main rights: to use, to control, and to transfer. Thus, I define empowerment today as self-ownership: an individual’s ability to use their own life (their time and their body) in the way they, themselves chose.
My personal lens through which I look at women’s empowerment has everything to do with economics. I know that there are myriad other issues internationally including health, social justice, legal frameworks and culture, that are equally as important. But education, earning, and creating one’s own opportunities through entrepreneurship are the issues that are deeply personal for me.
For me, the way gain empowerment – to earn a living and exercise some measure of control over my destiny – was to get an education, which I did. Almost 30 years later, I am coming full circle. Women around the world need the power to take more control over their circumstances. The way to accomplish that empowerment is through the education of girls, as Mortenson promoted, and by empowering women through entrepreneurship to become economically self-sufficient.