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Career Shift: Helping Afghan Women, One Rug at a Time

Connie Duckworth left Wall Street for war-torn Kabul, changing her life and thousands of others

By Lisa Endlich | November 15, 2012
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Lisa Endlich is the author of Be the Change and the New York Times business best-seller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success. She is the co-founder, with Mary Dell Harrington, of Grown and Flown: Parenting From the Empty Nest.

Connie Duckworth stands in front of Afghan rugs she now sells after leaving a ca
Connie Duckworth stands in front of Afghan rugs she now sells after leaving a career on Wall Street.
Courtesy of Connie Duckworth
Connie Duckworth has strayed into no man’s land.
 
After a successful career as the first female sales and trading partner at Goldman Sachs and the co-head of its Chicago office, Duckworth now runs a successful nonprofit rug business called Arzu Studio Hope. Its mission: Providing Afghan women with sustainable income and access to education and health care by selling the stunning carpets they weave.
 
Last month, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s Midwest Region honored Duckworth with a UNICEF Chicago Humanitarian Award for her work with Arzu. (Next Avenue has a video about her: A Wall Street Trader Turned Social Entrepreneur in Afghanistan.)
 
From Business Class to Dangerous Roads
 
For decades, Duckworth flew business class to the world’s financial capitals. Now, she makes her way through land-mined roads replete with snipers in Afghanistan. And while there was little she didn’t know about bond markets at Goldman, Duckworth readily admits she was pretty oblivious about Afghanistan and international economic development — not to mention rug making — when she began Arzu.
 
Her career shift started taking flight when Duckworth tried to retire soon after 9/11.
 
(MORE: Career Shift: Turn Your Hobby Into a New Job)
 
Having earned an MBA from Wharton and thrived for two decades in the rough and tumble world of bond trading, she decided to focus her attention on her four school-age children and her corporate and non-profit board responsibilities. Her board work included serving as chair for the Committee of 200, a group of powerful women executives and entrepreneurs, Shortly after leaving Goldman, Duckworth was invited by the U.S. State Department to join the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a nonpartisan effort to improve economic opportunity for women in one of the poorest countries in the world, a cause close to her heart.
 
The Trip That Changed Everything
 
In January 2003, Duckworth traveled by military plane to Kabul with the council. It was, she says, “the start of a personal journey to try to confront the global trifecta of extreme poverty, maternal death and illiteracy.”
 
Kabul looked like Berlin at the end of World War II, Duckworth says. Bombings had destroyed the city and what remained was little more than ruins.
 
“We went to a bombed-out cinder block school building in January — the temperature was in the 20s,” she remembers. “There were dozens of women and children living in the building, which had no windows, no heat, no electricity, no running water, no food and no furniture. I looked at these children’s faces thinking, ‘Those could be my children.’ When I went back on the plane, I decided, ‘I am doing something, I don’t know what it is, but I am doing something!’”
 
Study, Ask Questions, Then Act
 
True to her word, Duckworth returned home and, after extensive study of the resources and skill base in rural Afghanistan, the lack of infrastructure and what could be accomplished in a gender-segregated society, she came upon the idea of selling rugs.
 
Duckworth likes to talk about seeing the world through “our own lenses” — and her lens is business. When she saw Afghanistan’s dire poverty and its lack of education and basic necessities, she decided the key to helping its women was to create jobs for them. She knew that rug weaving is a labor-intensive, at-home industry that provides a highly valued export. So Duckworth began calling anyone and everyone who could help her launch her business idea.
 
At the time, there were no roads, banking, Internet or mobile technology in Afghanistan. The logistical and cultural obstacles were immense.
 
(MORE: Starting a Business to Reduce Emissions)
 
“We’ve had to figure out how to operate effectively in a gender-segregated, highly tribal society," Duckworth says. "We had to work around the aftermath of war — returning refugees, no infrastructure, disrupted supply chains and no commercial shipping. And then there was the security issue: the ongoing insurgency.” 
 
In 2004, she founded Arzu Studio Hope, skillfully using the business knowledge she had picked up at Goldman and on boards, ranging from distribution, production and quality control to branding and marketing. “We named our project Arzu because it means 'hope' in Dari,” she explains.
 
Her passion soon became a part-time job and, before long, a pro bono full-time job, as chief executive of Arzu.
 
Innovative Social Entrepreneurship
 
Arzu Studio Hope is a new model of international development, essentially a social contract.
 
Once a weaver signs up, Arzu Studio Hope provides her with top-quality wool and patterns, pays her and sells the rugs in the United States and Europe through the Arzu Studio Hope website as well as high-end wholesalers and retailers. In return, the weaver agrees to send all of her children to school and to send all the women in her family to Arzu literacy and numeracy classes. Arzu also transports any pregnant women (Afghan women have an average of eight pregnancies) within the weaver’s family to a clinic for antenatal and postnatal check-ups and, later, with their infant for immunizations.
 
The cost of the rugs, depending on size and style, ranges from $800 to $20,000. Neiman Marcus sells some for $1,249 to $6,299 apiece.
 
All net proceeds from the sales of Arzu Studio Hope rugs benefit Afghans in the form of fair wages and social benefits.
 
At a minimum, Arzu is changing the lives of its workers and their families. But in a more ambitious moment, Duckworth acknowledges that her program could be “a possible template for post-conflict reconstruction.”
 
Arzu Employs More Than 1,000

Today, Arzu is one of Afghanistan’s largest private employers, with more than 1,000 employees — many of whom are the sole providers for family groups of 10 to 15 people. Arzu’s rugs adorn the White House and homes and offices across the United States and Europe.
 
Recently, Arzu Studio Hope has also embarked on a lower-cost fundraising program. Its $10 to $15 Peace Cord bracelets are handwoven with parachute cord and military buttons and sold through the nonprofit’s website. (As with Arzu’s rugs, 100 percent of net proceeds from the sales of Peace Cord bracelets benefit Afghans in the form of fair wages and social benefits.)
 
(MORE: Career Shift: Bumpy Road Leads to Work in Travel and Tours)
 
Arzu is run like a business, so Duckworth’s ultimate goal is to make the organization pay for itself through product sales.
 
Duckworth’s 5 Tips ror Social Entrepreneurs
 
Duckworth offers the following five tips for would-be social entrepreneurs:
 
1. Don’t assume the way things have always been done is the right way. Duckworth says Arzu Studio Hope wouldn’t have been as successful if she had stuck with the old international development model of just giving out aid and employing expatriates.
 
2. When starting your second career, remember that you possess invaluable assets from your first career. You have expertise, credibility, contacts and a network of relationships. Use them all.
 
3. Don’t underestimate the effort required to start a venture from square one. Duckworth says she didn’t anticipate that her work with Arzu Studio Hope would turn into a full-time job.
 
4. Get ready to open your mind and to meet many new people outside of your traffic pattern. You’ll be on an incredible learning curve, says Duckworth. She says she has learned enormously about foreign policy, Islam, history and international relations. Duckworth notes that, in her case, Arzu Studio Hope “opened a whole new network of people, from the World Bank to international organizations like Save the Children.”
 
5. You will be changed by your venture at a point in life when you might not have expected that kind of thing to happen. “Founding Arzu Studio Hope has given me a sense of empowerment that I didn’t anticipate,” Duckworth says. “You can start anywhere, big or small, local or global, places known or unknown. You just have to start.”