Women had few career options in the ancient Afghan city where Masooma Habibi labored in her youth as a carpet weaver. So she pressed forward, working 12 hours a day for up to three years to finish one carpet. Her hands cracked and bled on a daily basis from the job, but she could not stop because she needed the money to survive and take care of her family.
Worse than the weaving was the constant threat of violence in Herat, a western Afghanistan trade center near Iran. When Habibi left her house, she deliberately made herself look unattractive so she would not attract the attention of men.
Habibi said the condition was so bad for women that some burned themselves to death because of fear. Many nights she cried herself to sleep. Habibi needed a change.
So she escaped Herat and moved 350 miles east to Kabul, where she started an electrical engineering company called Check Up with two partners. The registered Internet installation company provides industrial power services such as wiring and cabling to a variety of organizations in Kabul.
Habibi, who was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Iran, said her family ridiculed her for starting a business and not staying home, marrying and raising a family. But again she pressed forward.
In 2008 she applied and was accepted to 10,000 Women, a global initiative sponsored by Goldman Sachs that will provide 10,000 underserved women with business and management education.
Goldman Sachs works in Afghanistan with Thunderbird School of Global Management and the American University of Afghanistan, two schools that created an eight-week entrepreneurship program to help women like Masooma develop the skills and networks necessary to start and grow viable businesses in Afghanistan and internationally.
Habibi said the biggest takeaways of 10,000 Women were learning how to write a business plan and track her company’s finances. She also finished the program with new reserves of self-confidence, something she said is necessary for Afghan women who are frequently ridiculed and told they can’t succeed in business.
“Before I started 10,000 Women, I didn’t have a business, I just had a dream,” she said. “But 10,000 Women was like turning a switch. Everything changed.”
Today Habibi, twenty-three, has four employees and a record of success. Her operations meet international standards. She said men still ridicule her and threaten her and her family, but she presses forward.
She recently obtained work in Shindin, an area of Afghanistan with a strong Taliban presence. Habibi felt it was unsafe to go as a woman, so she sent her brother instead. He was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for two months until her family could arrange for his release.
Despite the hardships, Habibi plans to continue expanding her business, developing key relationships and spreading her new business knowledge to other women in Afghanistan.