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Businesswomen helping to build nationwide bonds

Monday, June 30, 2008   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Michael Mitchell
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By Clytie Bunyan
Business Editor - The Oklahoman

Businesswoman Terry Neese is dizzy with details these days. She's trying to tie up loose ends for 30 women participating in this year's Peace Through Business program.

She's had to work with governments in two countries — Afghanistan and Rwanda — and deal with travel agents, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to make sure the women get their visas on time.

"The most difficult thing is the visa process,” Neese said. "It's very traumatic.”

The program began last year, when Neese's organization Women Impacting Public Policy brought 12 Afghan women to Michigan and Oklahoma for five weeks of intensive study and one-on-one mentorship.

Along the way, the organization under went a name change, with the State Department prompting that "you can't go into these countries with a name like ‘WIPP'” and expect a favorable response, Neese said.

So WIPP was renamed the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women.

July 17, 15 more Afghan women will return to attend a comprehensive entrepreneurship program at Northwood University in Midland, Mich. They're hoping to go back to Afghanistan to experience some of the same gains their counterparts from last year have reported — strong business after implementing their business plans they learned to develop here.

Expanding the program
The other 15 women will precede the Afghan group, arriving Thursday in Oklahoma, from Rwanda. Their participation is a result of a call Neese got from Oklahoma Christian University President Michael O'Neal after he read about the program last year.

He suggested she expand the program to include women from Rwanda.

"The women of Rwanda are a rising economic and societal force in their nation,” he said. Taking capable women who need more training, experience and connections and bringing them to OC for an entrepreneurial boot camp is another way to "build on a nation-building effort,” O'Neal said.

Neese told O'Neal if Oklahoma Christian could create a curriculum and provide room and board, she would get the women here. The women also will have to shadow local businesswomen, who will continue to be mentors for a year.

O'Neal delivered.

His interest in hosting the women stemmed from an already established relationship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, after having been his guest there in 2004 with some of the university's trustees. Kagame had invited the trustees to Rwanda during a meeting in Minneapolis. When they visited Rwanda, O'Neal tagged along.

What's transpired since is a partnership that brought Kagame to OC in 2006 and allows 10 of that country's smartest young students each year to attend the university.

"We saw a tremendous opportunity to have a different outcome in Africa. (Kagame's government) are people who believe in free markets and most of the same principles of liberty that have blessed this nation, so we began efforts to help the country,” O'Neal said.

Helping Rwanda
OC now has four initiatives under way to help Rwanda, including 30 students it partially sponsors (OC and Rwanda share the costs).

The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women raised about $500,000 to bring both groups of women to the U.S. this year and Neese envisions the program will continue.

"I understand what they're going through,” she said of the women's desire to learn more about entrepreneurship. "I started with no money, no business plan and no management skills.”

The women from Rwanda will be in Oklahoma until Aug. 2.

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