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“Fast Running” Entrepreneurs: Bpeace CEO Toni Maloney on the Link Between Job Creation and Peace

Toni Maloney is the Co-Founder and CEO of the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace). Bpeace is a non-profit network of global business professionals who believe that more jobs mean less violence in conflict-affected countries. In 2010, the organization launched its One Million Jobs for Peace commitment in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. Bpeace is headquartered in New York and currently works with entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, Rwanda and El Salvador. To learn more and find out how you can put your professional skills to work, please visit Bpeace’s website.

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Why does Bpeace believe so strongly in the role that entrepreneurship plays as a stabilizing force in countries emerging from conflict?

Bpeace’s reason for being is to focus on creating jobs in conflict-affected areas. We believe that jobs are the answer to most everything. When a family is earning income from a job, they can afford to send their children to school, they can afford better nutrition, and they have hope for the future.

A large part of Bpeace’s mission is to empower businesswomen. Why focus so strongly on female entrepreneurs?

We have a bias for women’s businesses because we believe that when women have a stronger economic voice, they have a stronger voice for peace in their communities. Bpeace was founded by five businesswomen and, in the beginning, we only focused on assisting women entrepreneurs. The U.S. Department of State partially funds our work in Afghanistan.  Several years into our program, they asked us if we could do for businessmen what we were successfully doing for businesswomen. After consulting with the Afghan businesswomen in our program, they emphatically endorsed the idea and said, “Yes, because unless men are also given economic opportunities, there will never be peace in Afghanistan.” Bpeace recognizes that a businessman who employs women, who provides a service for women or purchases from women vendors also deserves our attention.

Afghan Fast Runners acquire and practice business skills during a Bpeace Apprentice Road Trip in Dubai

Have you found that security concerns and cultural restrictions, in Afghanistan in particular, impede Bpeace’s access to businessmen and women? How does Bpeace handle these constraints?

We operate right now in three countries. And, overall, it’s always tough to identify the high potential small business owners who demonstrate intuitive business sense and are in an industry sector ripe to grow. When you add on top of that the unique challenge of finding Afghan businesswomen who fit that profile, it’s not easy. And one of the reasons is that in the early years after the Taliban fell in 2001, Afghan women were really concentrated at the bottom of the business pyramid. They largely worked in handicrafts and many of the NGOs operating in Afghanistan were focused on that area as well.

Is that why Bpeace chose to focus on what it calls “Fast Runners” in the business communities where the organization currently works?

Bpeace has always taken a different stance and that is to focus on Fast Runners.

These are not bottom of the pyramid individuals. These are women who, in Afghanistan, are operating in non-traditional industries like IT, electrical contracting, construction and furniture manufacturing. It is still difficult to find women in non-traditional industries that meet Bpeace’s criteria. However, through the relationships we have with our ground partners and organizations like PDT, Bpeace always finds highly motivated, business saavy women.

In 2010, Bpeace, in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, announced its 1 Million Jobs for Peace initiative. That’s a pretty impressive goal. Can you tell us a little bit about that initiative?

Our board and staff members revisited Bpeace’s plan for scaling up and making an impact. In just about any community, we believe that adding 1,000 jobs can ignite momentum because those jobs are providing income into 1,000 families that will support roughly 6,000 family members. That money is also circulating into the community and is also circulating, from the business standpoint, to vendors. So, our goal is to determine how many jobs we want to create in a community. And a community is not a country, it is a city like Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif or Kigali or San Salvador. So if we focus on creating 1,000 jobs in a community and we look to see if we could accomplish this across 1,000 communities. If we could impact three communities in a country, what would it do for that country? And what could we leave on the ground in terms of knowledge? At the same time we were talking to the Clinton Global Initiative, and we decided to make this commitment as a board to create 1 million jobs which translates to 1,000 jobs across 1,000 communities.

The commitment is not solely about creating jobs. It is about involving both small companies and larger corporations in this effort by utilizing their employees as skill-based volunteers. Last month, for example, when we hosted 9 Fast Runners, we worked with 37 host companies involved and we will invite each of them to join our commitment to CGI. We’re also recruiting more companies with similar social responsibility and philanthropic goals to partner with us moving forward. In the next month, we’re hoping to announce the companies that will be working to help Bpeace achieve it’s 1 Million Jobs for Peace commitment.

Afghan Fast Runner Haji visiting Redmond Minerals in Utah in October 2011

With the US actively reducing its footprint in the country, the road ahead for Afghanistan is often looked at with great skepticism. Is Bpeace still optimistic about the future of the country and what do you think is Bpeace’s biggest challenge moving forward?

We do have cautious optimism. We’ve never been more inspired by the talent of our Fast Runners than we are now. The group that visited the United States in October was very serious about gleaning everything they could from their host companies. They were very serious about putting together a forward plan to apply what they learned and it really was the best group that we’ve had to date. We feel very inspired by that.

The challenges that they are facing are the challenges that affect our work. They face a lack of security, of infrastructure and of omnipresent electricity to name a few. They also face challenges that any entrepreneur in the world does, that is, access to markets and capital. Both of those things are magnified in Afghanistan because of the hesitancy of outsiders to invest in the country. Right now, you’re not going to see multinationals jumping into Afghanistan.  Conversely, for Afghan entrepreneurs to export is difficult and expensive.

Speaking of global entrepreneurship, Bpeace also works in El Salvador and Rwanda. What can you tell us about those projects?

We launched our program in El Salvador just about a year ago and we started on-boarding Fast Runners this year. We still use the same Fast Runner model in El Salvador but the characteristics of the Fast Runners in El Salvador are different. The businesses are slightly larger; we’re working with a few million dollar businesses. It’s actually been difficult to find women-owned businesses. Instead, we’re finding family-owned businesses with women at the helm. The security challenges in El Salvador are a result of gang-related violence that takes a toll on a business’s profitability but does not threaten the viability of businesses like we see happening in Afghanistan.

Despite these challenges, we’re particularly eager to work with Salvadoran businesses because they are not only larger but more sophisticated. Bpeace is getting into more complex issues that deal with supply chain and new product development. And, as always, when you bring a new venture to the Bpeace table, it’s exciting.

Bpeace volunteers visit with the organization's first group of Salvadoran entrepreneurs

Before I let you go, I wondered if you could point to one recent moment that really encompasses and validates Bpeace’s belief that, “more jobs means less violence.”

We visited the State Department in Washington, DC last Wednesday with nine of our Afghan entrepreneurs. One of them, a young man, mentioned that he has a former Taliban working for him. He said that this employee is a good worker and is no longer interested in fighting for the Taliban because he has a job and he can take care of his family.

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