Women in business

Poverty, illiteracy, and disease are some of the tragedies of our day, and of the millions of people impacted each year, women are amongst the most vulnerable.

These three global problems are deeply intertwined. Poor, uneducated women cannot easily find jobs in the established labour markets, and so are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Yet there is hope: one particularly powerful way to impact the lives of those struggling to eke out an existence is through business – sustainable businesses that encourage entrepreneurship, and extend to people the means to find dignity in respectable work, and to provide for their families.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2006 Report on Women and Entrepreneurship notes that there are two basic types of entrepreneurship drivers – opportunity and necessity. Opportunity entrepreneurship is that which springs from a gap in the market being identified and someone creating a business to address that need or want. Necessity entrepreneurship is initiated when individuals experience a lack of real or satisfactory options in the established labour markets. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of entrepreneurship practiced by women in developing nations is that driven by necessity, representing an important means to avoid unemployment and, in some countries, to escape poverty.

One inspirational role model in the fight against poverty, Mohammed Yunus, pioneered in Bangladesh the use of micro-credit to stimulate business and entrepreneurship through the bank he founded in the early 1980s. Through Grameen Bank, customers (over 90% women) are able to access micro-loans to use as seed money to start their own businesses. These women use their funds to invest in viable businesses such as manufacturing pottery, weaving and garment sewing etc.

Yunus’ experience over the last three decades has shown that women who are given a chance, while also being held accountable in a supportive environment, have proven to be reliable workers and smart entrepreneurs. A Google search of ‘microfinance, Christian organisation’ shows that Yunus is not alone in this approach: Christians also are engaged in encouraging entrepreneurship and alleviating poverty in this manner.

Another business-based approach is to establish operations in developing countries that apply fair practices to employees and suppliers: reasonable wages and workloads enable workers to care for themselves, their families and communities. Irish pop rock icon, Bono, the lead singer for the band ‘U2’, is a renowned advocate of this approach.

Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, are Christians who have been challenged to contribute towards alleviating poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Over the years Bono has struggled with how his faith in Christ could be applied to combat major world problems, such as poverty, in places where the traditional local church hadn’t been able to make a significant impact. In an interview with Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Church), he shared that while he’s no Mother Theresa, he believes that God has given him a currency – fame – which is what he can use to make a difference.

What particularly inspires me about Bono and Ali’s work is that they are not giving handouts or ‘aid’ – instead they have chosen ‘trade’: to invest in the economy of the African country of Lesotho, as an example, to create jobs and thereby provide a way out of poverty.

While you might be familiar with their story so far, I’ll recap the highlights. In 2005, Bono and Ali started a clothing business, Edun Apparel. Through Edun they are extending the apparel value chain to include African cotton growers by paying fair prices for their cotton, while also training them in sustainable agriculture practices in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society. The cotton is manufactured into material and then made into T-shirts by African apparel workers in Lesotho. Besides providing good jobs, they partner with other organisations to help provide medication for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, malaria and other preventable diseases.

In the context of mission today, there is increasing momentum towards acknowledging the value of business in addressing people’s physical and economic needs. Business is a worthwhile mission: it need not be viewed only as an enabler so the ‘real’ work can be done after hours. Helping women find their dignity as human beings by encouraging and/or establishing places of respectable employment is a worthy endeavour. Perhaps we can think of God-honouring businesses as being a form of salt. Salt changes the flavour of its environment – even though you can’t always see it, you know it’s active because of the change in taste.

Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we (believers in Christ) are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. That is our destiny – to do good works. So the question I’ve been asking myself is – God, what have You prepared for me to do? And, more specifically, a question which I’d challenge you to consider with me – have You prepared me to do good works through business to positively impact the lives of women in the developing world?

May He clearly guide each one of us.

The author is a business woman, and board member on the Interserve NZ Council. For more information: www.one.org, www.edunonline.com, www.grameen.com, www.un.org/millenniumgoals/

Imagine… the amazing possibilities

Imagine an impoverished Central Asian country. Extended-family households scattered across the mountainous terrain have virtually no men present because they are all across the border in Russia, looking for work to provide for those left behind.

While away, however, these men become addicted to alcohol, frequent houses of prostitution (where they catch HIV/AIDS as a bonus), and burn up their hard-earned cash instead of sending it home. How to begin tackling such a huge problem? Well, what about starting an adventure tourism company that will provide employment to fifty or more households and give dignified labour to repatriated husbands, fathers, uncles and sons, while modelling a godly lifestyle and a message of hope?

Imagine one of the neediest countries in Southeast Asia. Food crops yield poor harvests, and many eke out a meagre existence living hand to mouth as they have done for generations. Think about the possibilities for good from establishing an agribusiness to provide training and enhanced income to a thousand farmers – and add to that the food security for five to ten times that number, all without handouts, charity or other dependencycreating approaches. And, the exciting potential for a steady and far-reaching response to the message of the gospel, shared by local Christians involved in the business.

Imagine a neglected and run down nation in the Middle East. Commonly held perceptions of foreigners are tinged by a deep (and sometimes justifiably earned) strain of xenophobia, yet the ability to speak English is ‘the ticket’ out of poverty, and into future job opportunities. There is no officially recognised church, but there is a for-profit language institute owned and run by expatriate followers of Jesus. Day in and day out, locals begin to discover in their workplace (in a non-threatening manner) what the good news of Jesus looks and feels like, as these strangers prove to be trustworthy, friendly and loving, while paying their bills, keeping their appointments, honouring their word, and modelling a different standard of work.

These are just some of the amazing possibilities illustrating a major, global movement of God’s Spirit referred to as “Business as Mission”, or BAM.

The church has often been suspicious of profit-making business. Christians have reacted against the colonialism of the past which often used mission activity to assist commercial expansion. More recently, concerned at the apparent failure of globalization to equitably deliver on its promises, they have watched in dismay at the exploitation of the poor by unethical multinational corporations.

Unfortunately this overlooks the fact that there are large numbers of ethically-run businesses led by godly women and men, to the great benefit of many individuals and whole communities. Business can, and should be ethical, and demonstrate the truth of the Christian faith in genuine love for God and neighbour.

Businesses are an essential and indispensable part of society. And they will continue to be, whether Christians participate in them or not – so why should they not be part of Christian missional activity? The redemptive power of the gospel influencing every part of society like salt and light – including the business sector – is intrinsic to the very nature of our ministry as followers of Christ. Business does not just serve the goals of ministry – it is ministry!

We in Interserve believe that facilitating Christians in business is part of God’s plan for world mission today, and are engaged in strategic initiatives to enable us to respond to this challenge. Among the many reasons for this conviction are the following:

● Providing capital to neglected markets, and creating meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities, is a demonstration of human kindness grounded in the just and creative character of God. The prophetic admonition to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with our God is a foundational plank for our practice of Business as Mission.

● Modelling successful business grounded in God’s truth is a tangible witness to the transforming character of the gospel: we live in a cynical age in which the “power of God unto salvation”, the good news of Jesus Christ, must be demonstrated for its proclamation to be believed.

● Increasingly the ‘ecclesia’, the people of God, are to be found on the shop floor, in factories, and in other work settings, especially so in countries where suspicion and hostility to the gospel is strong, and where the building of official places for Christian worship has no government sanction or protection.

● Some of the most natural and credible opportunities to evangelise – to “gossip the gospel” – and to disciple men and women are amongst the employees, suppliers and customers of businesses led and participated in by committed Christians.

In summary, we are committed to Business as Mission in a dignified, credible, and sensitive manner so that the church of Christ might be established and strengthened for His glory.

The author has been involved in global mission for 35 years. He leads a global investment fund providing financial capital, mentoring services, and human resources to small to medium size companies in the Arab world and Asia. Please contact the Interserve office for more information.

A different path

I am a business woman working alongside Muslims, not only as a colleague, but also as an employer. I am based in New Zealand, but also conduct business in several Muslim countries. Widowed at the age of 34, with two young children, I never dreamed I would end up here…

My introduction to this world was stumbled upon shortly after our family’s return to New Zealand: we had moved to the outskirts of Auckland, and I had to drive the girls to and from school. One warm, sunny afternoon, returning home from school, I noticed three children walking along the side of the road. Home was obviously quite a distance from school, so I stopped and asked them if they wanted a ride. They looked a little nervous, so to reassure them I gave the oldest child my phone number and suggested meeting their parents to ask their permission.

Shortly after arriving home I received a phone call to say their father was ready to see me! Minutes later I stood knocking on the door of an old farm house. As it opened gingerly, a small black-clothed figure scurried away into the shadows, and there appeared before me a tall, striking Pashtun man. Once inside the house, I was ushered into a bare room where the only furniture consisted of an assortment of old chairs that lined each wall. Male friends of the family were already gathered in the room, waiting to meet me. I was the only woman present. Smiling rather nervously, I took my place, and questions began to flow. Eventually they moved onto the number of children I had, and whether I had a son. On finding out I didn’t have a son and wasn’t planning on having more children, they quickly suggested that my husband would appreciate it if I changed my mind and tried again. I politely thanked them for their concern.

The tension seemed to disperse, though, once they learned my younger daughter’s name: a warm banter bounced from one wall to the other, until it stopped at my host who asked me where I had got her name. He then explained that her name came from the Northern province of their country, the province my host called home! It means ‘brightness’, in particular the brightness of God. Translated, we would call it His Glory – WOW! The warmth of the Holy Spirit touched me as I drove home afterwards, and I sensed this meeting somehow was going to change my life. Muslims? God, are You sure? I didn’t know anything about Muslims, but a door was opening and, curious, I stepped on through.

Unbeknownst to me then, the host would, in time, become my dear friend. I quickly discovered him to be incredibly opinionated: once, losing control in a friendly debate, he exclaimed with intense frustration, “I’m glad I meet you here in NZ, because if I had met you in my country, I may have already put a knife in your back!”

Unsure if he was actually serious or not, I responded with nervous laughter and surprise – “You really are my warrior brother and I love you!” He then broke into a huge smile, delighted by his new title.

My business life started while helping out a Muslim friend in a small retail shop/café, and I realized I had found my passion! When that business was sold, another Muslim friend asked if I’d consider managing a business he was looking at buying, right in the central business district. After much prayer, I agreed to accept the challenge! I am currently one of the directors, with a staff of nine. Most of our staff are Muslim, with the exception of two, but even they grew up in Muslim countries.

At times it’s difficult for my male employees to have a women boss, and equally difficult for me. I don’t believe that I’m actually considered to be totally woman – but I’m definitely not male – I think I’m placed in a category all of my own. This actually has its advantages, as I can move from male to female domains with relative ease, even when I travel in Muslim countries. I do find it interesting that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, was a business women, and yet Islam in so many countries discourages female education, let alone female careers!

I acknowledge working on New Zealand turf gives me an easier road than working overseas, but working with people who have completely different value systems still has its challenges. Thankfully the Word of God is full of good advice on how to manage our personal lives, our finances, and how to interact with others. During my first couple of years in business I studied the book of Proverbs – I’d go through a chapter a day. I also became more conscious of the need for the fruit of the Spirit to be daily outworked in my life – I really believe that the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ encapsulates the nature of Immanuel, the Christ we want others to see.

I feel I have been incredibly blessed. There have been many precious afternoons where our tearoom at work has filled with friends who stayed on into the night… lots of eating, drinking, talking and laughter as we shared in each others lives. Often it’s in this warm, friendly hub, as I listen to their stories, that I get to see beyond the gulf of religious and cultural differences, and I see their hearts. As the frustration and busyness of the day melts away, God reminds me of His love for each of them, and His desire to be known by them – what a privilege to have a chair in our tearoom!

We’re quite an interesting bunch, so let me introduce you to some of my business family: the dearest Afghan gentleman, who’s deeply concerned on how to bring both of his wives to New Zealand; the loveable Iranian rogue who hides ‘halal’ whiskey behind the fridge and teases the more dedicated Muslim, who won’t join him in a drink but admits to never buying anything off a Muslim if he can help it; the mocking, hard young man who defends Islam yet lives an immoral life; and the crazy, personable Casanova who has mixed Islam and Buddhism and believes he’s a prophet. You can see why I hesitate when asked to explain what a Muslim believes on a certain topic – telling you what the Qur’an says is no problem, but what individual Muslims believe… that’s different. It’s so important that we get to know and understand each person God has put into our lives as being unique, and not assume we know exactly what they believe just because we can categorise them.

Dabbling cross culturally can initially be somewhat of a romantic and alluring experience. It’s as we move from curiosity to a commitment that we find ourselves stretched uncomfortably at times. My commitment to cross-cultural involvement, and then business, has been the vehicle God has used to unravel my human frailty. It’s been in this place that I have come to understand God’s grace in my life and, in turn, for others, in a far deeper measure. This painful inner transformation has been His greatest gift to me – I thought I was going out to change the world, and ended up seeing the greatest change happen in me!

As believers in God’s unfathomable creativeness in making each of us unique, tailored for His purposes – why do we continue to be surprised when He chooses that different path for us? That warm, sunny afternoon when I thought I was just stopping to offer three children a ride home, I had no idea that God was about to lead me down a path that not many others have journeyed on.

But all followers of Christ are ‘born again’ with that mission to love Him and make Him known – and if business is your business, then that’s obviously the place to make Him known. As Christ-centred business people we can help those around us understand and appreciate justice, the boundaries of freedom, and the many beautiful attributes that can only be experienced in Him.

The author is currently located in New Zealand where she continues to develop her business and shares her life with many in the Muslim community. She also spends time in the Middle East.

Clearing stones

The Clark family live in a poor undeveloped country in the Middle East where the main religion is Islam. In the last 20 years the country has been propelled straight from the Middle Ages into the age of technology, embracing mobile phones, the Internet and satellite TV.

The Clarks – Bob, Sue, and their two young children, Peter and Julia – are based in a city of around 500,000 people. Bob is the English Director for a language school where he looks after 100+ students, (foreign) teachers and (local) secretaries, and, along with the rest of the management team, keeps busy with administration, recruiting, and development. Sue, a Nutritionist, home-schools Peter and Julia, is involved in micro-businesses and recruiting, and has plans to make further use of her nutrition training.

God highlighted the Middle-Eastern country to Sue and Bob the day after they became engaged; it was poor, had lots of problems, and, until recently, off the beaten track of the majority of mission endeavour. Although they sometimes find the cultural practices frustrating, they enjoy the pace of life and the fact that they are serving the wider community by being part of the body of Christ rather than ministering individually. “We have learned HEAPS living here! Scripture comes alive in so many ways, because outside the cities the culture is still very similar to life in Biblical times: houses built on rock, women at the well, goats that look like sheep etc.”

They have also discovered that corporate witness is a powerful tool in a restricted access country where they can’t share directly.

“Much of our time is spent living our lives as an open book; the way we live is far more powerful a witness than doing outreach and discipleship alone. Many aspects of our lives are closely watched, especially our interactions with each other.

“Locals do not understand that what they see on TV (it’s typical American TV off the satellite) is not what followers of Christ are really like. They are taught so many untruths about the Christian faith that they are seriously perplexed when they watch us living out Christ-like lives, living by biblical values. Followers of Christ do love their children differently and husbands and wives do treat each other differently; we have a greater level of trust and love within a Christian community. This speaks VOLUMES in a society where abuse, lies, inequality and mistrust is the norm.”

They are also encouraged by a new God-inspired awakening amongst the local MBBs (Muslim background believers). Previously, foreign workers have primarily been utilized by MBBs as a source of money and a means of escape from the country – but now MBBs are seeking out leadership training, discipleship, ways of earning more money to support their fellowship, and reaching out to their friends and family. Locals are meeting together regularly for Bible study, worship and fellowship. It is too dangerous (for the MBBs) for foreigners to be directly involved in these groups, but they help by providing resources, and by being prayer magnets for this emerging church that is constantly persecuted and being infiltrated by government spies.

“The work we’re doing in our country has been described as the stone clearing phase. There is a degree of openness, but it’s a long process and it’s early days yet.”

Sue and Bob are enthusiastic about seeking new recruits to serve in the Middle East: “Come and do a short trip and serve in some small way. The practicality and versatility of Kiwis is renowned on the field, so don’t disqualify yourself before you try – you might discover that you love it! You don’t have to be a super-saint, just available and willing to learn!

“You’ll also get a crash course in God’s training as He teaches you more about yourself and the body of Christ. Quite often we go overseas with an attitude that we are going to do a lot of wonderful work for God, and forget that maybe God has some special work that He’d like to do in us!”

For security reasons, names and some details have been modified.

Support and Prayer

We like Interserve’s support system and its attitude that works and words go together. Many people on the field see the words as much more important than works, but Interserve believes in working with the local church and partnering with other groups in order to transform communities. The support (financial, moral and prayer) we receive from Interserve and home is SO important! Prayer support is vital: we notice the difference in our level of coping and in how much ministry action we are able to do, depending on how much prayer support we are given. Weird things start happening when our prayer support goes down.