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When the Mentor Becomes the Mentee

Sonu Ratra
   

fakhria_momtazFakhria Ibrahimi Momtaz is the CEO of Momtaz Host, an IT services company in Kabul, Afghanistan. Fakhria is also an accomplished photographer, mom of four, the first woman to open a yoga studio in Kabul, and my Afghan sister who continues to grow her IT services business despite obstacles many of us here in the US can't imagine.

The last time I spent a week with Fakhria was in 2014. Back then, she was one of 30 women selected from Afghanistan and Rwanda to participate in the Peace Through Business Program (PTB) with the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women. This amazing program founded by Dr. Terry Neese is in its 12th year and consists of three major components: in-country education, leadership development, and pay it forward. The Peace through Business program has graduated over 325 women business owners who have provided more than 7,000 jobs in their countries.

When we wrapped up that week in 2014 and bid farewell to each other, Fakhria and I were both emotional. Unlike visiting my PTB connections in Rwanda, I knew it was impossible for me to ever step foot in Afghanistan. So, traveling to see Fakhria, meeting her family, or seeing her business was an impossibility. I had simply resigned myself to never spending time with Fakhria again. But as I have learned over the years, life often delivers the things we least expect.

This past week, Fakhria made her way to the US through an international leadership program where she was among a small group of women handpicked from across the globe. I was honored, and extremely happy, that she made a detour to come visit me. We hugged for a long time when I picked her up at the airport.

During our time together, Fakhria told me stories of her business struggles in Afghanistan over late-night cups of hot milk infused with the saffron she had brought me. I learned that she often drives to work to the sound of explosions from suicide bombers rattling the city. I learned that education centers, offices, and gyms are often the target of suicide bombers for various reasons, and that Fakhria and her team are determined to be successful despite the haunting thought in the back of their minds of “at least it wasn’t my turn, at least not today”. I learned that there is no security in the city, especially for business people like Fakhria. I learned that a reporter who wrote about Fakhria’s yoga center was killed by a suicide bomber. I learned so much about the drive and courage of a woman like Fahkria running a business in a country like Afghanistan.

Still, through all of the chaos, violence, and poverty, I learned that Fakhria hopes to change the way world looks at Afghanistan by bringing attention to the women entrepreneurs who are working hard to create a better future for their children and families.

During her visit, Fakhria thanked me repeatedly for being a mentor to her and teaching her about how to run a successful business. But I found myself wondering who was teaching whom? Her stories and her struggles make all of my challenges of operating a business in the US seem trivial. So, while I hope Fakhria was able to gain some valuable insights during her visit, I know the most valuable learning was done by me and our team. Thank you, Fakhria, for being such a good teacher.


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