Back in Zimbabwe, Barbara Rwodzi is CEO of House of BarRue Knitwear, a successful business that exports handmade garments. When she heard she had been selected to participate in the premiere exchange opportunity for African women entrepreneurs, the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP), Barbara welcomed the opportunity to meet other businesswomen from Africa.
“I gained so much insight because there is so much culture and social interaction,” says Barbara. “We are interacting with so many people. The program is outstanding in that way.”
During her AWEP exchange, which is part of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), Barbara met with American entrepreneurs, including designers like Diane von Furstenberg, as well as local business owners and other Americans interested in hosting the group.
“You are invited to so many high profile events,” says Barbara. “The Embassy briefs you, but you don’t realize how special it is going to be until you get here. Home visits were special. It is an opportunity to know other people and exchange cultures. There is lots of laughing.”
One of the key goals of AWEP is to expand the roles women play as advocates for strengthening business climates in their home countries. African businesswomen like Barbara face a number of barriers in expanding their businesses, including access to credit and financing. They don't move in the same networks and don't have the same contacts or mentors that men have. And, in some places, they can't enjoy property rights and inheritance. AWEP helps women, including Barbara, address those issues.
“It is important to interact with the other women,” says Barbara. “We are one family of Africa, and it is great to know how other Africans do their business.”
One aspect of American culture that stood out for Barbara is the respect that women receive in the workplace, relative to African countries.
“Women [in the United States] are empowered economically and socially,” says Barbara.. “When you get respect it is great for women; they get uplifted.”
When Barbara returns, she hopes to grow her business. She faces challenges with gaining the funding she needs to train her 700 employees and efficiently distributing her products in a fashion industry that is ever changing. The AWEP exchange with 47 other women facing similar obstacles gave her new ideas and introduced her to new contacts, and she hopes she can continue to grow her business now that she is part of the AWEP and IVLP network.