Employees scoop ice cream into waffle cones in the staff room of Akraya Inc. in Sunnyvale. It’s not a birthday celebration, but a gathering to honor international friendships.
For one week, the Silicon Valley staffing firm – co-founded in 2002 by Los Altos residents Sonu Ratra and her husband, Amar Panchal – is mentoring two women entrepreneurs from Afghanistan and Rwanda through the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women and its Peace Through Business program.
“Having just come from India, I understand the circumstances women entrepreneurs face in developing countries,” said Ratra of why she has hosted program participants at her company for the past three years. “The belief is that they learn a lot, but I think that we learn as much as if not more from them.”
After three weeks of in-country training, program participants Joan Mazimhaka, a partner at a strategic communications agency in Rwanda, and Fakhria Ibrahimi, the founder of an Internet service company in Afghanistan, were selected as part of a 26-woman delegation to visit the U.S. for a week of business development education in Texas, a week of mentoring at a woman-owned business and an economic summit.
During their time at Akraya – the only local company hosting participants this year – Ratra organized meetings with her staff to discuss human resources, marketing, finances and the women’s business plans.
To inspire and connect Mazimhaka and Ibrahimi with additional women leaders in Silicon Valley, Ratra choreographed a whirlwind networking tour that included stops at Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Kaiser Permanente and other local companies.
“It was really amazing to get that one-on-one treatment, because then it’s not a general look at business plans in theory,” Mazimhaka said. “It was everybody looking at their key plans and seeing how they could work, taking into consideration our different environments.”
Women supporting women
After growing Akraya from a startup to a thriving organization with more than 300 employees and revenues topping $45 million, Ratra is not only an inspiration for Peace Through Business participants, but also an ally and resource for them as they navigate personal and professional challenges.
In addition to coordinating mentoring opportunities and business meetings for the women during their visit, Ratra hosted Ibrahimi and Mazimhaka at her home. The immersive cultural experience proved eye-opening for Ibrahimi.
A mother of three who manages seven employees at her growing Internet service company in Kabul, Ibrahimi faces obstacles not only because of her gender, but also as a result of the political environment around her.
“Here, we see how people are growing very normal. But in Afghanistan, we struggle against everything – corruption, lack of knowledge in financial fields, lack of business policies,” she said. “There isn’t any policy to solve anything that we face in our business.”
Although she observed Ratra managing her home and her business with ease, Ibrahimi said she was surprised to learn that women in the U.S. face inequality in pay and leadership opportunities in comparison with their male colleagues. Providing business expertise is the focus of the mentoring experience, but the chance to discuss common challenges strengthened the women’s bonds.
“You just always have to push through it, because we know it’s a universal challenge,” said Mazimhaka of the discrimination women encounter all over the world. “Sometimes it’s men not giving women a chance, sometimes it’s women not giving women a chance. As women, we’re not always that supportive of each other, which is why I’m so happy that programs like this exist to create networks.”
Mazimhaka and Ibrahimi return to Rwanda and Afghanistan this week, but Ratra said she hopes that their new friendships and connections will yield a lifetime of benefits.
For more information on Peace Through Business, visit ieew.org.
Akraya hosts women entrepreneurs from Rwanda and Afghanistan - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier