The New York Times ran this wonderful interview with former First Lady Laura Bush on April 1, I hope the link to the slide show works — never know with the pay walls these days. In the interview, she says she didn’t know she was stressed until they moved back home, Barney and Miss Beazely had a harder time adjusting and miss the large White House staff, she has found how incompetent she is around the house after 14 years of not cooking (which would be, to me, the best part about being First Lady), she and President Bush have a secret door from their bedroom to the girl’s part of their home in anticipation of grandkids, she loves Hilary Clinton & walking canes by Roosevelt Wilkerson, the Crawford ranch was green before its time, and she loves to clean. I recall Mrs. Bush saying, years ago, that she Cloroxed her kitchen counters and cleaned cabinets regularly, that she loved to keep a clean, organized home. But the best part of the interview, for me, was learning that her most cherished rug was one she bought from ARZU. I had the pleasure of interviewing the woman who started ARZU about a year ago when she was in Dallas.
I learned about ARZU through a local designer friend whose company, BKM Total Office of Texas Corp. BKM partnered to market and sell Arzu Studio Hope rugs — beautiful authentic wool creations woven by Afghan women as part of an empowering social business enterprise that markets and sells the creations they weave. A whopping 92% of the money paid for the rug is paid directly to the weaver, poor rural women in Afghanistan.
The Arzu Studio Hope Rugs story started, ironically, with a trader from Goldman Sachs in 2004. Chicago native Connie Duckworth, a retired Wall Street partner and managing director, visited Afghanistan with the U.S. Afghan Woman’s Council to try and figure out a way to give these women some hope — subservient women who (some) were beaten by their husbands, covered in burkas, women who washed clothes in icy-cold Chicago-like weather with bare bleeding hands because they had no laundromats, no hot water. It was a most unusual trip for Goldman’s first female sales and trading partner, but Duckworth had already retired and was looking for the next chapter of her life.
She flew in on a military C 130 cargo plane — no seats, no heat, special forces strapped out scouting for missiles, circular landing to avoid attack. There, in 2003, she saw first hand that Afghan women suffered a 100% illiteracy rate in rural areas. Virtual slaves to their husbands, they had no medical care, and they stayed indoors hidden in refugee camps raising children and caring for their families. One thing they did have, however, was the centuries old gift of rug weaving in a country renown for it’s delicately beautiful and high-quality rugs: rugs that were knotted and tied by hand, created of natural abrash-style vegetable dyes, rugs that took time to create. Duckworth decided to harness their talent for rug-making so they could become self-sustaining, earn enough money to become self-reliant and support their families.
But she wisely didn’t stop with salaries alone. Duckworth created an infrastructure that helped the weavers become literate. She devised contracts that husband and wife had to sign, husbands signing with a fingerprint (because they cannot write) to indicate acceptance of the contract promising that if Arzu contracted for the rug, the weaver would be paid not only for her work but for attending school to become literate and she would also send her children to school, educate them.
Duckworth set up a business model for Arzu Rugs with as much pro bono support as she could, from the architect Zaha Hadid, interior designer Thomas Schoos, graphic artists and others she recruited from top U.S. contract design firms — such as Odegard Rugs — even an office in the John Hancock Building in Chicago. She created a framework that, in six years, created 800 jobs in rural Afghan areas, those jobs providing support for 2100 individuals. She used her own money initially, but subsequently received a U.S. Agency for International Development grant. She’ll take as many freebies as she can to minimize overhead with the ultimate goal of returning 100% of the purchase price of the rug — ranging from $500 to $15,000 — back to the Afghan women. What I don’t want to do, she told me, is have to be dependent on donations.
“Billions of dollars have been poured into that country,” she told me. “Very little has touched the people at the lowest level.”
U.S corporations have made major image shifts in the last two years, says Duckworth, to take a more wholistic approach and make a statement about who they are through conscientious design. Many buy Arzu rugs and hang them as art, labeling them with the Arzu story. They have learned that most of their employees don’t appreciate the haute quality of the pieces anyhow and aim, instead, for a more socially-conscious, less conspicuous display. Consumers, too, are practicing responsible consumerism.
“Families all want the same basic things,” Duckworth told me. “They want their children to be healthy and grow up safely to enjoy a better world. That’s what we want, that’s want these Afghan men and women want.”
Once the Afghan women began earning money, says Duckworth, they gained a new sense of empowerment and respect within their own families. They were the breadwinners. Now, she says, the women will sign the contracts because they have learned to read and write while their illiterate husbands are still making fingerprints. Through grants, Arzu has helped bring midwives and healthcare to the rural Afghan communities and even just completed what must be the most sought-after structure in all of Afghanistan: an indoor laundromat with hot water and a tea-room.
“Our women tell me they feel like a blind woman getting their eyes back once they learn to read,” says Duckworth. “And then one told me, I weave, so my daughters won’t have to.”