The Dressmaker of Khair Khana
By Guest Blogger and Author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
(Currently #5 on The New York Times Bestsellers List)
At 30 years old, I left the job I loved. I had fought long and hard to win my role in the ABC News Political Unit covering presidential politics. I worked for a boss I respected and with colleagues I loved. News was my mother tongue, and I had a privileged perch covering public policy and just about anything political I wished. There was no reason to leave.
Except this nagging thought that kept attacking me: What will you do if you are still doing this 10 years from now? Will that be enough?
I knew it was not.
While I loved my work and the people I worked with, I knew I was passionate about something else: economic development. Looking at why poverty works the way it does, and writing about what we can all do to make a difference when it comes to making people’s lives better.
So I did the last thing I ever expected to do. I went to business school.
MBA study was hardly an obvious choice. Journalists are notoriously ill at ease with numbers, and I was no different. I had not studied math since high school. I had no accounting, finance or statistics background. Heck, I didn’t even know people who had gone to business school. My mother was a brilliant single mom who worked two jobs to make certain I had every opportunity possible, but neither of my parents had an undergraduate degree and that world seemed rarified and far removed from mine. But I believed that earning an MBA would give me a window into a foreign world: a world of finance and markets and business, a world that was as far from my comfort zone as I could ever imagine.
I dedicated a year to putting my plan into action. And nearly every week, I would have one night where I would fall into despair and feel utterly overwhelmed by the certainty that I had no chance of making this idea a reality, and that I should give up now rather than waste more time chasing a path that belonged to someone else.
And then my cousin Mark gave me some great advice that I have never forgotten: It is this hard because it is supposed to be. It is this hard for everyone. And if it were easy, everyone would change their lives.
So I kept at it. And at it. And at it. I would spend most every weeknight studying GMAT exams and writing essays, giving up my social life and treating myself only to a study break of Will & Grace re-runs at 11:30 pm. I told almost no one about my work because I didn’t want to have to tell them I had failed if I didn’t end up getting in anywhere.
As a journalist, I had a lot of friends who wrote beautifully. And I employed nearly all of them to help me edit my essays, working them nearly as hard as I worked myself. I was incredibly fortunate in my friends, who supported me and kept me on track at times when all I wanted to do was veer off course and away from my goal.
But in the end, the hard work paid off. While covering the New Hampshire primary, I received an email from Harvard Business School admissions saying that my application decision was ready to be viewed. I sat in my hotel room wondering whether to click on the link. At last I let my fate be decided by an “enter” button. As soon as I read the word “Congratulations,” I gasped, shocked to see that all the hours of effort really did make the difference. And that no matter how tired I had ever been, or how much I had wanted to give up, I was right to pursue my dream, no matter how remote it seemed.
And then the REAL hard work began.
Once I got into business school, I started looking for a topic to write about. A subject I believed mattered deeply, one that no one else was writing about, kept nudging me. The idea I finally settled on after a few false starts: Women Entrepreneurs in War Zones.
Almost no one thinks about women and war. And if they do, they think of victims to be pitied. Not survivors to be respected. Rarely do we ever hear about the hard work women do in wartime, because almost every story about war focuses on the men who go off and fight, not the women who stay behind and make sure there is a community to go back to once the fighting is over. I wanted to change that. I wanted to give credit to the unsung heroines and intrepid entrepreneurs who overcome the obstacles and find a way forward for the sake of their families.
No one believed there was a story except for one professor. Everyone else thought I was on a fool’s errand. But after my first trip to Rwanda in 2005, I was convinced that the inspiring businesswomen I met there were just the beginning of the story. I met women exporting roses to Europe, shipping fruits and vegetables to Belgium, and fixing cars in Kigali. Women getting on with the business of life and using business to change their lives. And I felt certain there had to be more of these stories. All over the world, women step up every day because people are counting on them. Their stories are economic stories, war stories and adventure stories. And they deserve to be told.
That morning in Manchester, New Hampshire, marked the beginning of the path that led me to The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, a story of young women who became breadwinners and entrepreneurs under the Taliban. I am so grateful to have had the privilege of telling these stories of unheralded heroines and inspiring entrepreneurs. And I hope you will join me in changing the conversation about women and war, and honoring the unsung heroines all around us.
With Mother’s Day around the corner, let us honor women everywhere– the mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces and grandmothers. Let us honor the known trailblazing women of the world, and the unknown trailblazing women doing remarkable things in their communities. These women walk among us.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle is a New York Times best selling author and the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program. Prior to joining the Council, Ms. Lemmon covered public policy and emerging markets for the global investment firm PIMCO, after working for nearly a decade as a journalist with the ABC News Political Unit and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” Gayle has reported on entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions for the Financial Times, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, the Daily Beast, and Christian Science Monitor, along with Ms. Magazine, Bloomberg, Politico and the HuffingtonPost. She has appeared on NBC News, National Public Radio and on cable outlets including MSNBC, and has published papers on women and business for the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, Harvard Business School, and the Center for International Private Enterprise. Gayle earned a BA in journalism summa cum laude from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she received the 2006 Dean’s Award for her work on women’s entrepreneurship. She speaks Spanish, German, and French and is conversant in Dari. A former Fulbright scholar and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she serves on the board of the International Center for Research on Women.
Note: If you’ve read the book and wish to participate in a Book Club party, Gayle will be on Twitter tomorrow night discussing The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, 9PM-10PM EST. Use #SITSBooks to join in the conversation.
“The Dressmaker of Khair Khana gives voice to many of our world’s unsung heroines. Against all odds, these young women created hope and community, and they never gave up. This book is guaranteed to move you—and to show you a side of Afghanistan few ever see.” ~Angelina Jolie
In her book, Gayle honors brave, tenacious and inspiring women. On this Mother’s Day, who do you honor, and why?