How This Former Goldman Partner Empowers Afghan Women: Rug Weaving, Of Course

After retiring from Goldman Sachs in 2001, Connie Duckworth was invited to join the U.S.- Afghan Women's Council, a bipartisan State Department delegation established to ensure local women a seat at the table in a new Afghanistan. Duckworth, a Wharton MBA who became the first woman sales and trading partner in Goldman's history, first arrived Kabul in January of 2003.

In Afghanistan, Duckworth was struck by the desperate plight of women and children in the region, saying, "That's when I met dozens of widows and children trying to survive frigid winter weather by squatting in the ruins of a bombed-out building. I was confronted with the reality that, but for the accident of birth, this could be me and mine. Afghanistan is one of the world's most tragic and seemingly inhospitable countries, particularly for women."

That last point, about the fate of Afghan women, was something Duckworth spoke about in a TEDx talk a few years ago, citing a 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey that named the country the world's worst place to be a woman. In that talk, Duckworth also discussed dysfunction in the "international development industry." One of the pitfalls of this world, she claims, is money directed to the wrong places. Duckworth wanted to enter this world with a clear goal: "to fairly employ as many women as possible doing something culturally acceptable." 

That "culturally acceptable" task? Rug weaving.

Beginning with 30 weavers, Duckworth's ARZU, an outfit she founded in 2004, now employs hundreds of women, providing access to education and basic healthcare, "seeding multiple micro-business start-ups, building community centers, pre-schools and parks, and creating award-winning fair-labor rugs."

Connie Duckworth is one of several female Goldman Sachs winners I've profiled in recent months. Before this recent deep dive into Goldman givers, there was not a single woman on our Wall Street Donors list. What's more, these female Goldman partners—Duckworth, along with Ann Kaplan and Jacki Zehner, to name a couple others—are all interested in gender equity and financial empowerment for women.  

Duckworth also co-founded 8 Wings Enterprises, a group of Boston women who invest in companies led by female CEOs. Why do Duckworth and others believe that financial empowerment is key to gender equity? Well, because they've seen it happen—in lots of places. Going back to ARZU, researchers conducted a 10-year study comparing different populations in the remote, rural regions of Afghanistan where ARZU operates. What's striking is the shift in male attitudes. A common refrain was, "My wife earns money like any man in the village.” Fathers' attitudes toward their daughters also changed, and many saw their young girls as more educated than they were. These enormous cultural shifts resulted from changes in women's economic status.

Of the whole enterprise, Duckworth is convinced that if ARZU's model can work in rural Afghanistan, it can work anywhere. It's a "universal truth," she says.

Apart from Duckworth's work through ARZU, she and her husband Thomas also have a charitable vehicle called the Kadrovach/Duckworth Family Foundation. The foundation doesn't accept unsolicited proposals, however, and flies well under the radar. Recently, its grantmaking involves schools with a personal connection to the family, like UT-Austin, Duckworth's undergraduate alma mater, and Claremont McKenna, where two of the couple's kids went. The Duckworths are based outside Chicago, and that region is also an important area of philanthropy. Thomas serves as vice president of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation and takes the lead in this part of the family's philanthropy.

Given the personal elements involved, grantseekers interested in women's causes should especially watch Duckworth's future work with ARZU. Writing for the Huffington Post, Duckworth says, "My personal soapbox has always been women's rights— particularly women's economic empowerment. My mantra is: She who writes the check controls."

Those interested in contributing to ARZU can click here.

Related: Connie Duckworth