By Carlos Melendez, Guest Writer
Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, once stated, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” Thunderbird for Good has kept this in mind developing several programs for women entrepreneurs around the globe, providing training for more than 100,000 women coming from more than 50 countries. The Thunderbird campus was once again host to a group of remarkable group of women entrepreneurs: Project DreamCatcher.
The Freeport-McMoRan Foundation-sponsored program, Project DreamCatcher, is a business education program that aims to build the entrepreneurial skills of promising, high-potential American Indian businesswomen. Through a partnership with the Phoenix Indian Center, seventeen women from the Hualapai, Tohono O’odham, San Carlos Apache, and White Mountain Apache tribes were selected to participate in the on-campus program on October 18 – 23.
The week started on a sunny Sunday afternoon at the Thunderbird Executive Inn, where these accomplished entrepreneurs arrived, eager to learn and curious about our school. The group was greeted by student volunteers who welcomed them as they arrived. Our knowledgeable Campus Ambassadors took them on a tour of our historic campus. This was followed by their first session in their classroom for the week, DeVos Auditorium #4. Program Director, Katherine Zuga, and Program Assistant, Cari Wilkerson, provided the group with an overview with the week’s activities. Tanayia White, Native American Affairs Specialist at Freeport-McMoRan, also joined in welcoming the women. Professor Steve Stralser offered an opening lecture on entrepreneurship basics, which was followed by a dinner at the Commons. Throughout the week several T-Birds attended lunches with the women, allowing them to learn more about the different Indian Nations in Arizona and the group had a chance to learn about all the countries that our diverse student body represent. Our community also willingly shared the business knowledge acquired at Thunderbird.
More than 10 students volunteered to help with the event throughout the week. One of the volunteers, Faduma Mohamed (MAGAM ’17, Kenya), expressed, “What I found most memorable was the brilliance of the women; they were all well experienced and even in class they would answer each others’ questions and mentor each other. I liked that the Project DreamCatcher gave an opportunity for these women to meet, learn from each other, and at the same time learn the skills from the program.” Katherine Zuga, Program Director, added “Thunderbird for Good is extremely grateful to the Thunderbird student volunteers who offered such a warm and enthusiastic welcome to the DreamCatcher women on campus.”
As their program began in full force, the entrepreneurs were exposed to intensive classes on strategy and marketing. On Monday night they boarded an executive bus that would take them to a very special dinner at an off-campus restaurant. At this dinner, business was set aside and the participants and volunteers got to know each other. There was a cozy and judgment-free atmosphere, were the ladies laughed and cried while sharing experiences. Hannah Badawy (MGM ’17, US) elaborated on her volunteer experience: “I was able to gain an understanding of the difficulties Native American women face when trying to build their businesses.”
Tuesday proved to be a very exciting day for the participants. Salma Kemmou (MAGAM ’17, US/Morocco) recalls her experience: “I really enjoyed sitting in during the financial literacy class. The speaker, Sharon Lechter, was wonderful and very inspirational and the women really seemed to enjoy her presentation. She also had the women play a board game that she invented which simulated a business and the women really loved it. My overall experience talking to the participants was great. I was impressed at how accomplished they already are.” On this day, an Access to Finance panel, comprised of six external experts, was set up and the women were able learn about raising capital for their businesses. This session involved breaking down into smaller groups for individual conversations with each of the panelists.
The week continued with site visits to CoHoots, the Phoenix Indian Center, Frybread House, and the Phoenix Art Museum. The participants were received with open arms throughout Phoenix, where the daughter of the owner of the Frybread House, Sandra Miller spoke about her mother, Cecilia Miller’s, experience opening the restaurant and her own experiencing managing it.
The following day, the mentors arrived on campus to start a six-month mentoring commitment. Each mentor had been carefully handpicked for each of the participants. Tamera Bower who worked very closely with what she described as energy was paired with Sunil Ahuja a businessman who understood exactly where she was coming from. Overall, the women were extremely satisfied with the people chosen to serve as their mentors.
Friday was the final session for the program and the entire day had an aura of graduation, with both the sense of accomplishment and the gloom of having to say goodbye. The group presented their plans and goal setting, applying what they learned at Thunderbird. A few of the women were reluctant to speak in public the first day they got here, but with some excellent guidance from faculty, each other, and mentors, they delivered magnificent presentations on the last day. Ellen Alexander (MAGAM ’17, U.S.) affirmed, “I had the opportunity to volunteer on the first and the last day of project DreamCatcher. Seeing the change in the women was immeasurable. They had become a close-knit community of friends that would last much longer than the week they spent together on Thunderbird campus. They were also overflowing with gratitude for the program and enthusiasm to get back into their communities with everything they had learned here.” Graduation was graciously hosted by Freeport-McMoRan in its downtown Phoenix headquarters. With a view of the entire Valley, the participants led the group in prayer, as they made themselves comfortable in a ceremony that celebrated their success.
After the ceremony, the participants went their respective ways with the promise to keep in touch with each other as they called themselves “The Original DreamCatchers.” Nicole Meacham (MGM ’17, US) summarized her experience: “The women were incredible, seeing the many obstacles they have overcome to get where they are is inspiring. They have such interesting stories and backgrounds and seemed to soak up all the information and knowledge provided in the program. I believe the program will empower them to run their businesses more successfully in the future.”
Next up for Thunderbird for Good is Project Artemis, the foundation’s flagship program. Project Artemis is a unique program that trains Afghan women entrepreneurs in business skills. The program will take place on campus between February 14-27, 2016. If you wish to volunteer for this event, please send an email to email@example.com.
Photos courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/thunderbirdschool/.