By Columbia GSB September 13, 2011 Leave a Comment

Four women shared their experiences as entrepreneurs in Rwanda, a nation still recovering from the scars of genocide, during a panel discussion on April 12 at Columbia Business School.

The event, hosted by the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business, was titled “Doing Business Our Way: Voices of Rwandan Entrepreneurs” and featured Languida, owner of Pompey Funebre Twifatanye, Rwanda’s first funeral parlor; Soline, owner of Saintpaulina Flower Center; and Symphrose and Consolata, owner and manager of Le Petit Prince Hotel. The women entrepreneurs were visiting the United States as part of Bpeace, a nonprofit network of business professionals who volunteer to share time and skills with entrepreneurs like the panelists in conflict-affected countries. Murray Low, director of the School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, moderated the discussion.

Entrepreneurship is not historically part of Rwandan culture, with a number of foreigners leading the country’s businesses and many Rwandans still relying on agriculture for income. Women are traditionally encouraged to stay home and raise children. But after the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when nearly one million people were killed, a number of women suddenly found themselves as heads of households and struggling to provide for their families, Consolata said.

“Because many women were not educated, they had to create their own jobs,” Consolata said. “Starting a business was uncharted territory for Rwandan women. But when some women started becoming entrepreneurs, it gave others courage too, so the number keeps growing.” In the 17 years since the genocide, Rwanda has launched programs to encourage small business development and investment in tourism and technology.

Despite the cultural and personal challenges each of the four panelists had to overcome, they consider helping to rebuild their communities the ultimate reward for hard work. “After the genocide, everyone had to start again from scratch,” Languida said. “Women are happy with their roles as entrepreneurs not only for themselves, but also because of the ripple effect in their communities — providing jobs so that people can support their families.”

The businesswomen also offered advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. “Have a dream, then figure out what you can do to achieve that dream,” Languida said. “And be confidant in yourself. To start a business requires courage; you have to be fearless.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Lang Center, the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, and Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies. It reflects the mission of the Chazen Institute to promote thought leadership and research on topics related to the global economy and business, providing forums for collaboration and learning among students, faculty members, and practitioners around the world.

Watch a video of Soline discussing the perseverance needed to be an entrepreneur. 

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