Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship

by HERA (Her Economic Rights and Autonomy)
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Prevent Trafficking in Women thru Entrepreneurship
Ani, Founder of Nairian Travel Agency
Ani, Founder of Nairian Travel Agency

The second and third quarters are the busiest part of the year for the HERA Team.  In April, we announced our annual competition.  This year HERA received 159 applications.  HERA's target objective is to fund 50-60 applications.  Seven reviewers representing the HERA French Association and HERA USA reviewed the applications in July.  Sixty-four applicants made our top tier.  Receipt of a HERA grant results from a very competitive process; applicants have approximately a one in three chance of success. 

Armenia

In September, a HERA team consisting of Yuliya Etingen, Anna Hovhannisyan (our local coordinator), Nico Nissen, and Dennis Long visited Armenia and travelled across the country from August 30th to September 9th.  The political situation in Armenia remains tense.  One of our stops was Jermuk, famous for its water and ski resort.  The week after the team visited, fighting broke out, and Azerbaijan bombed Jermuk.  Two days later, a ceasefire went into effect, but the fighting left 175 dead on both sides and only accentuated Armenia's vulnerability.  The previous 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh ended with Russia taking on the role of peacekeeper, although minor skirmishes are constant.  During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Ukraine supported Azerbaijan.  Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has appealed, in vain, for Russia to enforce the ceasefire and has threatened to leave Moscow's military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.  But, Russia remains one of Armenia's largest trading partners.  So, while most Armenians are against war in general, they are concerned that if the war in Ukraine worsens for Russia, they will withdraw their troops from Armenia.  If this was to happen, then Azerbaijan might move to claim Syunik province in eastern Armenia.  Nakhchivan province is a land-locked region of Azerbaijan, surrounded by Iran and Armenia, and is the ancestral home of their president.  Azerbaijan has argued for its country's contiguous integrity and thus, wants a land corridor to Nakhchivan province.  The Syunik province of Armenia is mountainous and includes Kapan, a large mining town.  Having lost land in Nagorno-Karabakh in the recent war, Armenia cannot afford to lose more territory.  With the world focused on Ukraine, conflicts in other former Soviet states go largely unnoticed, for example, the recent border conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  In such times, HERA's continued presence in Armenia is appreciated.

During its 10-day site visit, the HERA team visited 28 ventures, funded 14 new ventures and three second-year ventures, and conducted six evaluations while rejecting five.  To extend our funding and to ensure the entrepreneur's commitment, we asked for cost sharing, resulting in 32% cost sharing across the 17 ventures.  The one social enterprise was not asked to contribute, but all private businesses did.  Our encouragment of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) ventures yielded two videography/marketing firms.  There were sewing ventures, schools, food processing, and various other ventures.  The HERA team wishes to express appreciation to the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU).  AGBU runs an excellent women's entrepreneurship training program, AGBU WE, with which we collaborate. Of the 80 HERA applicants from Armenia in 2022, 28 were AGBU graduates (35%), including eight of the 17 (47%) new ventures.

One example of a venture funded this year is the Nairian Travel Agency of Yerevan.  Ani, the owner and founder (see photo above), has always been passionate about travel.  Together with two partners in 2019, she started the Nairian Travel Agency.  Her partners only provide funds; they are not directly involved in the day-to-day management of the agency.  Ani has two full-time women employees, 23 and 28 years old.  Ani was able to keep going at a much-reduced level during the COVID pandemic.  She mainly arranges tours to Russia and charter flights to Morocco, a popular destination for Armenians.  Ani's dream is to start a charter airline.  Last year, Nairian generated about EUR 10,000.  Ani plans to employ two additional young women.  For their workstations, she required two more computers.  HERA provided her with a grant to buy the first computer, while Ani purchased the second.

Moldova

Moldova faces a different situation.  The current Government looks towards Europe, but a significant minority of the population speaks Russian as their primary language.  Transnistria, a separatist region, remains pro-Russian and has a large Russian military base.  The Russian Government has mentioned its desire to liberate Transnistria after Odessa, but for now, Russia is losing ground in Southern Ukraine. Nevertheless, Chisinau is only a 40-minute drive from Transnistria, and the Romanian border is only two hours away.  Moldova lacks a large standing army and could be overrun in two to three hours.  Local friends mentioned that they had a bag packed.  Should Russia overtake Odessa and move into Transnistria, many Moldovans would immediately leave for Romania and elsewhere in Europe.  Moldova has opened its borders to a half million Ukraine refugees, of which 80,000 have chosen to stay.

Given a tense situation, there were only 16 applications from Moldova this year, partly reflecting ongoing concerns with the war in Ukraine and partly, the result of an injury to our leading partner in Southern Moldova.  As a result, the HERA team consisted of two people: Dennis Long and Cata Adam, our Moldovan coordinator.  For the last two days, a prospective donor also joined the assessment, which took place between September 18 and 25.  The team made 11 grants across the country.  As a reflection of the precarious situation in Moldova, one prospective grantee withdrew her application for an after-school English program and immigrated to Germany.  In addition, the founder of one of last year's firms that we planned to evaluate had already immigrated to Germany with her husband for his IT work.  She had transferred the company to her partner and was setting up an online platform in Germany. 

One example of a HERA Grantee funded this year in Moldova is a young mother who, with her husband, has a bee apiary of 120 hives (see photo below).  While most honey producers HERA has funded focus on honey production, Vitalia takes it a step further; she processes creamed honey with various flavors: ginger, chocolate, berry, etc.  There is nothing similar on the market.  She was taking her honey to another producer and paid for the cream process.  HERA provided her with the equipment to cream her own honey. 

Ukraine and Georgia

Due to the ongoing war with Russia HERA is not planning an assessment in Ukraine this year.  However, our competition was open to women in Ukraine and to refugees in Europe who had already received one or two grants. Young Ukrainian women need assistance to maintain their businesses in Ukraine or restart in Europe.  Assessments are being conducted online through Maryana Syniushko, our local coordinator in Kiev.  In Ukraine, Maryana and members of HERA USA expect to fund five to seven ventures that are still operating and providing goods and/or services.  We have also supported Ukrainians in Europe -- one to restart her business in Belgium and others to resettle and/or find employment.  Once the war ends, there will be a huge need to rebuild.  While HERA's resources are limited, many of the women we fund are below the radar of international agencies and banks. 

The final field assessment this year will take place in Georgia during the first ten days in November, with a team consisting of Giorgi Tvialashvili, Sonia Boubekri, and Lynellyn Long.  HERA will report on the final results of Georgia and the Ukraine assessments in our next report.  

Evaluation Results

In 2021 HERA commissioned two long-term, independent evaluations, for Georgia and Moldova, of past performance in each country going back to the start of the HERA program. Both studies showed positive long-term results, with many ventures still in operation and young women employed although the COVID pandemic slowed the intended growth for most firms in both countries. Both studies are available on request.

HERA's work is highly valued and appreciated and significantly contributed to women's economic empowerment.  The women we fund represent the economic base of the pyramid, employ vulnerable young women, produce and sell critical goods and services in local and national markets and increasingly, are exporting internationally.  Many are digitalising their marketing, sales, and operations.  Most are not in a situation to take on a loan.  A grant from HERA to purchase a critical piece of equipment has often been a catalyst for growth, as we discovered through the two long-term evaluations.   

The HERA team is always glad to receive any questions or suggestions. Giving Tuesday offers an opportunity to leverage your HERA contribution with GlobalGiving's matching funds and to convey your own priorities and reasons for supporting our work.  Meanwhile we are very grateful and wish to thank all our donors for your continued support.  

 

Vitalia's Apiary in Moldova
Vitalia's Apiary in Moldova
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Meeting with the Dumbadze Team
Meeting with the Dumbadze Team

This year HERA received 161 applications for our 2022 International Competition for Women Entrepreneurs from Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. We also encouraged former Ukrainian grantees, who are restarting ventures, in Western Europe and the US, to apply.  

HERA teams plan to travel, security permitting, to the four countries and to meet with the applicants in the US and Europe. If too dangerous to travel, we will assess the new ventures online, with the help of former grantees remaining in the conflict regions.  This past spring, HERA team members have also been helping several former Ukrainian grantees and their families to resettle in Western Europe and the US. Some have already found work and at least two grantees in the Kiev region have already returned.  Given the current situation, conflict could break out in Moldova or Georgia and/or escalate further in Ukraine and Armenia.  As one Board member observes, “HERA is currently working in Putin’s cross hairs.”  To prepare for this year’s assessments and to understand some of the complexities of rapidly evolving situations, we obtained the following updates from our recent grantees.(1)

In Armenia, Svetlana Antonyan has established a private kindergarten and primary school in Masis, a town, 17.4 kilometers from Yerevan.  To add a music program for her school, she bought a keyboard, drum, and guitar with her HERA 2021 grant (EUR 611).  Svetlana reports that, “We’re grateful to be granted the opportunity to get support from your organisation as it enables me to grow my business.  We hired a music teacher, Manucharyan Sofia, who teaches music classes to all three of our groups.”  

Several Armenian 2021 grantees reported that the Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, along with the pandemic, negatively set back their businesses. Svetlana observed that: “We had a subtle decline on the financial part since the majority of parents faced difficulties in paying the tuition.” Although Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in November 2020 and Russia sent peacekeepers to maintain the borders; border incursions have continued. In April 2022 the two countries held the first of a series of peace talks at the European Council in Brussels. A second meeting is scheduled for the summer.  Reportedly, some Russian peacekeepers and equipment have been reallocated to fight in Ukraine and the border situation remains volatile.  As a result of the war in Ukraine, another 2021 HERA grantee observes that Armenia is seeing many more Russian tourists, which is helping the local economy. Svetlana reports her school is currently progressing well and she plans to expand the school’s grounds as the current enrolment is starting to exceed their capacity.  

In Georgia, Marita and Keti Dumbadze started Tbilihhoby with 600 GEL ($240).  Marita conceived of the business when she knitted a baby blanket for her soon-to-be born son.  As she explains, “the idea came to me to make a knitted baby blanket that would be a special design and high quality; I knitted the same blanket as I had imagined so the idea of my venture was created.” Living in Tbilisi, Marita realized that Keti, her sister who lived in Choporti, a village in the mountains (41 km from the capital), needed work and would know other young women, who could learn high quality knitting and sewing skills.   

Today, four years later, the Dumbadze sisters manufacture 30 different baby products. Their “mini factory” employs three young women (25-29 years) full-time, including Keti, in Choporti and two part-time, including Marita, who works on sales in Tblisi.   As Marita observes, “We have gained good experience to manufacture baby products in high quality and with different designs.” They deliver throughout Georgia and sell through local retailers and on online (e.g., Etsy; cartooli, happykids.ge, and anovano.ge) 

The pandemic had negative impact on sales and in the same period, their knitting machine broke down.  Their HERA 2021 grant (EUR 900) paid for a new knitting machine. Marita claims that the new machine from HERA “actually saved the production process from stopping” and they re-employed the young woman weaver. This past year, she observes: “Of course, war has a bad influence on everything and on the business as well, but we try to save business and do our best to maintain employees. Now we no longer need to fight for survival, but we need to add different equipment to expand our manufacturing. In addition, we are maximally focused on exporting our products in European markets and the latter is our dream indeed.”  

In Moldova, Elena Maretova, a printer, produces high quality wedding invitations (see mov. below). She received a new printer (EUR 700) in 2021 from HERA to develop her venture. Elena reports that “It gave me an opportunity to give a full-time workplace for young ladies, and our sales have doubled. I live in my country; I'm raising my children and can work and give workplaces for other women. It's wonderful! “ 

She plans to develop her venture with making “stylish packaging boxes” and is selling online and to local retailers.  Elena believes (or hopes) that the “war in Ukraine can't touch us.” However, she reports: “the main obstacles we encountered this year are logistics, because some materials and equipment I bought in Ukraine.: But despite the difficult situation we continue cooperation. That's our way to support Ukrainian people and continue to keep growing my small business.”

In Ukraine, Maryana Syniushko, who received a HERA 2021 grant (EUR 250) for math equipment for Halli Galli, her home and online school, reports that “I haven't applied [for a second grant] because April and May were quite unsafe in Kyiv - and I wasn't sure about the future of any educational offline projects in Kyiv. At that period a lot of private kindergartens and small schools announced their closure. Now the situation has changed a lot: it's safe and people are coming back. We have some online activities and plan to start offline activities in July.” 

Her work now focuses on providing support to children affected by the war.  She writes that: “1-2 times a week I still go to villages which suffered from the war. We have a multidisciplinary team now - some people came through Halli Galli (see photo). We complicated our support: we do a lot of mental health activities with kids and their parents, we provide them with medical assistance, humanitarian aid (like food products) and some pharmacy (when we have it - there are usually no any pharmacy stores and it's quite challenging for people to get any medications. We usually go to the most depressed villages - and it helps me a lot to appreciate how good my life is despite the situation in the country. The more I go, the more I understand how important it is to have direct contact with people, not only with authorities (though authorities sometimes may also be kids friendly and have a strong values basis). I see that we can be reborn and get recovered, it just takes time and requires systematic and professional efforts.” 

From Texas, USA Tanya Sapurko, the founder of Nut Shell, a Ukrainian architecture and interior design firm, writes: “The sphere of architecture and building isn`t relevant in the active phase of the military conflict and warfare. We are in a pause regime. All our present work in Kiev and Kharkiv has been suspended and projects have been frozen.” Tanya has already experienced restarting her work once as she observes: “Three years after my forced migration from Donetsk to Kiev in 2014, I opened an official business in November 2017, with a master's degree in architecture, experience in similar companies and a ready-made studio name. Nut Shell is a natural, eco-friendly and durable shell.”

With an initial grant (EUR 804) from HERA (2019) for a projector and printer, Tanya organized master classes to teach young women design skills and expanded her client base across Ukraine. With HERA’s second grant (EUR 526) in 2020 for a 3-D printer, she entered the German market during the pandemic and grew her team by 2.5 jobs in the first year and by three, in 2021.  In face of the ongoing conflict, Tanya continues to employ five women, mostly based in Kiev.  As she observes, “The real challenge for companies [is] to offer people jobs and to support the economy with cash flow. There is an understanding that the whole market is going to change. The market in architecture, design, and many sectors is being completely transformed and rebooted\reset.  It is a difficult time, but it pushes you to search, to find solutions, to adapt your business to a new environment."  

Tanya envisions four directions for Nut Shell’s work ahead: “(1) fast-creating modular systems for displaced and homeless people; (2) the renovation of houses, spot repairs, budgetary renovations of new buildings just commissioned, and introduction of shelters, following the example of Israel; (3) International projects (Europe, the USA, UAE) will stay popular because of their loyalty to Ukrainians; and (4) demand for repair and construction consultancy services. Fast, low-cost, and professional solutions will be particularly relevant.”  As Tanya explains, “I recently came to TexasUS under the 'Uniting for Ukraine' program. I have found several projects abroad, so we are actively exploring new markets in America and Europe. We want to do our work 'today' to be able to contribute to Ukraine's economy 'tomorrow'.” 

While supporting our former grantees on the move, HERA will continue to seek and support new women entrepreneurs, with potential to grow their businesses. We will also provide a second grant for those who are creating more employment and training for young women at risk of dangerous migration and trafficking.  In face of the current conflicts, HERA’s objective of supporting women entrepreneurs to address dangerous migration and trafficking through economic growth has never been quite so relevant or needed.  We plan to stay the course.

(1) We received permission to publish the names, reporting, and photos of the five women profiled here. We very much appreciate the time all five took to share their observations and insights.

Halli Galli visiting families
Halli Galli visiting families
Nut Shell at Work
Nut Shell at Work

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"Breaking the Wall"
"Breaking the Wall"

In September 2021, Kiev felt like the happiest, most upbeat place to be since the beginning of the pandemic. The contrast with the optimism and vibrancy of this past autumn and the messages we have received these past two days is hard to imagine.  Each evening in September there were musicians and entertainers on the streets of Kiev, the city’s central fountains flowed, and the lights illuminating the domes and spires of church and basilica lit up the streets below.  People of different nationalities were on the streets at all hours of day and night. The buoyancy, youth and optimistic atmosphere belied the negative international reporting of the country’s political corruption.  The young Tunisian Uber driver who met us at the airport, was studying IT in Kiev.  He warned, “this city doesn’t sleep.”  Even with autumn approaching, the days were warm, and meetings were held in outdoor cafes.  Tonight, as I write, many of the women entrepreneurs we met then are sheltering in one of Ukraine’s underground stations and it is three degrees outside.  As one wrote earlier today,

We have a real war going on, a lot of blood and destruction around.  We are often in hiding. Our employees are in a panic, because everyone is out of work, without a source of income, in danger.

This past September three HERA USA and France Association members travelled to Ukraine for eight days to assess some 20 past and present women-led ventures.  Although new COVID cases remained high in Ukraine, the country had an estimated 30% vaccination rate (higher than Armenia, Georgia, or Moldova, where we also worked).  Most of the women entrepreneurs were vaccinated.  By the end of the visit, we awarded 13 grants to Ukrainian women to buy essential equipment and/or upgrade websites for their ventures. Our 2020-21 program in Ukraine cost a total of EUR 12,226.14 of which EUR 8,518.07 was used for grants and EUR 3,710.07 (30%) covered our assessment costs.  

Our first night out in September was a lesson in Ukraine’s contemporary history. The Ostannya Barykadda Restaurant was clearly located somewhere on Maidan Plaza, the main square of Central Kiev.  However, our phones led us to a closed, central stone monument representing the city walls that withstood the 1240 siege of Kiev.[1]  Following some written directions, we found a nearby service elevator to the shopping mall below. While others in the elevator continued to the mall below, the directions took us to the service floor that opened onto a dingy corridor.  Heading down the corridor, we came upon a steel door (see photo above). A woman at a desk instructed us to push open the steel wall, which I later learned symbolizes “destroying the wall”. The steel wall, representing the Iron Curtain, was decorated with 72 lit silver hands representing the years under Soviet rule.  We entered into a series of rooms each providing food and drink and successive museum quality installations.  Going from one inner room to the next, each installation depicted artifacts (e.g., a copy of the Constitution) from Ukraine’s recent revolutions: the 1989 Student Revolution, the 2004-5 Orange Revolution, and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.  In the last inner sanctum, a glass shaft opened to the stone gates of the monument to the 1240 siege above.  

According to the restaurant menu:

Ostannya Barykada is a place for open-minded people who are ready to protect their values, take responsibilities and change their country,… This is our fortress, a frontline where society is able to discuss long-term strategies of the country policy and work on the mistakes…. We want to preserve that spirit of sympathy, altruism, social alertness and uprising which helped to create Ukrainian Revolutions of the last three decades (hi.traveltales.com).  

Should I be surprised that despite the odds that some of the young grantees we met in September are ready to stand their ground with so many Ukrainians resisting the Russian forces tonight? 

With COVID and continuing hostilities in Donetsk, we did not travel in September as far as we would have liked but covered Kiev, Cherkassy, and Zhytomyr (all under siege now). Applicants from other parts of the country travelled to Kiev to meet us.  Three came on an overnight train from Donetsk (745.2 kilometers) and one from Poltava (342.3 kilometers).  A fifth drove from Ivano-Frankivsk (452 kilometers).  The women brought products and materials to show us their work. No one was worried, or did not discuss then, the possibility of an invasion.  In the past two days, explosions have been reported in Zhytomyr, Ivano-Frankivsk and Poltava and Kiev is under full scale attack by air and land.  In Donetsk, an entrepreneur writes,  Here is a war. The state is quite alarming, we do not know what to do next.” Everywhere we went, we met passionate women entrepreneurs and could well have funded more women entrepreneurs. 

In September, we were also still hoping that Russia would not invade.  Many of the 13 ventures were launched during COVID, had hired young women; and were already yielding returns that the women were re-investing in their businesses.  A majority focused on children’s education and included preschools, family club, home schooling, after school tutoring, junior business school, services for children with disabilities, and language teaching (English and Spanish for all ages).  The women entrepreneurs had organized services both online and in person and were expanding into new areas, e.g., adding a math component to the curriculum or services to support parents.  A woman entrepreneur was also manufacturing tents for holding outside events during COVID.  As she observed, there would still be a demand for this product in the future.   

The other manufacturing ventures included a women’s dress/cashmere knitwear firm, a small enterprise garments factory, and a leather products venture.  All three were trading online and international – the dress/cashmere firm in Europe, the Middle East and North America, the garments factory with major stores in France and Germany, and the leather products on ETSY.  Two young women in Donetsk had organized a mobile cleaning company, which met an important need during the conflict.  Another small patisserie/bakery that we had supported online in 2020 was expanding and opening a new shop in a nearby mall. 

This year we again visited or spoke to several women entrepreneurs funded in the past.  All we were able to meet were still operating.  A young woman displaced initially from Donetsk had had to shut two of her three stores during COVID.  Having been displaced and restarted her business once, she was optimistic it could be done again. 

Since February 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, there has been sporadic fighting in Donetsk.  Many of our post 2014 grantees are refugees (displaced persons) from the Donetsk region.  They have already experienced uprooting and had to start over again. They will do so again, and we will continue our efforts to be there for them ahead, wherever they may land next. [see Figure of HERA Ukraine Program from 2012 - 2021]

Looking ahead, we will continue to support women entrepreneurs in hard as well as good times.  The women entrepreneurs we supported after the war in Georgia and that we are currently supporting during the ongoing Armenia-Azeri conflict are going strong.  A few have returned to Artsakh/Nagorno Karabakh while others resettled and restarted ventures in other regions of Armenia.  During COVID, many women opened new businesses or reconfigured their operations to respond to the new demands.  Moldova women entrepreneurs report that their country is opening its borders to the new refugee flows from Ukraine.  After all what choice would any of us have in such circumstances?  

A former Donetsk grantee, who has an architectural firm Kiev, wrote back yesterday: 

Our country is going through a difficult time. Thank you for your attention and concern. We believe in a better future that will make us even stronger. Take care of yourself and your loved ones. People's lives are the most valuable. 

In September Kiev seemed one of the happiest places in Europe where people were out and about and enjoying life again.  Was I just witnessing another Cabaret?   As the shelling continues, how far will it go and when will such times come once again? 

 

 

[1] The description of the restaurant comes from our visit and the specific details from https://hitraveltales.com/discover-the-secret-ostannya-barykada-restaurant-in-kyiv/


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Alexandra Shalibashvili, Georgian Entrepreneur
Alexandra Shalibashvili, Georgian Entrepreneur

In August and September, six HERA France and US Board Members and one guest travelled to Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and/or Ukraine to visit 120 ventures that included evaluations of 41 grantees from previous years. The team members came from Canada, France, Germany, the UK, and the US.  We awarded 50 grants out of a total of 170 applications received this year, including some second grants to women entrepreneurs from 2019 and 20.  The number of assessments and evaluations was higher than ever as we could not visit the ventures directly last year. Our teams also met up with three NGO partners and a new partner in Georgia.  All HERA team members and the local coordinators, who travelled with us, were fully vaccinated. We wore masks and to the extent possible, held interviews outside.  Although vaccination rates, ranging from an estimated 2% in Armenia to 20% in Ukraine, are quite low in all four countries, all Board members and coordinators returned home safely.  

The local economies, communities, and businesses in all four countries have been severely affected by COVID, lockdowns, trade restrictions, and supply chain shortages.  The impact of climate change is also evidenced in unprecedented heat waves and earlier droughts, lack of snowfall, and flash flooding.  There is increased conflict in the region.  Armenia is the hardest hit with its recent war and on-going conflicts with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh).  Labor strife and protests were reported in Georgia. Periodic fighting continues in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. The Russian Government is playing an increased role in the region by providing vaccines, keeping trade open during the lockdowns, engaging politically (Georgia), supporting peacekeeping forces (Armenia), and continuing military battles (Ukraine).

Despite the clear hardships and economic downturns in all four countries, we met former HERA grantees who were keeping businesses going and even growing their operations. From the evaluations, we learned that most continued to employ other young women and had survived by going online, expanding markets, and/or providing needed services and supplies.  As in past years, we funded a good number of manufacturing, agriculture, and food production ventures. However, the kinds of women-led ventures are increasingly diverse. This year's grantees included digital marketing, accounting, IT, data analytics, business training, and video production firms. What follows is a brief synopsis of the outcome of our travels with some in-depth profiles of the HERA entrepreneurs in the four countries.

Armenia was still suffering the effects of its 44-day war with Azerbaijan that began in September 2020. The war led to the deaths of over 5,000 Armenians and created over 100,000 refugees, many who left for Russia.  As several Armenians observed, “All know someone and/or had close family and friends killed in action. Every single family was affected.”   Russian peacekeepers had established new military encampments along the borders. Despite ground patrols and helicopters overhead, border skirmishes continue; and everyone is worried about the potential for further all-out war.   

To assess and/or evaluate 50 entrepreneurs, the team divided in two. Of the 40 applicants considered for a grant, we awarded 19 grants (45%) to the following firms: seven manufacturing enterprises, three pre- and after- school programs, three agriculture/food processing ventures, two accountancies, and one each to a digital marketing firm, cosmetic venture, guesthouse, and videographer.  We also visited Tereza Gharabaghtsyan, a 2016 Armenian grantee.1 Tereza’s sewing venture in Yerevan had grown from one employee to over ten young women working in an atelier in a central city mall.  Tereza produces and sells clothing to several major brands and with a new designer on board, she is continuing to develop her own brand.  From Tereza’s team, we ordered a new shipment of HERA monogrammed scarves, which arrived in London by early October.

The Georgia team, visited a total of 27 ventures, including a new local partner, seven former grantees for evaluation, and 19 grantee applicants. Of the 19 applicant assessments, the team awarded nine (47%).  Of the seven old and some second grantees evaluated, all but one entrepreneur was still fully operating and five had significantly grown their businesses.  The nine grants this year provided needed equipment to firms producing: children’s furniture and accessories (two), handmade shoes (two), cloth story books for infants and children, medical uniforms, IT training services, cafe/bakery, and data analytics/infographics.  

The Georgian data analytics/infographics entrepreneur, Alexandra Shalibashvili and her two friends, gained their expertise during the first lockdown and subsequently started their consultancy services.  Their first clients included AmCham/Georgia, the Georgian Government, and an international NGO.  Alexandra explained how her team had analyzed Israel’s "Vaccination Success Story” to inform and spur on Georgia’s vaccine rollout that had progressed slowly. Their “Takeaway Message” was: “To achieve herd immunity, you need to approve vaccinating children.” In another data analytics project, entitled “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay,” they had researched and addressed coping with anxiety and stress during the pandemic. Their infographic advised people to “Pause, Breath and Reflect.” Alexandra received a new, upgraded computer, for their upcoming assignments, which has allowed her to train and hire a new young woman employee.

The Moldova team made 25 visits and awarded nine (69%) out of 13 assessments.  Both Moldovan team members, who had visited other countries, observed that HERA’s work often seems the most urgent in Moldova.  The nine grantees included a candlemaker, beekeeper, marketing expert, hairdresser, baker, greenhouse farmer, and producers of plastic handbags and greeting cards.   

Nadejda Cudobetchi, a Moldovan entrepreneur, founded Apricot Marketing to serve the Cahul region.  She has two full-time female employees -- a photographer and a videographer -- and three part-time staff.  Nadejda’s clients are the Cahul Mayor’s Office (her former employer) and local firms that cannot afford their own marketing teams.  She had 30 active clients and 150 separate clients over the past year.  During COVID she was able to expand her business as many ventures shifted to online sales. We helped her fund a specialised computer and software, which allowed her to increase sales and hire one of her part-time employees, full time.  

The Ukraine team made 23 visits and awarded grants to 13 (68%) out of 19 applicants for this year.  We evaluated nine former grantees and awarded several second grants to those who had grown their operations. One young woman, who received a second grant, had started her business during COVID, hired new employees, and was selling sweaters and dresses in the Middle East, the US, and Europe. Our main local partner, Creative Women, had pivoted from their “Creative Space” to “Creative Publishing” and had produced two best-selling anthologies by Ukrainian women.  All were continuing their ventures although an earlier grantee with high rental costs and in-person sales, had to shut two of her three stores. Many women had started to make products to sell online (Etsy and Amazon) to gain access to a bigger marketplace.  

The lockdown and ongoing conflict were particularly challenging for the Donetsk applicants, who reported increased wife abuse from the conflict. Their main safe house was closed but a local organization (which one of the HERA grantees supports) works with trafficked women. Two of this year’s HERA grantees live in Donetsk, while several had migrated from that region to other parts of Ukraine. Ukrainians continue to go abroad to work, especially to Poland given its proximity. With borders shut during COVID, irregular migration most likely increased. 

Maryana Syniushko, a Ukrainian entrepreneur, provides private education courses and services for over 70 students and their families in Kiev. She employs 11 women under the age of 32.  Her team offers English, German, and Mathematics classes, a homeschoolers’ program, and pre-K courses for young children.  The biggest challenge she currently faces is finding a new space to host the in-person courses. There are many bureaucratic hoops to signing a contract and their current space is far from a Metro. Motivated by the pandemic and in response to parents’ requests, they now offer both in-person and online courses and added additional services, including the Mathematics and Pre-Kindergarten programs. We gave Maryana a grant to purchase mathematics equipment.  Maryana went out of her way to help us meet with other grantees and was so impressed by them that she offered to serve as our Ukraine coordinator in the future. 

Although travelling internationally, given PCR and other requirements, was challenging at times, our local coordinators, NGO partners, and grantees made the effort all worthwhile.  Meeting the women directly to hear about their lives and ventures and working with very committed local partners was inspiring. Despite some of the impressive challenges they face, everyone went out of her way to meet with, welcome, and share her stories and experiences with us.  

During our "GivingTuesday" and “End-of-Year” fundraising campaigns, please consider giving to HERA to support these and other HERA women entrepreneurs ahead.  Thank you!

 

1. All the women whose names and photos are used in this report have given their signed permission and indicated that they would like their ventures and work known.

 

Nadejda Cudobetchi, Moldovan Entrepreneur
Nadejda Cudobetchi, Moldovan Entrepreneur
Signing an Agreement in Ukraine
Signing an Agreement in Ukraine
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Gayane Simonyan, BeeLife
Gayane Simonyan, BeeLife

Four women entrepreneurs, who received HERA grants at different times in the past, kindly share their experiences about how our support has affected their lives and work over the long term.[1]  Each year the HERA volunteer assessors follow up with our grantees within two or three years later to see how they are faring. Over time we have managed to follow up directly with 75%.  However, we often wonder whether our international grants program, which first began in 2010, has any long-term impact?  To begin to explore this issue, we contacted four women entrepreneurs from different time periods and countries about whether and if so, how the grants have affected their lives and work. We also asked for their advice on how our work could have a bigger impact and where they would like to see HERA go in the future. 

In Armenia, Gayane Simonyan, who received her first grant in 2016 and a second, in 2017, writes that she had a number of financial and resource issues when she was starting her business.  She says that “HERA is the first organization which helped our fledgling business to thrive, and I dare to say that HERA organization is the cornerstone of our venture.”   Gayane organizes and manages BeeLife, which produces apitherapy products (honey, beeswax, beeswax candles, royal jelly, skin creams based on beeswax and propolis) in “ecologically clean packages”.  As BeeLife grew, Gayane developed and trained a network of local women beekeepers, whose members are the main suppliers for the company’s beekeeping products. After receiving her first grant, Gayane also offered to help HERA as a local organizer, recruiter, and translator.  She now believes that HERA could have a bigger impact if we had an office in Armenia, where “we could organize business seminars and have business mentors, networking, exchange of experience and other important courses for the business sector.”  Gayane would also like to see HERA expand to more countries and to have branch offices in all countries as well.  As far as the lasting impact of HERA on her work, Gayane observes that:

With the help of HERA organization, I started to involve women in my venture and discovered the great potential in women, which they can use for business.  Working with HERA I also started to think not only about me and my business but also started to be responsible for the women of my community as well.  

In Georgia, Eka Verulashvili and her partner, Marika Bibileishvili, founded “Teamania”, a boutique tea and coffee retail chain.  They learned about HERA from a German professor, who knew Dr. Nico Nissen, one of the program founders.  They began directly communicating with Nico and applied for and received grants in 2010 and 2011.  Eka notes: “At that time, it was almost impossible to get a loan from a bank and we really needed some equipment to expand our business.” The first grant helped Teamania with a coffee machine for their shop in Tbilisi.  The second helped with equipment to open another shop and employ three young women. Currently the Temania team has eight shops in Tbilisi, employs 20 women (including two Abkhazian refugees), and plans to expandi to Kutaisi.  Eka would like to see HERA increase our impact by engaging former grantees to mentor other young women entrepreneurs starting out in similar businesses.  She observes, “If we had had such advice, it would have saved us some time, effort, money and energy not to make mistakes when developing our business.”  She observes that HERA’s support helped keep one of the Teamania shops going during a difficult period so they could continue employing three women.  For the future, Eka would also like to see HERA profile grant recipient companies on the web and social media; and more actively work on encouraging women to work with and inspire other women.

In Moldova, Ludmila Griu first began translating for the HERA assessment teams in 2015.  She observes:

I was drawn to the concept of providing financial support to women that have great ideas and growth aspirations. Moreover, reaching out to women in rural areas, that do not know English and don’t have access to information on funding opportunities. It was really inspiring to see their happiness when receiving support from HERA and how this opportunity is shared with the community, encouraging other women to apply.

In 2018, Ludmila decided to pursue her own passion of baking deserts for family and friends to become a Pastry Chef.  In 2020, she opened her own atelier.  With a HERA grant she bought a professional mixer, which allows her to produce 250-400 macarons daily.  She writes, 

Being part of HERA and receiving the support with purchasing the mixer has helped grow my business and also had a positive effect on the quality of produced goods. I proudly share my experience with the program and encourage other female entrepreneurs to apply. This support was not only of financial nature; it also gave me the confidence and inspiration to continue striving for greater results.  

She, too, would like HERA to have dedicated, in-country staff, who could reach more rural women to help with their applications, capacity building, and training; and would like us to provide more financial aid and sustained support to achieve positive changes in these communities.  Ludmila writes, “I definitely think that HERA is on the right track with their activities in supporting female empowerment and growth.”

In Ukraine, Svetlana Goncharova, the organizer of “Flymama”, an online, education portal providing advice for women entrepreneurs in Ukraine and Russia, received a first grant for her printing business in 2012 and a second, in 2013.  Sveta, mother of two young sons at the time, writes:

I launched my first website Flymama.info and started doing online training for moms. I started my business with $300, which I got as a birthday gift, as I didn't have any extra money to invest in my company. And I was very surprised and even thrilled that HERA believed in me and my ideas. I got a grant to publish my very first calendar for moms! To get the money was great. But to find someone who believes in you was even better! I'm so grateful for your support guys! 

Sveta also volunteered as an organizer in HERA’s early days in Ukraine and helped in recruiting, training, and mentoring other young women entrepreneurs.  When she and her family eventually migrated to New Brunswick (through official channels), she continued helping to recruit and advise women online.  Not surprisingly, Sveta recommends that HERA be more visible on social media and says, “This way many more people will get to know what you do and help you to find the women who need your support.”  Given that she also continues to work with women throughout Ukraine and Russia, Sveta recommends HERA expand to Russia as well.  In Canada, Flymama helps parents with raising “children through love not fear” and Sveta continues to help women entrepreneurs in myriad ways.  She concludes, “I’m so happy that through knowing HERA, I could help other women to find help and support.”

These four women have given back so much to others. Their stories and advice will help inform this year’s competition selection and our planning ahead.  HERA already supports former grantees and collaborates with local NGO partners to provide some ongoing support for applications, training, recruitment, and mentoring in all four countries.  However, this support should be formalized as part of our program.  HERA also needs a systematic online presence and given more resources, we would definitely consider expanding our remit to other countries where supporting women entrepreneurs and employment could make a difference to prevent dangerous migration and trafficking.

This year’s online competition closed on June 30th Already, we have received approximately 150 applications, of which we hope to fund a third.  We could not meet the demand of many great applicants last year. Thus, we are pleased to announce that through GlobalGiving, HERA recently received a very generous grant from Airbnb to help support more grantees this year.  Many, many thanks to Airbnb and GlobalGiving, and to our many unstinting individual supporters.  Your support will make a difference in the lives of many young women in these four countries. The collaboration of HERA France Association and HERA USA also allows us to raise additional funds to support “Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics” (STEM) ventures.  Finally, many thanks to all the HERA women entrepreneurs, who continue to support young women’s employment and mentor other women entrepreneurs.  You are role models.  As we learned during this pandemic, your work not only helps your communities provide sound economic alternatives to dangerous migration and trafficking but also, vital goods and services.

 

[1] We have received permission to use all names and photos, the four women entrepreneurs provided the information and direct quotes through an online questionnaire and reviewed these profiles.

Eka Verulashvili, Teamania
Eka Verulashvili, Teamania
Ludmila Gru, Pastry Shop
Ludmila Gru, Pastry Shop
Sveta Goncharova, Flymama
Sveta Goncharova, Flymama
Beekeeping Cooperative, Armenia
Beekeeping Cooperative, Armenia
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HERA (Her Economic Rights and Autonomy)

Location: Paris - France
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Twitter: @herequality
Project Leader:
Lynellyn Long
Sancerre, France
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