By: Ruth Bennett and Tara Nouri
Stephenie Foster, the USAWC’s newest member, is a founding partner of Smash Strategies, which works with clients on incorporating gender equality strategies into their business. Prior to founding Smash, she worked in government.
Q: What was the path that brought your attention specifically to Afghanistan, and to Afghan women in particular?
A: Afghanistan was always on my radar. I went to Afghanistan in 2011, for IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, for a project that focused on an analysis of what had happened in the recent elections in Afghanistan with respect to outreach to women. The reason I wanted to do that project was because I had followed, obviously, what had gone on during the Taliban, and then what had happened from 2001 on. I had also spoken to some groups of Afghan women who had come to Washington on the International Visitor Leadership Program and had done a project with Vital Voices with a group of Afghan women parliamentarians in Istanbul. I was really struck by how dogged they were in trying to figure out how to move forward.
I’ve always had the view, because I’ve worked in a lot of countries, that we all face very different challenges; women in all these different countries, based on the culture and the context; but there is a lot of similarity. It always strikes me that, for all the differences, it all kind of comes down to the fact that we are working in structures that are developed by men and really for men. The question is how to help women break through that and try to get a place in those structures to change them. In some ways, Afghanistan is ground zero for thinking about how to really rebuild a society in a way that can be more gender-equal.
Q: What did your work with IFES in Afghanistan involve?
A: We were looking at how the election commission was structured in terms of its outreach to women as voters, and trying to ensure it had a plan to have enough female poll administrators, women to actually work at the polls, and enough security for female voters, and a whole range of issues around the ability of women to fully participate in the political system.
We were also looking at things like, where were women’s polling places situated? As you know, in Afghanistan, women and men tend to vote in different parts of the building, or actually, in different buildings entirely! I had worked in other places where women’s polling stations were very difficult to get to, and men’s polling stations were not. So, it was a really wide-ranging analysis of where the election commission could see places to improve, where they had done well, all around the issues of addressing Afghan women’s ability to participate in the electoral process.
Q: And after that you were at the US Embassy in Kabul?
A: Yes, I went to Kabul in 2012. I was there for about a year and a half and focused on outreach to women in civil society. As part of that, I was able to travel in Kabul, quite a bit, and around the country, meeting and talking with women who were active in politics, women who were building businesses and the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce, women in higher education — most particularly at the American University of Afghanistan, and also at Kabul University — and women who were engaged in developing NGOs to provide services, such as in response to gender-based violence, or for needs in education and training.
As part of that, also, as I travelled and talked to people, I identified individuals who ought to meet with the Ambassador or others at the Embassy, or high-level visitors. We had a lot of those: we had the Secretary of State come, and we had several senators come fairly regularly. Part of what I was able to do was to ensure that as these people, very important decision-makers, were learning about the country, that they were also listening to women, who are actively building Afghan society.
Q: What impressed you the most as you were doing this?
A: A lot of the women were exceptionally inspiring. One thing I worked on when I was there, which Secretary Kerry talked about all the time when he talked about Afghanistan, was a sort of mini-bazaar that we would put on at the Embassy on the compound, comprised of eight woman-owned businesses or NGOs that were reflective of the work going on in the country. These were people who were dealing in a broad range of sectors, everything from trucking, to computer science, to import-export, to clothing manufacture and design, to light manufacturing. There were women making great strides in politics and education as well, not only in places like Kabul or other cities, but around the country.
Q: What did you do after that?
A: After I left Afghanistan, I went to the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, and worked for Ambassador Cathy Russell. I did oversee some of our work in Afghanistan, but also worked on women and politics more broadly: women and economic empowerment, women and security, and in regions in Africa, the Western hemisphere, and Europe. I worked on a broad range of issues and represented the US at multilateral forums such as ASEAN or the G7. It was a lot of different things, whether it was addressing sexual violence in conflict and looking to strengthen legal systems around that issue in countries that had been through conflict, or other things like the Equal Futures Partnership, which was a group of thirty countries that had committed to work on legal reform that could increase women’s political and economic participation in their countries. So, it was an opportunity to not only work on Afghanistan, but also to bring a lot of those other issues into the foreign policy discussion at the State Department.
Q: And what inspired you to launch Smash Strategies?
A: My business partner and I were both appointees in the Obama Administration, and, even before the election, we’d thought about pursuing a business model where we could really utilize the knowledge that we’d developed both within the U.S. government and also for many years before that, to advise companies and large non-profits on gender equality and women’s leadership. So, we launched the business in March of 2017. And we’ve been able to have a broad range of clients. We do a lot of different things for them depending on what they need. It can be anything from corporate social responsibility around women’s empowerment to how to get more women-owned businesses in their supply chains, to a more general strategy around reaching as customers. It’s also how to think about your workforce and ensuring that you have consistent values both internally and externally. Most of our clients — all of them I would say — have some global or regional impact; they are not, for the most part, just in the United States. So we are able to use the experience that we have gained globally to be able to better inform and give advice to these clients. I think what we have seen is that there is a tremendous appetite in both business and the non-profit and foundation sectors to really focus on gender equality and women’s leadership.
Q: What is your top wish or hope for Afghan women in 2020?
I hope that as Afghanistan engages in negotiations with the Taliban, or negotiations in any way, that women are fully at the table. That they are able to participate, to have their views heard, and to have a big impact, in order to really continue to protect the rights that they have, and to expand their ability to participate in Afghan society.