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Tunisian businesswomen visit Iowa counterparts


Tunisians would love to talk business with Americans – but not necessarily over a meal.

“We don’t have business breakfasts, business lunches, business dinners,” said Chema Makni, managing director of the Center for Applied Training (CAT) in the North African nation of Tunisia. “When we eat, we like to laugh and have fun. Here you talk business, you chew business, you swallow business.”

Makni is the leader of a group of 16 Tunisian women who are in the middle of a 13-day visit to Des Moines, and, of course, lunchtime habits are only a minor example of the differences between the cultures.

Here’s another one: “It surprises me that women are still considered a minority and can receive loans on that basis,” Makni said. “You’re still discussing this? I was shocked. In our tiny country, we don’t talk about that.”

The women are all business owners in Tunisia, a rare Muslim country that offers equality between the genders when it comes to business and legal matters. They’re here to see how Americans do business, to meet with businesswomen and perhaps to create some partnerships that will benefit both sides.

The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and organized by the non-profit Institute for Social and Economic Development and CAT. A Des Moines organization, ITEBS and Associates LLC, is providing management assistance.

During their first week in Des Moines, the Tunisian women heard presentations designed to explain how business works in this country, including one by a panel of local women business owners and members of the National Association of Women Business Owners. The second week will be devoted to visiting local businesses and meeting with women leaders.

The group includes women interested in exporting furniture, learning about our advertising methods, recycling computer printer cartridges and so forth. “We need to export, and many of our products are somewhat different than those you see here,” said Lylia Haddad Ben Hamida, who manages a 100-acre farm that produces wine-quality grapes and other fruits. “Many of these women would like to find trading partners or find more financing.”

Most of the women are visiting the United States for the first time, but Haddad already had some experience in the Midwest. She earned a master of business administration degree from the University of Wisconsin about 20 years ago.

In recent years, America has shown little interest in programs like this one, according to Makni. “For the last six years, the U.S. has had no economic role in Tunisia and North Africa,” she said. “After 9/11 and the war in Iraq, all of a sudden it came to the American government’s mind that it’s time to do something.”

A friendship between ITBS principal Ann Schodde and Makni, who met in 2001, played a part in sparking this program. The exchanges got under way with a visit to Tunisia last June by Schodde and two other American women. “Twenty-five Tunisian women took two weeks of fairly intensive training,” Schodde said. “The first week focused on computer technology and then they spent the second week developing a business plan.”

An American delegation, including Schodde, will travel to Tunisia in February to complete the program. “We’ll meet with these women again and conduct some short presentations on aspects of small business development that are of particular interest to them — marketing, for example,” Schodde said.

Makni, who has dealt with U.S. interests for the past 10 years, said, “At the business level, we have a lot to learn from you.” But are Americans a little too obsessed with work and careers? “Maybe you shouldn’t be so obsessed; I can’t advise on that,” she said. “But that’s why you are the most developed nation in the world.”

Entrepreneur assistance

The Institute for Social and Economic Development (ISED) is a non-profit organization that began in 1988 with a focus on helping people leave the welfare rolls and become self-employed. It has provided services in Des Moines since the mid-1990s.

Two affiliates of the institute, ISED Solutions and ISED Ventures, worked on the U.S.-Tunisia exchange program taking place now.

ISED Solutions was incorporated in 2003 and is based in Washington, D.C. It provides training, technical assistance, evaluation and research services to public and private organizations in the U.S. and internationally.

ISED Ventures began operating this year with headquarters in Des Moines. It offers workshops, classes and individual consultation to help entrepreneurs who want to start or expand a business.

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