Jennifer Bunting-Graden works as an associate attorney with a multinational law firm in Atlanta. She was born in Sierra Leone, where she is trying to set up a joint venture.
I was one of six entrepreneurs who, in 1997, founded NationLink Telecom in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia… and the center of violence in our country. We were not sure if we would survive, first because there were three established telecom companies and, second, because the security challenge was tremendous.
But we invested in the business hoping to make profits and bring stability to our country.
NationLink has become a major telecom operator in Somalia, offering wireless and fixed-line services to 300,000 customers. It employs 1,500 people. With two other companies, we formed Global Internet Company, to provide Internet access.
Still, the fast-growing telecom industry in Somalia is fiercely competitive — competitors are hostile at times. Also, in a country with no strong central authority, we must protect our business. We have more than 600 security people, which is not the ideal solution. We know that someone somewhere will try to extort money if we need work done. We usually pay, because if we fight them, someone may get killed and, at the end of the day, the work may still not be done.
As the only woman among company executives, I face unique challenges. (In Somalia, women are rarely in business circles; you hardly see them at the executive level.) I was prepared though, because, when young, I worked at my family’s businesses and learned to think independently. At NationLink, I have tried to achieve the same or better results than my male co-workers. I led a middle-management team with little difficulty. This helped me to bring more educated women into the company.
I and other successful women want to be role models. We hope girls and young women in schools and universities, seeing us succeed, dare to search for new opportunities and feel empowered to seize them.
Ms. Malin and other founders of NationLink Telecom have it exactly right that entrepreneurship, investment and job opportunities within a community can serve as a catalyst for peace and development. NationLink is an example of the new breed of homegrown entrepreneurial ventures in developing countries, which not only seek profits, but also embrace the responsibility for driving the development of their respective economies. Although NationLink has a profit-making purpose, its business by its nature helps facilitate peace by creating jobs, providing access to information and improving the quality of life. And just by being there in the middle of a chaotic environment in which the company operates may provide some measure of stability.
But dealing with challenges of security and poor infrastructure in countries affected by conflicts is no small feat, and adds to business ventures the dimension unknown to entrepreneurs in our country. As Ms. Malin indicates, basic institutions and processes vital to the success of any business such as the rule of law are less often the norm in countries that lack stability.
Ms. Malin’s personal story of success in a male-dominated environment and the positive impact her career has had on other women in her country illustrate another value of homegrown entrepreneurship. Women generally form the backbone of society in developing countries, and it follows that developing countries will be successful when local women are given the opportunity to reach their full potential.