Imagine you are age 11 and are suddenly torn from your home and thrust into an improvised camp in a place where you don't speak the language. Your father's health deteriorates rapidly and he dies, leaving your devastated mother in a condition from which she never recovers. Then you move to another place -- this time where you do speak the language -- but you are living in a tent and looked down upon by the host communities. You are faced with the brutal reality that it is up to you to earn a living to support your family.
That is the reality that faced Christine Seyboe Tour in 1992. Yet this month, as part of International Women's Day celebrations, she flew from Liberia to the USA to meet with Michelle Obama. Part of an international group of women entrepreneurs who are changing the future of the developing world, she toured government and businesses in Washington, D.C. and New York City. The intervening two decades of her life are a fascinating story.
"I didn't know why I was picked to come to America at first. Other women have bigger businesses, more success. I found out it was because I chose a business that gives back to my country and helps girls in need," she explains.
Christine left her native Liberia in 1990 because of the brutal civil war. After a brief and tragic year in a refugee camp in the Cote d'Ivoire, she, her mother and her siblings moved to a refugee camp in Ghana. At age 16, to support her family, she began working in a beauty salon as a cleaner. Her boss, she says, was a good person, who trained her as a stylist. Within three years, Christine was working as a stylist and was also managing the salon when the owner was away. In 1999, she started her own salon. "It was an amazing change. I could afford things for myself. I didn't have to look to others for support," Christine recalls.
But she saw women in the refugee camp around her who had nothing and had to rely on others -- in often unpleasant circumstances -- to make ends meet. After seven years of running her own salon, in 2006, she started her own beauty school. "When I saw girls on the street, I would talk to them and bring them to the school, because I knew that learning would help them to become self-reliant." By 2008 she had trained an impressive 500 students.
The civil war over, in 2008 she was offered a free trip to Liberia by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR ) to encourage her to resettle. She had no interest at first, but when she got to Liberia she saw something similar to what she had seen in the refugee camps.
"One night on the trip, I went out for a drink by myself, just to relax. I saw this beautiful girl. She could not have been more than 18 years old, and she was on the street working as a prostitute, trying to get men's attention. I watched her for a little bit and then I walked up to her to invite her to join me. Over drinks, she told me that her aunt had brought her to Monrovia. But her aunt had died so the young girl didn't know anyone and she was working in the streets for a living. It was then that I realized that girls in Liberia needed more help than girls in Ghana, so I decided that I would return home. I promised her that when I did, I would teach her how to work and make something of herself," Christine says of that night that changed her life.
With her savings from the beauty school in Ghana and a small grant from UNHCR, Christine was able to establish herself, with her husband and infant son, in Liberia. She opened a shop in 2008 and started her new beauty school in 2009. By the end of this year, she will have trained 70 women in Liberia.
Interested in growing her business, Christine heard from a friend about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Program supporting women entrepreneurs around the world. CHF International, implementers of the program in Liberia, invited Christine to join its group of sixty women entrepreneurs to be trained in 2010-2011. Through the program, she came to the USA as an example of the women who are building the future of the developing world.
"When I see America, I think, one day Liberia will be like this. Everything I see here, I will take back with me. I will put everything I see into practice. My goal is to run the first major, full-time cosmetology school in Liberia. There is a huge demand for talented girls that I can supply," Christine says with quiet resolve.
If the last two decades had their challenges, so will the next two. To expand her business she needs access to finance, which is not easily forthcoming. In Liberia, she has to rely on a gasoline generator and has no running water. The supplies she needs for her business are expensive in her country, but she cannot afford to go to Ghana to pick them up at a cheaper price in bulk.
In spite of all this, Christine remains determined. The courage she has shown in overcoming challenges and her dedication to helping others is an example to us all. Businesswomen like Christine don't just have dreams -- they have the will and tenacity to achieve them. And with that potential, they can change the future of their countries.
Follow David Weiss on Twitter: www.twitter.com/G_Communities