UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Leaders make an impact around the globe: Carolina Women in Business Part 1


This is the first in a series of articles about the Carolina Women in Business annual conference. Other articles in the series  focus on work-life integration, women in the board room and workplace wellness.  


Keynote Business  Highlighting the theme “Unlock Your Potential – Creating Opportunities with Impact,” the eighth annual Carolina Women in Business Conference featured a host of inspiring women who have made significant contributions in the workplace, including the two keynote speakers.

Afshan Khan, president and CEO of Women for Women International, discussed her organization’s work in conflict areas, and Cynthia Hougum, General Electric Healthcare general manager of the global supply chain life sciences North America, shared advice for women seeking leadership roles.

Working with women in war-torn countries around the world to build job and leadership skills, Women for Women International focuses on communities in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Sudan with a 12-month education program.

“We are helping women transform themselves after being torn apart by conflict,” Khan says. “The theme of this conference – unlocking your potential – that’s what Women for Women International is about.”

Khan shared the success story of a 16-year-old Afghani mother and widow who graduated from the Women for Women International program. “She took out a loan from her family, started her own embroidery business and now employs over 100 people and has thousands in the bank,” Khan says.

With more than 45,000 women enrolled every year in eight countries, the non-profit helps women make huge leaps toward unlocking their potential. On average, women who were making as little as 5 cents per day before the program earn more than $1.21 per day upon completion, an amount that is life changing for many, Khan says.

Now the group is also developing a curriculum to educate men about women’s rights and transform their attitudes toward women’s leadership and roles in society. It has partnered with the World Bank and Promundo, a Brazilian organization that promotes gender equality, in this effort.

Demand for its programs is high. “In a small village in the mountains of Afghanistan, we had a call for women to enroll in the program, and 1,000 women showed but we could only enroll 500,” Khan says. “We were almost suffocated by the number of women that showed, and it was hard to see that we could help so many more women with more resources.”

“Education is the one biggest change that makes a difference for women,” Khan says.

Hougum also highlighted women’s leadership roles in their communities and shared how women can take advantage of those opportunities based on her 20 years of experience with GE.

A very large and diverse company, GE employs more than 300,000 people, yet there are only 44 female vice presidents in the company, a statistic Hougum hopes to change.

“As you move up the ladder, the company becomes less diverse and more male-dominated than at the entry level positions,” Hougum says. “The women’s network, with more than 100,000 members and a number of affinity groups, works to encourage diversity in the company.”

Hougum, who lived in the Netherlands twice and spent the last four years working in Sweden, has different teams across the globe for GE. “Sometimes, you can take a job that no one else wanted and you can take it forward,” she says, recalling her experience at age 26 of leading a team of older men in Japan. Having global smarts is the most important aspect of leading international projects, she says. “You have to look at the culture in a country and figure out how you can make things happen within that.”

Women can improve their leadership skills by looking at key areas for development, Hougum advises.

  • Performance: Identify the critical success factors and communicate those factors to the rest of the team in order to deliver results.
  • Image: Develop an executive presence through authenticity and confidence, and learn how to develop it in terms of the company’s culture.
  • Exposure: Gain exposure within a company by signing on for high-visibility projects, taking risks and tackling big projects.
Leadership skills and cultural awareness are the tools for success for women, Hougum says. “You are the only one who can define what that success means for you both professionally and personally.”

The Carolina Women in Business conference contributed $1,000 to Women for Women International.