My mother brought me up strictly southern Baptist with my eyes set on Stanford. So, when I went to West Point, it was a way out – my kind of rebellion. I wanted to see the world, lead Soldiers into battle, prove my athletic ability, and serve my country. The Army took me to Germany, all over Europe, and into Afghanistan. I became a platoon leader in charge of 40 Soldiers looking for roadside bombs and ambushes along the dusty roads in the Hindu Kush. I drank tea with elders and got marriage proposals that would give my squad leaders goats in exchange. I found myself falling in love with Afghanistan and the people, especially the women. The women, who made up the bedrock of Afghanistan. The women who had voices but rarely could exercise them. The women, who had hopes and dreams and waited patiently for a chance.
After I got out of the Army, I went to business school, where they asked me, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” My Army friend Keith told me about a farmer named Haji Yosef who attempted in vain to sell his gorgeous saffron through various aid organizations. He was a true entrepreneur: he had photos and a taped interview of himself on a CD he was handing out. Haji Yosef became my inspiration to do something meaningful with my wild and precious life.
So I leaned in. I bought myself a ticket to Afghanistan. I returned this time as a civilian. I returned as a woman committed to dreaming that anything was possible in Afghanistan. I met with our Afghan farmers, some of whom would not shake my hand because I am a woman. They brought me the most fragrant saffron I’ve ever smelled and laid eyes on, in a cardboard box wrapped in string. I knew I had found my calling.
I hand carried our first shipment of saffron back to the US, and Rumi Spice was born. Back in Boston, I went door to door selling our saffron. A year later, we’ve reached over 45,000 households in the nation and we are now 5% of Afghanistan’s total saffron production. We’ve hired 60 women who are paid direct wages. Farmers now boast that they sell their saffron through an American businesswoman to the top restaurants in New York. Their families have more than tripled their incomes. I am proud that the company I co-founded is making progress towards a better future for Afghanistan, for farmers, for women, one saffron flower at a time.
None of this would be possible if I didn’t lean in, but more importantly, get a whole bunch of people to lean in with me. You see, Rumi Spice is made up of a group of military veterans, all of whom have served deployments in Afghanistan. We’re backed by an angel investment group of military veterans. The other group is an all-women venture capitalist firm – women helping women.
I am here, in Herat, sitting on the floor with a bunch of Afghan farmers and cooperative representatives drinking saffron tea and negotiating this year’s price. Someday I’ll be able to hike those mountains in the Hindu Kush with my grandchildren and eat pomegranates with the community without fear.
There are two types of people in this world: people who see the world as it is, and people who see the world as it will become. The latter make it happen by leaning in and taking the leap.