In the crisis-filled months after 9/11, more than 750 women spiritual leaders, along with 25 business leaders, gathered in Geneva to consider a couple of powerful questions: What has happened to our world and what can we do about it? The business leaders asked more specifically: How can business be used as a tool for peace?

The answer—ending violence by creating jobs and opportunity—inspired the creation of the Business Council for Peace, known as Bpeace, explains Elizabeth Crowell ’93. As its new CEO, Crowell oversees a volunteer network of hundreds of business consultants who work pro bono with selected established entrepreneurs in some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the world. The experts function as a deep resource, sharing their collective experience in everything from finance to marketing and employee engagement, to help the business owners, most of them women, create jobs, increase revenues and lift their communities.

The goal, Crowell says, is to reduce the poverty and sense of desperation that can lead to war and violence. “Job creation has a multiplier effect,” she says. “One job can help an entire family, then a neighborhood and a city. When people have opportunities to look forward to, they have choices over unrest and violence.”

Crowell, who has two children, ages 9 and 11, knows well the sense of pride owning a business can provide. In 2005, she and her husband, Robert Wilson, opened Sterling Place, now a successful specialty gift business with three locations in Brooklyn, N. Y. “The experience of creating your own business is incredible,” Crowell says. “It gave me a sense of purpose, and I was able to create jobs for people. I wanted to give this same experience to other women.”

Since coming on board as CEO of Bpeace in February, Crowell has spent most of her time growing the organization’s volunteer and donor bases and expanding its efforts in countries from Afghanistan to El Salvador and Guatemala. So far, Bpeace, which is based in New York, has recruited close to 400 volunteers with business expertise.

Instead of providing funding, Bpeace transfers knowledge. Using this model, the nonprofit has helped more than 250 small business owners—from bakers to debt collectors—expand their operations and create jobs. “We work with the winners, those businesses with the best prospects for growth,” Crowell says.

“Job creation has a multiplier effect,” says Bpeace CEO Elizabeth Crowell ’93. “One job can help an entire family, then a neighborhood and a city. When people have opportunities to look forward to, they have choices over unrest and violence.”

Once a business applies and is selected for the Bpeace program, business owners, together with Bpeace personnel, determine their priorities for growth. Whether it’s developing a new sales and marketing strategy, improving efficiency or using technology more effectively, Bpeace puts the word out to its members, looking for experts. The consulting then takes place via Skype, phone or email; in many cases, “traveling mentors” take personal vacation time to work with businesses on site.

“The volunteers tailor their consulting to the needs of the entrepreneurs,” Crowell says. “The idea is to help them solve their challenges to growth.” Bpeace also brings groups of its “Fast Runners,” or entrepreneurs who are motivated to grow their businesses quickly, to the U.S. to learn best practices from host companies.

And it’s working. In Mazar City, Afghanistan, for example, Bpeace volunteers helped a beauty salon owner who employed nine women to open three additional salons and two fitness studios, providing work to 56 more people. In El Salvador, a volunteer worked with the owner of a street-sign design company to restructure his business and hire five more employees. In Guatemala, a
furniture manufacturer increased sales 26 percent and added 15 jobs after one of its founders spent time with Bpeace host companies in the U.S.

Bpeace focuses on women entrepreneurs because, as Crowell says, the benefits of providing women with economic power are particularly far-reaching. “A woman brings that power home with her,” Crowell says. “Her daughters see it, and they carry it forward.”

Leading Bpeace has opened Crowell’s eyes to the injustices of poverty around the world, but she finds hope in the grateful replies from business owners who now see themselves as having the power to create change in their own communities. “I got two emails the other day from business owners in El Salvador saying, ‘Thank you for helping our country.’ There’s nothing better than that,” Crowell says. “My purpose and passion is to help women entrepreneurs, and I’m living that every day.”

John MacMillan is editorial director of the SAQ.


SAQ, Winter 2015