Female Afghan business leader visits Lexington

Lexington played host this week to a female business leader from Afghanistan looking to learn about American business culture.

Hassina Syed, 31, who owns and operates several businesses, started her first, a hotel, just months after the Taliban were removed from power close to a decade ago. She visited Lexington as part of a State Department-sponsored program that brings female leaders from primarily developing countries and pairs them with major companies.

Syed was paired with ACS and was spending some of her time at the Dallas-based company's operations in Lexington.

Syed talked with the Herald-Leader Thursday about her work in Afghanistan, as well as what she's learned from her visit to America.

Here are parts of the conversation:

On being a female business owner in Afghanistan: "It is very difficult in Afghanistan to be a business woman. You have to deal with a lot of obstacles. ... It is a male-dominated society and nobody takes us seriously," said Syed, who started an organization for female business leaders.

"The new generation who comes from foreign countries know women and men have to work together; otherwise the country will not develop."

On starting her first business, a hotel in Kabul: Syed said her hotel customers are foreigners, many journalists, and she doesn't allow area residents in "because of security issues." She said several of her other businesses are also targeted to foreigners, but she also focuses on Afghan residents with a farming business.

"I bring farmers in and show them how to grow their vegetables and fruits in a cheaper way using a drip irrigation system. They can come and see the technology. We teach them and then they go back to their farms and they do that drip irrigation ... and I buy from them and sell to international markets. You don't need any fertilized land."

On the differences in business cultures between Afghanistan and America: "The differences are amazing. ... I like the way they do business so clear here. Everything is computerized in a clear way. In Afghanistan, everything is cash, cash, cash. ... When I came here and I was giving them my baggage for the airplane ... they asked for my credit card and I said I didn't have one. They all looked at me with big eyes. ... In Afghanistan, nobody uses credit cards. Even when they come to my hotel, they always use cash. We don't even have a credit machine to swipe it."

On improving business in Afghanistan: "Nobody gives any loans for a woman's business to grow. There are some micro-credit loans available in Afghanistan. The maximum loan is $20,000, which is so small an amount to have a long-term sustainable business for a woman. ... They need more money."

On what she's learned in America: "I'm so nice to people ... I never say no. But here I've learned how to say no. ... I asked from one of the business leaders in the United States how you can do that and she said, 'It's so simple. You just say, "I will get back to you."' That makes the problem solved."