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Invest in power of Rwanda's women

November 1, 2013
By: 
Stephanie Harrington
Nancy Coldham is the Governor General Gold Medal Award winner. Photo credit: Reannan Ross

Women hold up half the sky, an old Chinese proverb goes. Nancy Coldham understands the power of these words more than most.

Coldham spent six months studying women entrepreneurs in Rwanda as part of her Master of Arts in Intercultural and International Communication studies at Royal Roads. Her research ultimately improved the success of a business training and mentorship program run by Peace Through Business, a US-based non-government group that supports women entrepreneurs in Rwanda and Afghanistan.

For Coldham, who started Toronto public affairs consulting firm The CG Group three decades ago, the experience has sparked a mission to connect business-savvy Rwandan women with Western investors. She says it’s a small role to play in changing perceptions of a country better known for a devastating civil war than the potential of its people.

“Women entrepreneurship has been well-studied in developed countries. But women’s roles as entrepreneurs advancing economic development in war-torn and post-conflict countries are under-studied,” she says.

“This isn’t charity, this is investing. These women are nation builders.”

Royal Roads will recognize Coldham’s exemplary work with a Governor General’s Gold Medal Award, to be presented on Nov. 6 at the university’s fall convocation, for the most outstanding thesis or graduate project.

“I am honoured and thrilled. The Governor General’s award will help me tell these women’s stories with more credibility because the research behind it has been validated with this award,” Coldham says.

“I’m sharing this award with 30 other women in Rwanda.”

Supporting women in business has long been an interest of Coldham’s. She has mentored women entrepreneurs for years through organizations such as the Verity Women’s Club in Toronto and the Step-Up Women Entrepreneurs Mentorship program in Atlantic Canada. In 2010, Coldham was recognized with an award from the Walk-With-Me Foundation for her work in bringing public and police attention to the Hope Mbabazi (right) at a Peace Through Business leadership training event in the US.issue of human trafficking.

So when Coldham heard that Peace Through Business was looking for mentors to work with women entrepreneurs in Rwanda, she signed up. She was paired with Kigali business woman Hope Mbabazi. Coldham's involvement with the organization inspired her to evaluate the program’s success, and Coldham flew to Rwanda in 2012 to attend the graduation of some 30 Rwandan women from Peace Through Business.

As result of Coldham’s research, the NGO has revamped its program to better meet the needs of Rwandan women. A Rwandan Peace Through Business graduate was hired to oversee its operation in Kigali, and a locally focused, team-work based approach to learning was adopted.

School of Communication and Culture director Jennifer Walinga says Coldham embodies the best of what the MA in Intercultural and International Communication offers.

“She went over and above expectations. She made relevant recommendations that reflected the values of the program,” Walinga says.

“The (Rwandan) women entrepreneurs knew what they needed. Nancy was able to negotiate that change. It was quite a wonderful marriage of brains and heart.”

Coldham is now working with several Peace Through Business graduates to advance their business plans. From manufacturing office supplies to breeding farm animals to creating beautiful Rwandan crafts such as necklaces and baskets, the women’s interests are diverse. And Coldham has developed a strong friendship with her former mentee, Hope Mbabazi.

“It’s just become a sisterhood,” Coldham says.

Also in the works is an Internet radio series to showcase the achievements of these Rwandan entrepreneurs – a move that Coldham hopes will attract interest from Western investors. And she plans to introduce a new division, development communication, to her company, The CG Group, as part of her commitment to corporate responsibility.

Coldham says studying at Royal Roads has given her the academic rigour and research skills to tackle big issues.

“I’m able to advance an idea on evidence,” she says. “It changes the way you see the world.”

Credits

Royal Roads would like to thank Musicians Without Borders for use of the songs Urumuri and Traditional Rwandan Instrument Playing and Singing, as well as The Baba Project for use of the song Anania 1 -Thank God for Talent.