A Womentors Mission

It was one those “eureka moments” that don’t come often enough in life – the nine members of our Afghan Protege committee looked at each other in amazement as we said goodbye to the Afghan women at our wind-up dinner at the end of their visit to Saskatchewan last week. We had spent two years preparing a three and one-half week mentorship program for this small group of Afghan women -finding interpreters, lobbying for visas, arranging accommodation hosts, and, most importantly, setting up meetings for them with Saskatchewan women in positions of leadership in government, health care and education.

Every dime that I had earned from the last two years of giving speeches had gone into a fund to bring Dr. Sakena Yacoobi and four other women to Canada to see and learn how women in a democracy with the full right of participation can effect change- speaking their minds without fear and taking their rightful place in the world.

Meeting Sakena

The seeds of that moment of celebration last week were planted in 2009 when I spoke about the importance of women mentoring women at a conference in Italy. On the same panel was Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, one of Afghanistan’s most important advocates for education and women’s rights. During the Taliban years, Dr. Yacoobi had dared to start a network of secret schools for girls. It goes without saying that the punishment for such activities in those years was certain death for Dr. Yacoobi and the women who bravely taught girls to read and write.

I spoke that day about the universal need for mentorship (I call it Womentorship) to get more women at the decision-making table. History clearly demonstrates that having women in such positions will affect positive social and economic change in companies and countries. As senior VP at PotashCorp, I had done my share of opening doors for younger women. After I left the job, I had poured my efforts into establishing a Womentorship program at the Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan.

When my presentation was over in Italy, Dr. Yacoobi headed straight for me. A woman like Dr. Yacoobi, who opened 80 secret schools in five provinces in Afghanistan, is definitely not shy. “If you really believe all that then Mrs. Heggie, please, you must help my women in Afghanistan. They need mentorship. They need to see how women in a place like Canada live and work,” she said in excellent English.

Walking the Walk

What a challenge she had laid down before me. “If I am going to talk the talk, I better walk the walk,” I thought. I was being asked to mentor in the truest form. The Afghan women were asking, not for a hand-out, but for a hand-up. Don’t do something for me… show me how I can do it for myself.

Fast-forward to October, 2011. With the help of the nine Afghan Protege Committee members, and the help of dozens of other talented women in Saskatchewan, I found myself in the CBC Radio studio in Regina early on a chilly October morning, sitting next to my friend and fellow traveller on the journey to empowering women everywhere, Dr. Yacoobi.

Dozens of people in government, health care and education had flung open their doors to Dr. Yacoobi and the four women teachers (referred to as ‘Master Teachers’), inviting them to listen, discuss, learn, and grow, by sharing their experiences. We visited over 50 different organizations and institutions between September 26th and October 19th. The Afghan Master Teachers met hundreds of accomplished and inspirational women, and every night they were guests for a meal or fellowship in a different Saskatchewan home. Even my husband, Wade, stepped up and did some of the chauffeuring.

They said, “We used to think that Afghanistan was the most hospitable country in the world. Now we think it is Canada.”

Standing on one another’s Shoulders

In Afghanistan, the women said, the existence of problems is often denied and so issues fester and go unresolved. In Canada, they were amazed at how open we are about things that aren’t working, and how that openness enables us to find solutions. They were astonished at the number of women leaders they met and wondered just how we accomplished that. In answer to the question, a woman at the legislature in Regina validated all our efforts to bring the Afghan Proteges to Saskatchewan. “Well,” she said, raised in a province with a long and proud history of strong women, “We stood on the shoulders of our mothers, now you can stand on ours.”

“Exactly,” I thought. “That’s how it works.”

A report by McKinsey, the well-known research and consulting group, found that successful women around the world have three things in common. Each woman had presence, a sense of belonging and tremendous resilience. And, indeed, our group of Saskatchewan women were all called to step forward and make ourselves available to the experience. Our belief, passion and commitment provided a presence that was hard for those to whom we appealed for help to refuse. Fortunately, we all had extensive networks to call upon. Our common purpose to support our Afghan sisters create a better life for the children in their country drove us forward when we encountered setbacks along the way.


Getting entry visas for the Afghan Proteges was more difficult than we could have imagined when we began this journey two years ago. That’s where the resilience part came in. Immigration Canada’s office in the embassy in Pakistan denied a temporary visa to one of our originally-invited guests, stating they believed the risk existed that the woman might attempt to stay permanently by declaring refugee status. Just days before their scheduled arrival, with no answers on the remaining applications, the whole project was in jeopardy. In the end, it was thanks to the intense lobbying of provincial and federal politicians that we pulled through just in time.

The Afghan sisters said they will take strength from these stories when they return to Afghanistan. Knowing how hard we worked to get them here, and how much women across the globe care, will inspire them to keep forging forward, especially when obstacles look insurmountable. It will be a motivating force and they will share that with more than 480 educators in their country. What they learned will be included in the schools that graduate more 20,000 students every year. The ripple-effect will be tremendous.

Reach for the Stars

The key to mentorship is that you don’t adopt a person for life. A mentor is someone who helps you across the threshold so you can continue on your own journey. A mentor provides advice and tells of her own experiences but the proteges decide how to use this information. As the old saying goes, some information they will take and some they will leave behind.

When Dr. Yacoobi approached me to mentor some of her women, she said, “We don’t have the resources of your country so we don’t expect to emulate what you are doing completely, but these women are creative. They will see what you are doing, take it home and put a little twist on it. They will make it their own.”

And that’s what mentorship is all about – we let the ideas hatch in our nest but the proteges will fly on their own. We never do it for them. It’s a winning legacy as those birdies grow up and do the same for others.

When the Afghan proteges were visiting us, they were shown how to make some simple star constellations from paper and tinfoil. They enthusiastically discussed how this was one exercise that they could take home and how beneficial it was to have their children appreciate the wonder of nature in a land of violence.

At our closing dinner, they brought us all to tears by saying once they are back in Afghanistan that they will look at the stars and know that we share them and are forever connected by this experience.