Women entrepreneurs and business leaders from Croatia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Libya, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Rwanda and Somalia are in Belfast this week as part of a global mentoring initiative which aims to give emerging ideas the kick-start they need to become a commercial success.
Bank of America's Vital Voices programme includes a week-long series of events bringing together influential women executives from the public and private sectors to mentor women leaders engaged in small and medium sized business and social enterprise.
The mentoring forum, the eighth of its kind, is also being held in context of the 16th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended Northern Ireland's violent 30-year conflict, recognising how countries can successfully return to stability and rebuild their economies.
Previous mentoring forums were held in Mexico, Qatar, Singapore, Brazil, India, South Africa, and Haiti.
Some of the mentors and mentees took part in the International Business Women's Conference which took place in the city last week and the scheme has teamed up women from all walks of life, from those representing the US Air Force and Bank of America to Young Enterprise Northern Ireland and a Rwandan tourism company.
Despite the crucial role that women can play as business leaders in the recovering economy of regions classified as post-conflict, UN research reveals that in four recently examined post-conflict countries, only 4% of budget was allocated to women's empowerment or gender equality.
Two women who were paired together as part of the Belfast project were Gaella Alexandra Gottwald, director of the Croatian Association of Artists, and Kathleen Holland, founding partner of KMH Associates in Canada.
One of the projects which Gaella is working on is a plan to revitalise the wool industry in Croatia.
As an artist, she says that she has always found it difficult to look at artistic ventures with a commercial eye – which is where Kathleen steps in to help.
Gaella said that she can see many parallels between Northern Ireland and Croatia.
"There are so many similarities between the two countries and just like in Northern Ireland, in my own work in conflict zones in Croatia, Bosnia and the Lebanon, I have seen how art is an incredibly important tool in allowing traumatised people to express themselves," she said.
"I have worked on a number of different projects, from community building to manufacturing and in one scheme I worked in Indonesia with craftsmen who had incredible skills but were forced to work in jobs where their traditional skills were not needed and those skills were in danger of being lost.
"As an artist I wanted to create a win-win situation where the tradesmen, manufacturing and the environment all benefited so we developed a range of ecologically friendly, sustainable products using their incredible tradition of shell carving," Gaella added. "My latest project is to revitalise the wool industry in Croatia. There is no market for wool, everything is flooded with polyester and acrylic, wool is being dumped into the rivers as there is no market for it and that is creating environmental problems and pollution.
"I am working with wool producers, craftsmen and designers who will buy the wool and make a product.
"I want to help women who are unemployed, who have suffered abuse or those who are political asylum seekers to get involved in the weaving and production of the wool, which will create new methods of earning for these women and also be very therapeutic for them.
"The products will be aimed at tourists and will provide those involved with a sustainable income.
"I live in a left brained world, where some big businesses have contributed to environmental, moral and economic problems, but I am a right brained person, who deals with the artistic and the emotional.
"Art is something that it is very hard to make a business out of and Kathleen has been my beacon of light. She has managed to understand all these very strange concepts that I have and funnel them and make me realise how they can be turned into a business idea.
"My difficulty was being able to get my idea past a framework to reality and when there is someone there who has an intent to teach and nurture you and who wants you to succeed, the process can be so much easier."
Kathleen said that she has learned just as much from Gaella as her mentee has learned from her.
"I had a mentor when I was working my way through the ranks in the private sector and I want to give back what I got out of that experience," she said.
"I think is is critical that women mentor women, we understand each other better and mentoring is such a benefit to me, I learn just as much as I share.
"On a day to day basis during the programme, the mentees undergo training in strategic planning, performance management, staff development, marketing and branding and financial training. They are teamed up with their mentors and must use the skills they've learned to solve problems in their own business plans.
"Gaella is an extraordinary woman who is using art to find solutions to social and economic problems and on the other side, I'm learning about the value and importance of arts and creativity. She is filled with so many incredible ideas and her mind is constantly working.
"What I bring to the table is focus and a way to identify the top projects which will have the greatest impact and setting her up so she brings the best of the skills learned during this process to her projects in the future."
Gaella Alexandra Gottwald, from Croatia director, Croatian Association of Artists
Gaella Gottwald is the director of the Croatian Association of Artists. Gaella graduated from Brown University with a degree in Art History and Architecture.
She pursued courses at the Film Academy and Applied Arts Academy of Prague, and graduate studies at the European Institute of Design in Milan. In the years that followed, she worked for a number of prestigious institutions from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Cinecitta Film Studios in Rome, where she used her creative skills and drive to challenge the status quo and make an impact in a variety of fields from curating to documentary filmmaking, gallery work, and art dealing. These experiences gave her exposure to and training in cultural management – as well as a wanderlust and desire to travel beyond these established cultural hubs and reach more disenfranchised populations.
For several years Gaella travelled the world working and collaborating with comm-unities from Mozambique to Italy to Indonesia doing projects that worked on traditional crafts, sustainable design, and using art as a means of empowerment. As part of these initiatives, she created a line of ecological jewellry and batik textiles.
Kathleen Holland, from Canada, founding partner KMH Associates
Mentoring Gaella Alexandra Gottwald
Kathleen Holland, founding partner of KMH Associates, is a global strategic planning consultant, providing both North American and emerging country SME’s with the guidance and training to sustainably build their organisation based on a triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) platform.
Kathleen’s career has spanned executive roles with major Canadian corporations to consulting roles with small craft companies. She was the lead consultant on a multi-country African initiative — Design Africa — which garnered worldwide recognition showcasing Africa’s best talent in the craft, textile and furniture sectors.
Kathleen is currently working on a number of innovative global training initiatives in Afghanistan,
Swaziland and a Pan African programme. In addition, Kathleen is currently engaged in the Vital Voices Lead Fellowship providing training and support specifically related to goal setting and strategic planning.
Kathleen has received the Johanna Townsend Export Champion Award from OWIT (Organisation for Women in International Trade) and the CME (Canadian and Manufacturers and Exporters) Award for Excellence in Promoting Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises in Developing Countries (with CARE Enterprise Partners).