Sewing a Brighter Future A U.S. startup uses a federal loan to put Afghan women to work.
By Richard McGill Murphy

(FORTUNE Small Business) – American firms are hiring plenty of cheap overseas labor. So why did San Francisco-based fashion startup Tarsian & Blinkley receive a $150,000 federal loan to export even more jobs? Because the workers are in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

The money came from the Overseas Private Investment Corp., an agency that provides loans and political-risk insurance to U.S. firms operating abroad. These days companies doing business in Afghanistan are one of OPIC's top priorities. "Since the fall of the Taliban, we've been encouraging the reconstruction of all aspects of the Afghan economy," says OPIC spokesman Timothy Harwood.

Until now, only a few hardy U.S. entrepreneurs have been willing to dodge bullets and car bombs in pursuit of profits in Afghanistan. Tarsian & Blinkley's founder, Sarah Takesh, is a 30-year-old fashion designer with an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. Blending a do-gooder's zeal with an aesthete's love for the ornate handicrafts of Central Asia, Takesh hires Afghan women to produce sleek, intricately embroidered clothes for a market of socially conscious Western fashionistas. "We want to establish real fashion credibility," Takesh says. "We're not making hippie-ish clothes for some older, weird ethno-market."

Takesh pays her workers between $4 and $5 a day, roughly double the going rate in Kabul. Each garment wholesales for around $80, most of which goes to cover marketing and distribution costs. So far, Takesh has persuaded six U.S. and European boutiques to stock her designs. The firm took in just $20,000 in revenues during its first six months. Takesh draws only enough salary to cover her student loan payments, living (for now) off her savings. But although she hopes to someday turn a profit, that's not her only goal. "Everything," she says, "is designed with the goal of creating jobs for Afghan women."