LIFT Speaks Ep 36 with Keith Thode and Jamshid Sultanzada — Empowering Partnerships: A Profitable Virtuous Cycle of Goodness

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In the US, Keith gets a quick turnaround on a big educational project.  In Afghanistan, Jamshid is creating jobs for men and women in a war-torn country. Both men are using technology to solve problems, improve lives, and in the process, create a good exchange.

Two LIFT Office members, Keith Thode, AdvnaceNet Labs, based in Grapevine, Texas and Jamshid Sultanzda, PomTech ICT Solutions, based in Herat, Afghanistan, have formed a partnership which solves problems on both sides of the ocean.

In today’s episode on LIFT Speaks, you’ll learn how a good business transaction is also helping a lot of people along the way.

Introduction

Catherine Miller: Hi. I’m Catherine Miller. Welcome to this episode of LIFT Speaks. Today I’m visiting with two LIFT members. Jamshid Sultanzada from Herat, Afghanistan. Jamshid is the founder and owner of PomTech ICT Solutions. And, with Keith Thode. Keith is here in Grapevine, Texas and he is the owner and the president of AdvanceNet Labs. These men work together from across the globe to support men and women by providing jobs in Afghanistan.

It’s a great story, and I’m super excited about sharing it today. First, we must start with some background information and that begins with Ross Paterson. Ross Paterson is also a LIFT member. Ross went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002. When he saw the devastation that the war had created, he realized that he had some skills where he could make a difference in Afghanistan.

Ross began going to Afghanistan once or twice a year since 2002. In the process, he started a non-profit called Global Fusion. You can learn more about Global Fusion on an earlier episode of LIFT Speaks with Ross. In addition to his work with Global Fusion, Ross also teaches classes with the ILD, the International Learning Development.

The ILD class is attended by both men and women college graduates who speak English.  It is unique to have men and women in the same class. The focus of the class is to teach leadership skills. It is to empower students to go into their communities and create positive change.

Jamshid was one of the students in a class that Ross taught with the ILD. Since the class, Ross has worked alongside Jamshid to help him strategize a business.  Jamshid’s desire is to build a business that adds value to his clients and create jobs for men and women in Afghanistan. I’m excited to share your story on LIFT Speaks today.

I think before we can really get into the full story, we have to understand the environment in Afghanistan. I read a recent Gallup poll which stated that the Afghans themselves rated Afghanistan as one of the toughest places to live in the world. Afghanistan’s Positive Experience Index score dropped to a record low. It is a hard place to live. That may not be true as much as Herat. Herat is a more progressive city. But why would the Afghans give Afghanistan such a low rating?

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah, thank you so much. So, I think if you look at Afghanistan for the last probably 40 years, it had been in war, like different types of wars. It was the Soviet Union, and then there was the Civil War, and then the Taliban, and then since US has come to Afghanistan, like 17 years ago, that that is still happening.

So not the whole country is at war but a lot of – like some parts of the country is at war. And, the devastation in Afghanistan is not just about the war. What I try to sometimes share with people is that it’s not only the Taliban but also the corruption that’s happening there. Drugs are happening there. But then lack of opportunity is also another issue.

Catherine Miller: Right.

Jamshid Sultanzada: US has been there for 17 years, and starting around 2014, well, before that (2014) billions of dollars were invested into Afghanistan. So a lot of support and help came in, and then beginning of 2014, a lot of that money went away, and then that kind of created a situation where all these young Afghans who had a lot of good jobs at all these non-profit organizations now are out of jobs, and so that creates like this economic chaos that people are really suffering for that.

Catherine Miller: Right.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: What was your vision? What spurred you on to say, “OK, I can step into this chaos and make a difference?”

Jamshid Sultanzada: Sure. I was lucky enough to attend that class that Ross was teaching in 2010 for leadership development, and that was really an inspiring class for me. Since then, Ross is an entrepreneur and I also have an entrepreneur mindset, every year he was coming to Herat and we would grab a glass of tea. We drink tea, not so much coffee and so we would talk.

Every time he would come to Herat, we would talk and daydream about what are some of the things that we might be able to do. Then with 2014 coming, Ross kind of knew that some of those supports would go our way and we had to do something about that.

So, we started experimenting with some different types of projects. I had a day job in 2015 at American University of Afghanistan when Ross reached out to me. He knew I had a little experience with development business. Keith reached out to me and saying that he had a client, a digital marketing agency here, who wanted to hire some developers out of India.  He said if I could hire some developers in Herat, we might be able to create work.  As a result of US being in Afghanistan, a lot of Afghans got the opportunity to go to university and get good education. But now, if one is graduating with the local market, the economy is not good, so not everyone has a job.

Especially the tech market is so small, technology is new and so I thought, OK, the local tech market is so small. But, we have this big pool of talents who’s graduating every year from university, and in US and the West, the economy is good.

So, I figured connect these two together. We’re going to make a lot of really good economic development work here. We started with one company and created 10 jobs. I thought, OK, if we could work with 10 companies we could create a hundred jobs. So now we have the vision to create a thousand jobs.

Catherine Miller: Good.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: Which brings Keith into the picture. Keith is one of the companies you are working with now to create jobs for this bunch of smart, educated people in Herat. And, Keith has a real heart for helping the marginalized and the underserved populations whether it’s in Texas or in other parts of the world.

Keith, I think it would be really cool for you to share a little bit about what AdvanceNet Labs does. One of my favorite examples is – I call it your “food moving project”. Can you tell us about that?

Keith Thode: In general with AdvanceNet, we believe that the corporate world has developed these technologies and processes that have really kind of raised the standard of living for most of society. I take those ways of working and those technologies and apply them to folks who have been left behind or haven’t had access yet.

Catherine Miller: Right.

Keith Thode: So, in the food banking example, we started that work in 2000, 2001. How do you take the same systems that a big food producer like a Kraft or a Nestle uses to make mac and cheese and get it to the grocery store? What happens when Kraft makes too much, or the box is the wrong color blue?

Catherine Miller: Right.

Keith Thode: How do I put the same systems in place so that food doesn’t go to waste? It rather gets out to the food bank and then to an after-school program or rehab program? So, we started with visions like that and today those systems move over a million pounds an hour.

Catherine Miller: Which is incredible.

Keith Thode: Yeah. I say it’s almost my life’s work just on that.

Catherine Miller: On that one thing.

Keith Thode: And they just keep going. Right. And it was a lot of hard work and partnerships, and we learned a lot about working in the non-profit sector. That was my initial foray from having kind of a career of corporate and technology experience and large consulting experience saying, OK, well the non-profit world is a very different place and how to bridge that gap.

So, the work started there. We’ve been able to do some great work in other areas like disaster relief, and then more recently dealing with specific areas like addressing domestic violence situations and then – you know, and there’s – in fact with that one, we have a neat little program trying to help women typically, but those who are abused, in their moment of crisis and it’s called Safe Night, and it’s an app and maybe Catherine, you’ve been a supporter of that. So maybe you want to talk about how that might work.

Catherine Miller: It was a really cold Christmas season when I signed up for it. So the Safe Night app is connected to a specific shelter, and if the shelters runs out of beds and someone shows up at night, it can pop up on my phone and say, hey, we need someone to supply a hotel room for a mom and her kids. They don’t say who it’s for. But I know, because I teamed up with an organization I believe in, that when I hit “Pay,” I’ve just helped someone have a bedroom for the night. I love it. It’s the coolest thing.

Keith Thode: Exactly. We’re so proud of that project and the partnerships that we put together to make that technology work and then we’re just so grateful that there’s a crowd of donors like you around the countries that when those shelters have that – about 40 percent of the time when someone calls a shelter or the police called a shelter because they’ve intervened, about 40 percent of the time, they’re told no either because the shelter is full or because it’s a woman with teenage boys and the shelters can’t take men or occasionally some of the times we do have men and there’s just not – it doesn’t happen at the scale through which really the service is available.

So instead of saying no, that shelter can say, “One moment please,” and then finds a local hotel room. Like in our community, there’s 11,000 open hotel rooms tonight and they’re going to go away. So, it’s a great way to use our capacity that exists for good. We’ve now partnered with large corporations and then individual providers and develop these different systems to help folks that – for whom maybe the education sector hadn’t really worked for yet or the job sector hadn’t worked for yet and how do we close those gaps.

How do we get them kind of short-term immediate training and immediate jobs that they need, and then build them on a pathway to meaningful work and then having the money and the choice in their life then? Because now they have their own money and they have economic stability to maybe go on and pursue.

Catherine Miller: Right, right and your goal – I mean your big vision is to end poverty in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, right?

Keith Thode: We have these big, scary goals of kind of changing the way we educate and employ the marginalized in our country and beyond with this approach. We think we can change how we even think about this. How do we make work work for folks that hasn’t before?

Catherine Miller: Right.

Keith Thode: And again, that’s not us doing it all. But as we do these things, we can spark some real change. In the food banking example, we started with five agencies in the North Texas food bank, and over 50,000 agencies get their food that way now, and yeah, and so that has even – that sparked other people to do the same thing. So, we think that we’re – we’re hoping to both make the impact we can, and we hope to directly touch over a million people a year within five years, and that’s just us. We’re also hoping to spark some changes on how other people doing the same.

Catherine Miller: Right, yeah, which brings us to a great segue to what you all are doing together. So, what’s the project that you’re working on now that you’ve been able to connect with Jamshid?

Keith Thode: Uh-huh, great. The specific project we’re working on is we’re doing some work with an education provider that provides educational materials in the K through 12 space, and so we get a double benefit of we’re helping those folks improve the quality of their education products and helping them go to digital. From going from a very workbook-based program to also leveraging the computer, leveraging the tablets, leveraging the ability for technology for two-way communication.

We are impacting more students and impacting each one more effectively. We’re very proud of that project. But at the same time, we needed a lot of labor to do the project and so we get the double benefit in working with Jamshid and PomTech IT now – for that labor force. We can take folks that really are on the margins in their society and give them meaningful work. We just get – it’s a complete virtuous cycle of goodness where we’re impacting the children here in the US, but also too, in order to help them, we’re using labor from other folks who are trying to make their lives better.

Catherine Miller: Was this your first time to use overseas support in getting a project to completion and how did you pick Jamshid and PomTech?

Keith Thode: Yeah, so we work with global teams all of the time now, for years and in different formats. We have a good amount of experience in that. Well, Jamshid participated in the ILD in Afghanistan. I actually participate with Ross in some executive development work. I got to know Ross from being a member at LIFT Office. As I got to know Ross, I got to know a bit about Global Fusion. I actually sat in on some meetings and tried to look at ways for several years now, trying to say, “OK, where’s the right opportunity?” If you do the training through Ross with XM Performance, you talk about the idea of virtual bench.

So, there’s the work I’m doing now as a business and the people I need. But who’s next for when we grow? And we do believe in good exchange. So, while I would desperately want to just help Jamshid in his business – just to do it because it’s cool, I must consider – what’s the right opportunity? Jamshid and his team, right off the bat, were able to have a real partnerships dialogue and provide real honest feedback about – oh, this might be a problem or you should consider this factor or you’re right about this, but, I think you’re wrong about this other element.

So, there was that kind of – you know, truly partnering with us to solve the problem which – early on which made me further cement that this relationship was set up to go well.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Keith Thode: I don’t mind telling you that the team thought maybe I was a little crazy, which they often do. They would say, “What are we going to do? We have all these data processes. What do you mean we’re going to do that work?” and I’m like, “Oh, don’t worry. There’s Jamshid in Afghanistan and we’re going to help a lot of people along the way.” And, he will talk about it in a minute, but we’re going to get a unique labor force. We’re really going to help their lives and we’re going to do this work and the team was like …

Catherine Miller: There Keith goes again.

Keith Thode: There Keith goes again. But for a lot of folks, Jamshid has made me look good.

Catherine Miller: Good, good. One of the thoughts that crossed my mind was – how many times do we see articles out there about teams struggling to work together when they’re in the same office, in the same culture, with the same native tongue, and you too are working across the globe with very different cultures. Your English is fabulous, but your native language is different, and all the people you hire have a different native language.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: It’s amazing to me the hurdles that you have to jump to even get to the starting point where you can say, “Yes, I believe this can work.” I think that’s really admirable. On your end, it sounds like you had a good labor pool to choose from, right? You’re telling me that you have a lot of Afghan men and women who are educated, but don’t have jobs.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: What did that process look like when you – OK, the two of you came to agreement. You said, “Yes, this is a project we can work on.” I think it was a pretty quick turnaround time, right? You had to go for it. What was that process like as far as hiring? Did you have a lot of people sign up? How did you find your labor?

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah. So, I want to just make a point here about doing business-like in two different cultures. We started four years ago in 2015, and I think I would say Ross has a good heart for helping us back there in Afghanistan, but then I want to do a shout out to Eric McGehearty with Globe Runner who was the first client who trusted to work with us. I know in US that the pace of business is so fast and then you have access to all these bigger markets of labors where talented and experienced workforce is available.

And you could easily go and hire thousands of people, for example, from India who already had the experience of doing this for many years. But then we work with businesses who not only want to do business but also do good along the way. So, the work that Keith and I, we are doing, it is business, but not only business. It’s not just a business transaction. We are doing something good along the way.

So, like I said, we have all these young Afghans, for a lot of them, who are the first in their entire family who got the opportunity to go and get education which is really cool. So in the past, it used to be – just go and get a job. Education was not an important thing in Afghanistan.

Now everyone saw that OK, people who are educated in the West and in the other parts of the world are having a better life. So, everyone is hungry for education. But then someone has to step in and help these educated people to get a job. So that could continue to sustain, and people would continue to trust them and then get the education.

So yeah, when we – Keith and I started talking about this project, I thought we could easily do this project. Even before we actually signed up and agreed on the project, I started job posting. In three, four days, we received over 50 CVs and in a couple of days, so I interviewed a lot of people and we ended up hiring 18 young women who are right now doing the job.

Catherine Miller: While you’re here, they are over in Afghanistan doing the data entry.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah. When I just came in, this was morning. That was toward the end of the work.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah, so they’re finished. And it was a lot of work.

Keith Thode: So, Jamshid and I share as we sit here and talk, there are lots of other people on our teams doing all the work.

Catherine Miller: Doing all the work and the madness.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Exactly, exactly.

Catherine Miller: Yeah. You make it look easy, but I know it’s not easy. It’s a tough job. So how has it worked out? You had 50 applications for 18 jobs. What impact has that had on the work that’s been done, as well as, for the women who you hired?

Jamshid Sultanzada: Sure, sure. So, the project that we are working with them, with Keith, it’s like the company who’s – the organization was creating all these educational materials. So, the way I look at it and I try to communicate with my team is I looked at their website and they are like – all these education materials are reaching like 3.5 million kids here.

Catherine Miller: Oh, wow.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Which is amazing, and I tell my team that this is not just data entry. The work we are doing is reaching out to three million people. Which is great, and we are very proud of that. Then on our end, for a lot of these young ladies,  are the first in their family to get a job. For women working here in the US, it is normal to have a job. In Afghanistan, it’s a pretty new thing. Not all organizations are a safe place for women to work. There’s not enough opportunity for them to get a job.

So, when they get an opportunity to work, all of a sudden now they are bringing income to their families. The respect goes high instantly, and then now they have a choice. At the end of the month when they get the salary, they could choose to buy the different type of dresses they want or they could just choose to help the family, which is really cool.

Catherine Miller: Right, it is really cool. I know one of the stats I read recently. I think this is one of the reasons I admire what you’ve done. Afghanistan is one of the hardest places for women to live in. You’ve chosen to kind of go against culture and hire these women for jobs. Even the class at the ILD had men and women in the class, right? And that was highly unusual.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: So, you’ve kind of broken through the paradigm and created work for these women. And was that tough? Have you received pushback in your city for doing that?

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah. I first came to the US in 2012. There was this non-profit organization called Bpeace, Business Council for Peace. They brought ten of us from Afghanistan as part of an exchange program with the state department. It was a lot of work.

Ten of us came here to the US, and each one of us had to move to different states and spend a week of work with different companies. That was a lot of work. When I got here, I realized the entire organization was run by three or four women. I was really amazed. I didn’t think this is a women-run project. With my experience going through different companies, I saw women and men sit together. They worked together and it was totally fine.

Women can work here. Why can’t we work together there? And so, during the Taliban, women were not allowed to leave the house without a male accompanying them. The schools were closed. Women could not go to school. They were not allowed to leave the house and now we have different government where women have the freedom if they choose to go out and if they want to work. I thought, OK, so for us, the work that we do is not just only about women empowerment. It’s both men and women for that community empowerment that we do, and along the way I think even if you’re providing a job opportunity for a man, that money would go into a family where there are men and women who get to spend that money.

Then I know that we have all these talented male and females in there and it’s not only men can do the work. I thought OK, if I could create an environment, a safe environment, where men can work, and also, along with them women can work as well, that would be an amazing thing.

I’m really proud of my team, both men and women. It’s not only empowering women, but women working with me in my office. About helping our male teammates to look at like work and working with women differently. It’s a lot of good things that are happening. Like I said before, this is not just a business transaction. A lot of good things are happening as a result of this relationship.

Catherine Miller: Which I love. I love the fact – I mean I’m getting teary-eyed, right? I love the fact that you are willing to come into a different culture and look at the differences. You say, “Wait,” and break your paradigm of your past, and what you grew up in. You were willing to create change in your culture. I’m sure some of that is uncomfortable. I’m sure some of the choices you’ve made to try to create change through your business there has probably been pushback. There has probably been some discomfort.  Yet, you believed in the fact that these men and women could work side-by-side and create good work and create income.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah. I think change is hard and it’s hard in every community.  I think it takes a lot of time and effort. But then the payoff at the end is really good. I think it’s worth it.

Catherine Miller: One of the things that we believe here at the LIFT Office is that all of us have the opportunity to have impact and influence in our circle, and we can’t fix everything.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Exactly.

Catherine Miller: But we can do well with what we have in front of us. I think that’s what both of you have done so beautifully. I love the fact that not only are you working together to create good across the globe.  You do well with what you have right in front of you.  I admire you both for what you’ve done.

Keith, if someone wanted to connect with you, what kind of work would – what kind of people would you say, “Hey, contact me if this,” and how would they get in touch with you?

Keith Thode: You can find us at AdvanceNet.co or AdvanceNetLabs.org.

Catherine Miller: And Jamshid, what about you? What is the breadth of work that you do at PomTech and then how can people connect with you?

Jamshid Sultanzada: Sure. So, we do a range of services. We do website developments, web app and mobile app development, digital marketing, data entry processing, and a lot of graphic designing. Over these many years now, I learned that if we can do something like Keith said, I would say I don’t think we can do this. I don’t want to set up us up for failure. So, if we can have that first conversation, we can determine if it is a good fit to do business, and also do something good along the way.

We have PomTech.com. PomTech, by the way, the “pom” is coming from pomegranates. In Afghanistan, Kandahar, the Kandahar City has some of the best pomegranates in the world. So, I wanted our company name as something from Afghanistan. In our logo, I want to add more. Our logo is like an open pomegranate. So, a closed pomegranate is not a good symbol because you don’t get to see what’s inside. If it’s a good one or not a good one. But our one is an open pomegranate. So, you get to see the seeds and all the seeds sitting together is like a sense of community and we are all connected to each other.

Catherine Miller: Oh, I like that.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: I love that.

Jamshid Sultanzada:  PomTech.com, js@pomtech.com is my email and I’m just one email away.

Keith Thode: There you go.

Catherine Miller: Yeah.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah.

Keith Thode: If that seems a little too daunting for folks, then we would be glad to work together to help folks learn from what we’ve done already and kind of bridge that gap between the two.

Catherine Miller: OK, cool. So, you’re willing to help put people together.

Keith Thode: Yeah.

Catherine Miller: If you cannot remember what their email address is or how to contact them, you can always contact us at the LIFT Office. I will be happy to put you in contact with any of our members and especially with Keith and Jamshid. They’re doing incredible work and I would love to do anything to support that work along the way.

Thank you both for what you do, for what you do to make the world a better place.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah. I just want to at the end, last – add one thing.

Catherine Miller: Sure.

Jamshid Sultanzada: When I came to the US in 2012, there was this – for us Afghans because of all the bad situation that’s happening in Afghanistan, when we get an opportunity to leave the country, go to Europe and US, we choose to stay there and not go back. So, I was here in US in 2012. I was walking by the streets in New York and looking at these tall buildings and I was like, “This is a good place to stay.”

I could maybe stay here, and I was like, well, if I would choose to stay there, the biggest impact that my life would have is probably for me to just try to say like survive here. Get a job and like try to kind of integrate into this community and like the maximum impact would be just me surviving here and getting a job and living here.

But then I thought if I go back to Afghanistan with all the connections and good relationships that I have, not would I only do things for myself. But then along the way, I could help others and so that’s the type of life I would like to have and make an impact.

So, what we do using technology is we are creating hope. We are creating opportunities and giving all those young Afghans a reason to stay behind and just like be part of rebuilding the country.

Catherine Miller: Which I love that.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Yeah and thank you both for being part of that.

Catherine Miller: Oh, we love it and I love that you’re willing to step in and make a difference. I think that’s a beautiful story, and I think that’s really wonderful. You’re willing to get into the fray and work to make it a better place. Thank you both for being here today, for sharing your stories and for being a part of the LIFT Office.

I love that we have people like you. Our members are the best part of the LIFT Office. I’ve said that again and again. We, I think, outshine every other place in the Dallas-Fort Worth area because of people like you. Thank you.

Jamshid Sultanzada: Thank you, Catherine.

About LIFT Office
The LIFT Office is a coworking/flex office/meeting space in the center of DFW in Grapevine, Texas just 3 miles from the DFW Airport. The LIFT Office is a dynamic community of influencers, entrepreneurs, independent professionals, consultants, and freelancers. Learn more at http://theliftoffice.com/

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