By Julie Fancher
The Dallas Morning News.
Kellie Kreiser beams with pride when she talks about a woman she barely knows who lives a continent away.
Kreiser, an executive in Phoenix, serves as a mentor for Siwar Douss, a 23-year-old Tunisian graduate of the Tunis Business School.
“She is going to be someone in her country. She is going to be a leader,” Kreiser said of Douss. “The sky is the limit for that one.”
Kreiser and Douss were connected through the Dallas-based George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Women’s Initiative Fellowship.
The one-year program, which has paired 14 Tunisian women with mentors across the United States, aims to teach the women skills they may not otherwise get in their own country to become business and civic leaders.
“A lot of time, women are kind of given the brush-off,” said Kreiser, assistant vice president at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. “They don’t have the same level of rights, and they aren’t respected the same way. [This program is] able to reinforce that they matter, they are special, and they are important.”
The current fellows are the fourth group from the program. The first two were Egyptian women, and the last two were from Tunisia. Center officials picked Tunisia because it was the birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2010.
In the spring, the center flew the women to North Texas where they spent a week taking classes, focused on leadership, resilience and networking, at Southern Methodist University.
The fellows also traveled to North Texas businesses, including the Genesis Women’s Shelter. They visited New York; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco, before returning to Tunisia for the remainder of the program.
Charity Wallace, the vice president of the center’s global women’s initiatives and senior adviser to former first lady Laura Bush, said the past program participants had high praise for their time in Dallas.
“They learn so much about one another and themselves,” said Wallace, who helped create the program after speaking with the former president. “They grow in confidence, because they are learning” so much.
Douss said her time in Dallas and at SMU had a major impact on her growth.
“We had amazing teachers,” Douss said. “We actually learned how to be more confident and to believe in our own projects.”
Douss’ project is focused on tourism in Tunisia, where she hopes children can travel the country and learn about leadership and nature.
She said she came up with the idea — which she calls her “dream project” — after she worked for a British company that runs outdoor learning programs for elementary school students.
She has met with investors who she said are interested in her project.
“I’ve always had a dream of having my own project and being an independent, successful woman,” she said.
Other fellows are trying to achieve their dreams, too. Dorra Mlouhi, 25, is a Ph.D. student in Tunisia studying computer science engineering and serves as a Google student ambassador in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Since being back in Tunisia, Mlouhi said she has been working on her project, as well as her Ph.D. She said the program has helped teach her new skills like writing an action plan, creating ways to pitch her idea to others and teamwork.
She credits the SMU classes with teaching these skills, which are not typically offered to women in Tunisia.
Mlouhi said meeting people from companies in Silicon Valley helped introduce her to new skills and new experiences, which she said she can share with other women in Tunisia.
“It’s like shopping,” she said. “When you come back you think, ‘I will give this to my sister, and I will give this to my friend.’ Just sharing, sharing, sharing.”
Throughout the program, Mlouhi has worked closely with her San Francisco-based mentor Obi Felton, who works on the project and business side of Google X.
She said she has started doing workshops in Tunisia and Dubai to share her experiences with other women about how to succeed in a career.
In October, at the six-month mark, mentors will travel to Tunisia for an in-country session. A graduation for the fellows will be held in Dallas in March.
The graduation will serve as a moment of triumph as well as a reminder of tragedy for the women. Last March, two weeks into the program, 20 tourists and a Tunisian police officer were gunned down in a terrorist attack at the country’s Bardo National Museum.
And two weeks ago, a gunman killed at least 38 people, and wounded several others, on the beach at a hotel in the Tunisian resort town of Sousse. Most of those killed were tourists. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared the country in a state of emergency last week.
“People like Siwar — they gain resolve from things like this,” Kreiser said. “She didn’t say ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing here?’ She was saying ‘This is why women have to be empowered and why we have to have these conversations so this extremism doesn’t get a foothold in this country.'”
Douss said that is her aim from the program — to fight for women’s empowerment and “get out of the constraints the society has tried to put on us since we are very young girls.”
The end of the program will not be the end of her relationship with Kreiser despite their distance, she said. They have become much more than professional associates.
“It was more than that — it was developing a relationship with someone that can help me my whole life,” Douss said. “I know that even after this one year, I’m going to have Kellie forever.”
The New York Times contributed to this report.