“I’d say at its height, when I was growing up, there were probably 10 people there,” said Terry Neese, now 64. “There was a church, two small gas and grocery filling stations, and that was it.”
Her youth was spent playing basketball, driving tractors, harvesting wheat, picking cotton, raising chickens and gathering eggs.
Now her life is much different. A successful Oklahoma City businesswoman, she testifies before Congress, networks with lawmakers and collects honors and awards the way others collect paychecks. She published a book for female entrepreneurs and was President George W. Bush‘s pick to oversee the U.S. Mint.
She also heads the only nonprofit that teaches business practices to women in Afghanistan and Rwanda. The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women was born in 2006 and took its first steps a year later. It has grown ever since.
“This is what I’ve been working toward all my life: helping women in war-torn countries to run businesses,” she said. “I believe when you educate a woman you educate a nation.”
Neese largely was self-taught.
She had four classmates at Union Valley Elementary before a few schools in the area consolidated. Even at that, her graduating class included only about 30 people.
She enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s.
“Women then were majoring in secretarial science,” Neese said. “That was my major. I thought that I would be a secretary and administrative assistant probably for the rest of my life.”
She enjoyed matching workers to employers while encouraging women to strive for jobs outside the secretarial pool.
After college, she remarried, moved to Oklahoma City and worked for two more personnel service companies. Both went under, taking her commissions with them.
She opened her own employment service company in 1975. She didn’t have money, backers or a business plan, but she convinced a building owner to give her a month of free rent so she could get started.
“At the end of 30 days,” she said, “I was in the black.”
Her success continued despite setbacks. She purchased an office on Route 66 just four months before the road was torn up to make room for Interstate 44, rendering her building inaccessible. It didn’t matter; her revenues quadrupled. Several months after the interstate opened, the building burned down, destroying all of her records. She rebounded, quadrupling her revenue again.
Her life changed in 1986, when she became a part of the National Association of Women Business Owners, or NAWBO.
“I saw doors open that I never knew were closed,” she said. “I watched other small business owners from around the country debate some of the same issues we’re debating today: insurance, taxes, paperwork.
“I learned so much about how important our voices are in the political process and came home determined to stay active, to be more involved.”
Two years later, NAWBO asked her to be a vice president on its national board. In 1990, she became the group’s president. She traveled to talk to chapters in 45 states and mentored countless women, building a huge network of business contacts.
Her national profile continued to grow, but then something strange happened. The FBI started nosing around, questioning Neese’s friends, neighbors and colleagues. The IRS delved into her personal and business financial records. “What’s going on?” those around her asked. “Are you in trouble?”
She couldn’t answer.
About six months after the questioning began, President George W. Bush cleared the air. Federal investigators had been doing background checks on Neese, making sure she had no skeletons in her closet that would emerge during federal confirmation hearings.
Satisfied her record was immaculate, Bush appointed her in 2005 to be director of the U.S. Mint. She was put in charge of the gold reserves at Fort Knox and all the country’s coins.
She accepted … with reservations.
“When he (Bush) first called and asked me, I thought, ‘Why would I want to do that? It doesn’t have anything to do with what I’ve done with my life,’” she recalled. “But how do you say no to the president?”
Her tenure was brief. Neese recently had moved her mother to Oklahoma City from the Cookietown area. Her mother, then in her 80s, had left her friends and church behind so she could be closer to her daughter. Now Neese was living in Washington, and her mother was alone.
Neese’s husband, Earl Neese, didn’t care much for Washington. A country boy, he whiled away the time sitting in public parks, watching the birds and talking to strangers.
The mint job wasn’t right for Terry Neese’s family. After a couple weeks, she quit.
Neese returned to Oklahoma and wrote a book, “Power Tools for Women Business Owners.” After a 14-city book tour, the federal government came calling again.
After talking with first lady Laura Bush, an ambassador and representatives of the federal Education Department and the State Department, Neese agreed to develop a program to help women start and develop businesses in Afghanistan.
“I went to Afghanistan with my 50-pound flak jacket and two bodyguards,” she said. “I spent a week there meeting with … some women who owned businesses before the Taliban took over. They were trying to restart those businesses.”
On the flight home, she sketched out the broad outlines of what would become the Peace Through Business program. Essentially, the program brings women to the U.S. to participate in a “kind of mini-MBA program,” Neese said.
The curriculum was developed by Northwood University, which has campuses in Michigan, Florida and Texas. By partnering with the university, Neese was able to provide her foreign guests with housing, food and course materials.
In 2007, a dozen Afghan women took part in the inaugural class.
In 2008, Rwandan women were invited to participate. They stayed at Oklahoma Christian University.
Beginning in 2009, the program added a local component. Staffers were hired in Afghanistan and Rwanda to teach eight-week business classes. Members of the Peace Through Business board work with program funders to select 15 women from each country to come to the U.S. Selections are made based on business plans, classroom attendance, test scores and on-site visits.
Each participant is matched with an American mentor who has had success in a similar business. The participants visit Washington and meet with their ambassadors to discuss obstacles to business growth.
The program has a “pay it forward” philosophy; each woman chosen to participate is expected to share what she has learned with others in her home country.
Neese anticipates that training soon will be extended to women in places such as Haiti.
Peace Through Business now offers relatively low-interest loans to its graduates. Interest rates in Afghanistan and Rwanda typically are 20 to 24 percent. Graduates may obtain business loans from Neese’s program at a 7 percent interest rate.
The program seems to be working. Among Neese’s prized possessions is a yellow soccer ball, so blazingly bright it looks like a tiny sun captured and tethered to her desk.
The ball was produced by Taj Sirat, one of the graduates from the first class.
“She sent us pictures of about 28 women sitting cross-legged on the floor hand sewing these soccer balls,” Neese said. “She had no business plan, no financial statement. She didn’t even know if she was making a profit from making soccer and volleyballs.
“She didn’t know how to get them to the marketplace. She was employing mostly handicapped women who had been injured stepping on land mines.
“Today she has almost 300 employees. Her revenues were up last year by 70 percent. She’s exporting soccer balls to Germany. We’re working with her to get them into the U.S. Our goal is have Afghan soccer balls made by Taj Sirat for the women’s World Cup. We’ve got a little bit of time. We’ve got to make that happen.”
Two graduates ran for parliament positions in Afghanistan. Sirat was one of them.
“Taj won, but they confiscated the ballot boxes and wouldn’t seat her,” Neese said. “Last year, two of our graduates were appointed to the Rwandan Parliament. That’s just huge.”
Neese, like many of the women she works with, came from humble beginnings. From Cookietown to the White House to her work abroad, she said, she feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to help other women succeed.
“It changes their lives,” she said. “It changes our lives.”