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The Courage to Lead

Businessman helps Afghans solve Afghanistan’s problems

Ted Achilles, F62, used to recruit young Afghans to study in American high schools. But after four years, he quit.

“The program essentially ended up feeding Canada,” where many of the young people fled rather than return to Afghanistan, he says. “Students weren’t coming back home.”

Achilles had started recruiting bright teenagers for State Department–funded scholarships after launching a freight-forwarding company in Afghanistan in 2003. Crisscrossing the country, he interviewed hundreds of young Afghans and helped select 40 each year to study in the United States through the Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. He enjoyed meeting youth from Afghanistan’s many tribal and regional groups and trying to include as many girls as boys.

When he saw how few chose to return, Achilles set out to establish better educational and job opportunities within Afghanistan, led by local people.

“Solutions to Afghanistan’s often seemingly intractable problems will come from educated Afghans, especially Afghan women, and cannot be imposed from the outside,” he says. “But we can help train and support those new leaders.”

Big-Picture Thinking

Such big-picture thinking and a generous spirit have led Achilles to support many efforts to educate the next generation of leaders. At The Fletcher School, he oversaw the endowment of the Atlantic Community Scholarship in honor of his father, Theodore Carter Achilles, a U.S. diplomat who helped draft the North Atlantic Treaty, which established NATO in 1949. The scholarship provides much-needed financial assistance for Fletcher students who address the problems and prospects of the transatlantic region of North America and Europe.

Because of his supportive relationship with many educated young Afghans, in Kabul Achilles is better known as “Baba Ted” (Grandfather Ted). In 2008, he co-founded the nonprofit School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA) with Shabana Basij-Rasikh, an alumna of the YES program. The English-language boarding school for girls started with four students in Achilles’s residence; it is now home to 32 and has expanded into a neighboring building. The students, who range in age from 12 to 18 and are all on scholarships, come from 19 provinces across the country and represent Afghanistan’s many ethnic backgrounds.

More than 30 SOLA students are currently studying on scholarships valued in excess of $7 million at schools and colleges across the United States and in other countries. Basij-Rasikh, who is just 24, is now chairwoman and CEO of SOLA, and aims to make it the first fully accredited international boarding school in Afghanistan within the next five years, with more than 300 students attending. The school’s efforts to serve more girls have been bolstered by Cornelia Schneider, F06.

Sowing Every Root

Since 2009, Achilles has served on the board of the Abdul Madjid Zabuli Foundation’s Kabul office. He is now directing plans for an agricultural-environmental college to create educational opportunities for rural Afghans.

Before what he calls his “Afghan retirement,” Achilles worked as an international banker at Citi Bank, then as an entrepreneur. He came to Afghanistan in 2003 to help a friend and top executive at Paxton International establish an office in Kabul. Paxton, a global freight-forwarding company, organizes secure door-to-door transportation of cargoes such as U.S. government disaster and development aid around the world.

Achilles hired young, English-speaking Afghan professionals who could grow with the company over the long term, instead of bringing in foreign professionals for one- or two-year stretches. Paxton invested heavily in training those local employees. By 2009, a young Afghan with an undergraduate law degree had taken over full day-to-day management. Today, the Kabul office employs more than 50 people and is entirely managed by Afghans earning what would be considered solid incomes by international standards, Achilles says.

Achilles sees Paxton’s experience as an example of the success of a bottom-up approach to development, which focuses on the establishment and growth of small and medium-sized businesses that can help build a new class of “wealth-creating” Afghans, including women. Education plus a rising private economy is the only sure antidote to the insurgency, according to Achilles.

“Change, real change is in the hands of Afghanistan’s youth,” he says. “They are the best educated Afghans ever, and the status quo just doesn't have a prayer of withstanding them.”

Charles Fisher-Post is a student in the MALD program class of 2016. He has been an e-tutor for SOLA since 2011, and became the school’s distance tutoring volunteer coordinator in 2013.