Lori Blaker, CEO of Michigan-based TTi Global, which operates business training centers around the world, raised eyebrows when she walked into the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan a few years ago. She wanted advice on how to gain the release of automotive service equipment from customs officials who were seeking bribes.
"They were looking at me like I was crazy," Blaker said. "They said, 'This is a for-profit business?' And I say, 'Yeah.' "
After two strenuous years in Kabul, Blaker kick-started an automotive service center and training center in the city in 2016. It was one of many contributions to peace-building abroad that landed her the Oslo Business for Peace Award last month. Last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was one of four recipients of the award.
In Kabul, Blaker waited almost a year to receive the tools and equipment for the business, which now has 20 employees and five service bays. Actually, bribery requests were drops in the bucket amid a wave of obstacles Blaker faced during her time in the country.
"I've had two vehicles explode in front of me. You never relax," she said. "I don't know how people go over there ... for any amount of time and not have it impact you."
In the late 1970s, Blaker's father, John Brzezinski, an aerospace engineer, brought her on as his first full-time employee at his company, S&J Tech Data Service Co. She worked as a typist and proofed automotive service manuals created by her father.
"Manufacturers would come back and ask us, 'You know, you've developed all the technical service information. Can you develop the training programs that we're going to need in order to train technicians as well?' " Blaker said. "That's kind of how we morphed into a training company."
In 1994, S&J Tech Data transformed into TTi Global. The suburban Detroit company now has operations in more than two dozen countries on five continents. Blaker said she would like to open service centers in other cities in Afghanistan.
For now, the biggest challenge in Kabul is security, said Blaker, who talks to her team in Kabul every week. A few months ago an explosion "knocked them out of their seats in the office."
"Nobody was hurt, thank goodness, but my girls tell me that every morning when they get up and go to work, they hug their families and tell them how much they love them because they don't ever know if they're going to make it home that night," said Blaker. "It just makes me that much more determined to try and help them."