Chaos followed the 14 April 2021 announcement that the U.S. would fully withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban seized control of Kabul on 15 August, and a week later YPO member Simer Mayo, CEO at Valor Global, received a phone call that forever changed his life. More importantly, that call led Mayo, along with several of his YPO peers, to wield the power of this global community and change the lives of 147 young Afghan women.
Saturday, 21 August: The call
At around 19:00, Mayo and his wife, Vicki, received a phone call from a friend trying to help 172 young Hazara women, students at the Asian University for Women (AUW), escape Afghanistan. For centuries, Hazara minorities have endured persecution at the hands of those in power, and the students — not only minorities but women, who the Taliban have long labored to confine — were high-risk targets for subjugation.
For the next several hours, the Mayos reached out to local and global contacts to understand the logistics of evacuating someone from Afghanistan, including YPO’s global network.
Fellow YPO member Christopher M. Schroeder, CEO of HealthCentral.com, had just four days prior held a webinar for YPO’s Global Diplomacy Network, which featured Anne Pforzheimer, the former acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan and Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul; BBC journalist Yalda Hakim, who had interviewed Taliban leadership; and Fred Kaganis, Director of The American Enterprise Association’s Critical Threats Project think tank in Washington, D.C. After the event, hundreds of members followed up to see how they could help and formed a global network of WhatsApp groups focusing on specific issues within the crumbling country.
Mayo explained to Schroeder the assistance he was seeking, and Schroeder gave him one name. “If you want to transport anybody within Afghanistan,” he said, “you’re going to want to talk to Andrew Robertson.”
Robertson, a YPO member, CEO of AMS Global and a passionate investor and advisory director of Chicago-based Rumi Spice, a saffron exporter from Afghanistan, has had business interests in Afghanistan since 2003. He lived there for more than eight years, engaging a vast workforce across all 34 provinces. He was familiar with the country topographically and well-versed in its culture. When Mayo told him about the 172 female students who needed transport, Robertson responded, “In the YPO spirit I could never say ‘no.’ What can I do to help?”
Sunday, 22 August: The plan
The plan was to pick the girls up on Monday from their safe house and transport them to the airport in a convoy of seven buses Robertson had secured. The most senior girl on each bus was designated the “leader,” responsible for relaying information between the girls, their contacts on the ground in Afghanistan and those working to get them to safety. The main concern was getting them through the 13 Taliban checkpoints they would have to negotiate before reaching Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA).
By mid-afternoon, a dozen YPO members and nearly as many U.S. politicians, including members of Congress, had joined Mayo and Robertson in their mission. YPO member Jake Cusack, Co-founder of the CrossBoundary Group and a former U.S. Marine Corps sniper platoon commander, reached out to Mayo. Cusack, in London, had just assisted in moving 100 people out of Afghanistan as part of other evacuation efforts when another YPO member had given him Mayo’s number. Cusack had just one question. “How can I help?” He knew that if the girls attempted to reach the airport unaccompanied, the chances they would make it were slim.
By the end of that night, it was decided Cusack would fly to Dubai to meet Robertson, where they’d set up communications and work on getting to Kabul. Once there, they would pick up the girls, get them onto the plane and bring them safely to wherever they could land.
Meanwhile, YPO member Brad Cohen, President and Strategy Officer, Brightcom Group Ltd., and Director with Project Dynamo, had been deep in the country for a week, creating new evacuation routes out of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. When he reached out to Schroeder asking for additional logistics on the ground, Schroeder told him about Mayo, Robertson and Cusack’s mission. Cohen quickly connected with the trio and offered his help, should they need it.
Monday, 23 August: Attempt No. 1
Things didn’t get off to a great start. Some of the girls were late, the buses got stuck in traffic, and each checkpoint was a study in keeping calm. Encounters between the Taliban soldiers, the girls and the bus drivers were arduous and drawn out. After 30 hours, they reached the south gate of the airport, where the Taliban soldiers looked at the student’s documents, looked at the students, then ripped the passes to shreds.
Following a flurry of WhatsApp messages, military personnel at HKIA routed them to a different gate where the girls joined a line of 30 other buses and waited another three hours. When they finally began letting vehicles pass, a large crowd surged the gate and gunfire broke out. For the sake of the girls’ safety, Mayo and Robertson called off the attempt.
A few hours later, Mayo was informed that the airplane they had arranged for the girls was no longer available.
That night in Dubai, a highly distracted Cusack and Robertson ate dinner while managing multiple devices connected across time zones to coordinate the evacuation as Cohen sourced connections inside the base to ensure the girls safe passage — on the Taliban and U.S. sides. As the situation on the ground in Afghanistan grew increasingly dire, the YPO network tracked down a 90-seat Russian plane. Still, they had to ensure a landing spot, which meant getting NATO’s approval, when Mayo was connected to the wife of a general at NATO whose response was bleak: “There is absolutely no way to get a manifest in less than 24 hours. You need a plan B.”
By early next morning the company providing the Russian planes had changed their mind and reneged on the deal. That meant no plane, no manifest. It was six hours before they were scheduled to pick up the girls for the second attempt.
Tuesday, 24 August – Wednesday, 25 August: Plan B
The team had decided they were leaving no stone unturned and simultaneously worked to preserve a landing slot at the airport and find a new plane for transport. The only thing that mattered was rescuing the girls. As if sensing their challenge, Cohen called to check in, even though he was in the midst of numerous missions with Project Dynamo. One was the extraction of 70 girls from Michigan State University (MSU) with the help of the lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division coordinating access to the airport gates. The other was getting 356 YPO-member employees out of the country.
“There’s safety in numbers,” Cohen told Robertson, after hearing of their struggles. Which is how, after the YPO network found a U.S. Air Force plane at the base and a pilot at the ready, the AUW students, the MSU students and the YPO member employees formed a convoy of 1,000 people in 30 buses preparing to embark on the journey of their lives.
Thursday, 26 August: Trying again
The second attempt started out smoothly. After 12 hours on the road, military personnel at HKIA routed the girls to a different gate where they joined a caravan of 30 other buses and waited another several hours, eventually spending the night in the buses. Around hour 24, less than half a mile away at 17:50, a suicide bomber directed a single explosive device containing ball bearings through the packed crowd, killing13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans. To ensure their safety, Robertson instructed the bus drivers to move them two miles north of the airport to regroup.
By now, it had been five sleepless days for everyone — those at home in the U.S., those on the ground in Afghanistan and those untold number of YPO members around the globe working to get the girls to safety. But after the explosion and horror of the carnage around them, the girls called off the mission. The bus drivers were in agreeance, having come under attack for helping the girls — all of them getting beat up by the Taliban and having their families threatened. The bus drivers took the girls back to their safe house.
At 02:00, Mayo and Robertson got on a Zoom call with a designated student leader from each bus and asked them to give the rescue one more chance. They named the mission “Dinner Out” — the goal was for everyone to be eating dinner in a different country that night.
Friday, 27 August: The final attempt
The final attempt started with 146 girls; 26 stayed behind. One girl who was not originally part of the mission decided to sign on.
Immediately after starting the final attempt, reports began coming in that after mosque prayers on Friday, suicide bombers would head to the airport. It was another moment, in a long week of moments, when the team was tasked with drawing on their instincts and trusting the vast network of connections and contacts they had made. The reports could not be verified. Their only options were to abort or press on.
They pressed on.
That day, as they traveled the roads back to the airport, at every checkpoint they reached, Robertson offered the soldiers in charge cookies and camaraderie. They were people too. They were tired, hungry and scared. It was tactical, but it was also moral. And later that night, when challenges at HKIA arose, those kindnesses were remembered.
After 12 hours on the road, with precautions stepped up at every turn because of the bombing the day before, the girls’ nerves were fraying. In line once again outside the south gate where just yesterday the massacre had occurred, a bus ahead of them full of “VIPs” were turned away. Was it a sign? Would they get turned away too? Or worse? Should they leave now and try for another gate?
Again, there was no “right” or “wrong” answer. No guarantee either way; only educated guesses and hope. The girls were frustrated, tired, scared and ready to call everything off again as the outlook looked bleak. Mayo and Robertson got back on a call with the bus leaders and asked them for one more hour, assuring them they would sort out the issues.
“OK,” one of the girls finally said. “Either we will die trying, or we will get through.”
For the next three hours, they defended their position in line. The Taliban allowed entry to three vehicles at the front. Then closed everything down. Another three hours passed as representatives from United States Central Command, the Pentagon, the White House, Mayo, Robertson, Cusack and Cohen, who was in contact with the lieutenant commander coordinating the gates, desperately tried to get the girls inside. The girls were again talking about aborting the mission. But then the gate opened, and a soldier beckoned for a few of the girls to enter.
At 23:00 every student was inside the airport.
At 02:00 their plane took off.
At 04:30 they landed in Qatar.
Three days later, on 30 August 2022, the remaining American C-17 cargo jets flew out of HKIA just before midnight and a few days after that, the Taliban installed themselves in the presidential palace.
Today, every one of the girls are on full scholarships in universities throughout the U.S. awaiting their visas and considering job opportunities at YPO member companies.
“This really truly shows the power of YPO and entrepreneurs working together to solve complex issues,” says Mayo. “None of us had ever met before but we trusted each other’s judgment. Special thanks to community leaders, several political figures (both Republicans and Democrats) who put doing the right thing before party and politics.”
“I really felt the passion from fellow YPO members to do the right thing,” says Robertson. Nobody had any personal or financial gain; we felt that if it were our son, our daughter, our brother, our sister or our parents, we hoped somebody would do the same.”
As Schroeder, the man responsible for connecting Mayo, Robertson, Cusack and Cohen, puts it, “Their story is one of heroism and selflessness; one that underscores the power of networks discovering like-minded efforts and organizing to multiplier outcomes.”
Cohen ads, “There were families and people in danger, and they needed to get out. Something like a higher power told me, ‘Do it.’ And I dropped everything; didn’t sleep for weeks. And it was life- changing.”
Special thanks to every member of YPO involved in this effort, including YPO spouse/partner Jonaki Ah Teck in Singapore, YPO members in Arizona, France, India, Pakistan and the Middle East as well as Dom Delport, former President of Vice Media, members of BBC, UNICEF and most importantly, the U.S. Armed Forces.