10th Annual May Forum Recap

“Agile leadership: From Authority to Partnership”

As the days ticked by, the anticipation built with each crossing off the calendar. Eyes were glued, watching with bated breath as the long-awaited Thursday approached. This was the moment we had been eagerly awaiting – the gathering we had marked on our calendars with fervent zeal: “AWiB’s 10th Annual May Forum.

With eager steps, over 450 attendees made their way to the UNCC, following the blue footpath towards the hall where excellence would gracefully dance, pouring forth wisdom to touch the hearts and minds of the assembled audience. It took no time for the seats to fill, the room brimming with incredibly impactful women, each with stories to tell and a drive to make their own mark.

Inside the walls of UNCC, the brilliance of agile leadership shone. A warm, welcoming greeting from our very own Samrawit Meressa, AWiB’s 2023 President, made everyone feel right at home. Then, the stage was graced by the keynote speaker, Hikmet Abdela, the former Director General of the Accounting and Auditing Board of Ethiopia (AABE) and Governance Board Member of International Non-Profit Accounting Guidelines (INPAG). Hikmet no stranger to AWiB, had much knowledge and insight to share. With a touch of humor and a wealth of substance, Hikmet had the audience’s rapt attention as she delved into the intricacies of agile leadership. 

Agility, she educates, is ability to morph and mold one’s form and structure with ease in the face of unforeseen challenges.

She need not look far for a fitting example; AWiB itself embodies the principles of agile leadership. Evidenced by its monthly events and weekly Saturday trainings, AWiB stays attuned to the ever-evolving, versatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment. Through AWiB’s years of experience, it has been, and continues to arm its members with the tools needed to face head-on of such times.

It was a funny, yet disappointing moment when Hikmet challenged us to Google “Agile Leaders in Ethiopia” right there during the meeting. We all pulled out our phones, curious to see what would come up. As we scanned the search results, the only thing that seemed to surface was the AWiB website, highlighting today’s event. This showed the reality that the concept of “Agile Leadership” is still not widely recognized in our country. 

Hikmet went on to explain that the traditional leadership model constrains leaders to rigidly follow their job descriptions. They are expected to simply execute a predefined list of responsibilities without any room for adaptability or change. The traditional leadership model leaves no room for the flexible, responsive approach and innovative mindset that agile leadership requires.

Agile leaders, she emphasized, inspire and influence their team by effectively communicating their clear vision. It’s crucial to create an environment where team members feel heard by actively soliciting their participation and input. Hikmet contrasted this with an example where a board chairperson spoke for an hour and a half without allowing discussion – the opposite of the collaborative, dialogic approach of agile leadership. “A leader speaks last,” she asserted, allowing others to contribute before sharing their own views.

Hikmet also stressed the importance of courage for agile leaders. In places where leaders lack the courage and humility to admit when they “do not know” something, the future cannot be promising. Courage is required to admit mistakes, make tough decisions, and take calculated risks. And agile leaders, she emphasized, are not just confined to the executive position, but are needed at all levels of an organization.

Bridging the gap: From Authority to Partnership

After the morning networking and coffee session, participants headed to join the parallel session they booked. The hall of the main dialogue, “Bridging the Gap: From Authority to Partnership” was filled with attendants eager to learn from the prodigies of leadership. Aster Asfaw, the moderator, opened the stage with an Amharic quote that was fitting for the topic up for discussion “ኑ ግንብ እናፍርስ አጥር እንገንባ”.

Aster introduced the prominent speakers emphasizing the need for dialogue is not only our rights but obligation. The speakers were: Aster Solomon, Owner of Mosaic Hotel, Dr. Fisseha Eshetu, CEO of Purpose Black and Prof. Panos Hatziandreas, GM and Head of Lebawi International Academy. 

Aster Solomon’s speech centered around transition from dictatorship to democracy without a messy revolution, stressed that sustainable development is a harvest reaped from collaboration. Her introduction speech focused mainly on what the challenges in the private sector are in transforming from authoritarian to partnership model of leadership. 

She mentioned the significant obstacle– the culture of “What would people say?” or “ይሉኝታ”– creates in our relationships. As leaders, it is our responsibility to break the cycle and encourage people to be their authentic selves. Transparency and accountability should be embedded as the ethical standards and corporate governance in order to have a fruitful partnership between all stakeholders involved. Creating the partnership mindset within employees is an important task and it can be done through creating a safe and inclusive environment. It is expected that there will be resistance to change but agile leaders take it one step at a time and do not give up when faced with challenges. It is also important to build partnership with our customers through providing quality services and collecting feedbacks consistently. 

Regarding Public Private Partnership (PPP) Aster mentioned some of the existing challenges such as: rigid regulations, complex bureaucracy, lack of transparency, corruption, power imbalance between the private and government sectors, lack of collaborative culture, and biased presumptions of the private sector as ‘greedy’. After addressing the challenges presented, she quickly jumped into the practical methodologies we can foster partnership. Aster mentioned the need for the private sector to be involved in policy creation. We need associations and labor unions that lobby for PPP friendly policies, and gradually shift the mindsets in government offices to that which is customer-oriented. She closed her speech with a good example of PPP mentioning the recent housing project that aims in satisfying the housing needs of the middle-income population in Addis Ababa.

Dr. Fisseha Eshetu began with familiar Amharic quotes that stress the importance of partnership and questioned why our current culture lacks that mindset. He then raised another obvious question that many may overlook “What is Partnership?” “Do we all have the same definition of partnership?”. After a short silence for reflection, he stated it is only possible to achieve partnership when we have similar definitions for it. He mentioned his overall observation in the public sector. 

Dr. Fisseha categorized the gaps and components to be assessed in transitioning the mindset from authority to partnership in the public sector. The categories are: knowledge gap, the power of choice, action and commitment. To close the knowledge gap, we need to collectively define what partnership & PPP mean. Once we have a clear understanding, we can develop methodologies and tools to disseminate the knowledge. The second component is the power of choice. Unless we intentionally choose our leadership styles for different situations, we will not create the impact desired. To build partnerships, we must deliberately build mutually beneficial relationships otherwise, we will not be able to break out of this authoritarian cycle we are in.  it will not even be in our scope. Build on this, Dr. Fisseha mentioned exemplary nations who outsource projects to the private sector that increased the quality of service. Action, the third component, is the executing capacity and the building block of paths that transform visions into reality. Commitment, the final and crucial component is the discipline to stand by what we believe in and be consistent in our words and actions. It is the courage to roll up our sleeves and do what is necessary. 

Dr. Fisseha dug deeper into our imagination of a government as this mega entity that has all the power to make or destroy us. When we really look into it, the public sector’s role should have a servant mentality as it is there to serve the people. 59% of the public fund comes from taxes which means that the private sector is a very powerful part of a nation. “When the public sector shuts down a business, it is like shooting oneself in the foot”. Hence, the need for partnership between the two entities–the only way for our collective transformation. 

The education expert Professor Panos was the next speaker. It seemed fitting after assessing the challenges in the public and private sectors to come to the realization that both the cause and the solution to the problem is Education. Professor Panos posed three important questions to the audience: what is education? What are the standards? and what is Ethiopia’s Education Philosophy? He shared his insight regarding the shortcomings of the current education system as ignorance of the indigenous knowledge we have in our cultures and history.

 He alludes the role education plays in shaping the frameworks of our thinking. Students are the most important components in education he says and students are HUMANS. The fundamental question that education should ask is, “What is it to be a human?”. Professor Panos claims the gap within our education system is focusing on the enhancement of knowledge and sometimes skills but not the attitude where the major gap is. 

The education system in the developed countries assess their own psychological, historical and cultural needs but not ours. When it comes to changing the norm which is authority/subordinate based culture, it can only be done respecting the divine and unique being in us and done collectively while respecting the divinity within every one of us. Embedding that culture into the whole education system doesn’t only come from the deans and teachers, it is an integrated effort of everyone involved in the children’s lives. This mutually respecting attitude is the way to bridge the gap from authority to partnership. 

Communicate to Influence

Communicate to Influence was one of the three parallel morning sessions held in the spectacular AWiB’s Annual May Forum 2024. The speaker of the session was Yasser Bagersh, Communication Strategist and CEO of Cactus Group. The session was moderated by Ethiopis Tadesse, Communications Manager at Palladium.

Ethiopis, a distinguished toastmaster, trainer of effective communication and an excellent communicator herself, began by introducing Yasser to the audience. In Ethiopis words “Yasser has mastered the idea of what it means to communicate to influence”. A CEO of one of the largest communication agency networks–Cactus Group, Yasser oversees diverse operations including a large catering company. 

Given that the topic of May Forum 2024 was on Agile Leadership, Yasser started out by outlining that being an agile leader required tools of being visionary, empowering others, and creating collaborative environments. He further expressed that being an agile leader also required continuous learning, adaptive thinking and the ability to communicate to influence. 

Yasser, a passionate volunteer and culinary artist, captivated the audience as he weaved through his speech with the tapestry of storytelling that touched on his desire to support others and his love of cooking. The session itself was a testament to the art of communication as Yasser used body language, tone of voice and eye contact elaborating the six pillars of effective communication to the audience.  

The first pillar of effective communication that Yasser outlined was Clear Messaging. Clear messaging, frequently used in advertising is where you are straightforward about your intention. Yasser related this concept with when he was cooking for friends and had requested if they had specific allergies two days before the event. Requesting this information helped him plan out his menu. He jokingly stated that he would have to make popcorn because of the variations in their requirements. Following that, he provided the information of what groceries needed to be bought to his staff emphasizing that it was clear communication that allowed him to be effective in his work managing numerous events.

The second pillar of effective communication Yasser outlined was Transparency. “Honesty goes a long way in everything you do,” Yasser expressed. He noted this as he gave an example of how it is better to decline a job that cannot be delivered on the client’s timing than fail to deliver or deliver something substandard out of the pressure to please the client. 

Active listening was the third pillar where Yasser took us to New York where he was part of a dinner party where he observed active listening. He described how the mother had a very tired look but as she served the family dinner and interacted with each of them, only her young son had noticed what she was trying to say – that she was tired. 

The fourth pillar was Empathetic Engagement where empathy needs to be a part of each interaction. Here Yasser told the audience the story of a woman who ordered coffee and asked for more and more bread along with the coffee each time. The woman did this in order to provide for her family which she could not afford to do. Noticing this the owner one day simply provided the lady with bread and told her she did not need to order coffee to get the bread each day. Yasser underlined how having empathy is key when engaging with those around us. 

The Power of Optimism was the fifth pillar Yasser outlined. He told a story relating to the current situation in our country where houses are being demolished for development. Yasser talked of the vibrant old woman who was waiting in line for her replacement housing being provided by the government. The lady told him she had no family left and had no paperwork to prove the ownership of her home. Despite this she said she was optimistic that she would find shelter. He later found out that she indeed found shelter;  her optimism and perseverance helped her gaining a shelter better than the one she previously had.   

The final pillar of communicating effectively was storytelling where Yasser told the audience of the story that changed his life. A man had come to his house and informed him his son was ill. Yasser had only focused on how the man got access to his house and asked him to get out. It was only after the man was out and across the street that Yasser observed he was carrying a child who was indeed ill. 

Remorse took over as Yasser ran down flights of stairs and through the street to reach the man. He fervently fought through the crowd to get to the man but was too late; the man got on a bus and couldn’t be reached. Yasser he regretted how “a God given gift to change someone’s life came all the way to my balcony and I lost the opportunity”. Storytelling is what allows Yasser to connect with others.

Yasser and Ethiopis concluded with a round of questions from the audience. AWiBers, young Meri girls and guests were all actively engaged as they eagerly asked interesting questions. One of the participants noted that her voice had a limitation and asked how she could communicate effectively despite her challenge?

Another asked how she can communicate effectively to her team and to her managers. One asked how vulnerable she can be when communicating in the context of our culture. All questions were answered by the six pillars for effective communication: being clear, transparent, listening actively, having empathy and optimism as well as storytelling.

Everyone in the session left feeling humored, connected, and equipped with effective tools of communication. AWiB appreciated the session’s speaker and moderator with gifts, intricate leather portfolios.

Creating High-Performing Teams Through Commitment & Collaboration

In another parallel session, Kidist, moderator and the Co-founder and CEO of Zero-One-Zero-One PLC – along with Shani Senbetta and Zelalem Woldemariam, speakers and the COO and CEO of Zeleman Communications, Advertising & Production, engaged in a panel discussion. They explored how they cultivate high-performing teams characterized by a strong sense of commitment and collaboration within their company, Zeleman, renowned for its team-based approach. The program commenced at 11:30 am and featured a video presentation about Zeleman for the audience. Zeleman, a 19-year-old company, places a significant emphasis on data and research.

The organization comprises 10 distinct departments, such as Zeleman Academy which provides the latest training to develop the existing talent so they can join a team aligned with their passion within the organization or acquire skills to thrive in the job market. Other departments include social media, brand management, public relations, and events, each focused on achieving their specific goals. The company also employs 140 full-time staff, making it one of the largest advertising agencies in the country.

Zeleman’s clientele includes prominent international organizations such as Ethiopian Airlines, Coca Cola, Safaricom, UNICEF, Total Energies, among others. With women comprising 70% of the workforce and the company thriving nationally, Zelalem emphasized the pivotal role of women in the company’s success. Kidist then asked Zelalem and Shani about their understanding of high-performing teams and how they cultivate them. She also inquired about how they manage working as a couple, foster team commitment, and the predominant challenges they face in their work.

Zelalem explained that setting a clear organizational vision, goals, and KPIs (at both the departmental and individual levels) plays a pivotal role in creating high-performing teams. Ensuring that the team understands the impact of their work is crucial for instilling a strong sense of purpose. Zelalem further elaborated that young people often know their passion but are unsure how to actualize it. At Zeleman, they proactively ask employees questions like ‘What is your dream?’ and ‘How can we help you build it?’ By providing a defined career path and the necessary skills training through the Zeleman Academy, the company empowers its employees achieve their goals and contribute to the overall success of the organization.

Shani further emphasized the importance of engaging the team in understanding client requirements, identifying communication barriers (especially when dealing with clients), and developing a strong sense of commitment within the team. This commitment is essential for achieving goals, regardless of any excuses that may arise. Zelalem also highlighted the significance of empowering managers and ensuring they fully comprehend the responsibilities that come with their position. This, in turn, creates an environment where team members can look up to and be inspired by their team leads and managers further contributing to the development of a high-performing team. Shani and Zelalem further emphasized the importance of debriefing after major projects, seeking client feedback, and continuously streamlining operations.

They also highlighted the significance of actively listening to understand their team and bringing together individuals who share the same passion to work collaboratively. Zelalem emphasized that teamwork and unwavering client support are part of the core organizational values at Zeleman. This allows them to assess whether the team is upholding these values, and those who do are recognized and rewarded to inspire continued excellence.

Regarding their success as a working couple, Zelalem explained that sharing the same vision of building a world-class business, understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and strategically allocating tasks have been key factors. While their journey has not been without challenges, their shared goal and mutual comprehension of each other’s work have enabled them to overcome obstacles. Shani and Zelalem also identified the primary barriers they face in cultivating high-performing teams, including communication gaps, lack of empathy, generational differences, the inability to listen with understanding, and a lack of aligned passion among team members. They are committed to addressing these challenges on an ongoing basis.”

Q1: How do you see the commitment of Ethiopian employees compared to those in other countries?

Shani responded that despite perceptions, there is a strong commitment within their team, as evidenced by their willingness to work overnight. In contrast to the US, where employees may say “that’s not my job, so I’m not responsible,” the Ethiopian teams at Zeleman rally together to get the work done. However, Shani acknowledged that there are gaps in leadership within the country, which can hinder employees from fully demonstrating their capabilities.

Zelalem, on the other hand, did not believe that commitment was solely a matter of location, but rather an individual trait. He explained how Zeleman had set the ambitious goal of becoming “the best advertising agency in Africa” and had now achieved that. Zelalem believes that commitment is a skill that can be cultivated. Compared to some other countries, Ethiopian employees are highly committed, and the key to further developing this is to focus on improving the education system and placing greater emphasis on teaching the importance of team commitment.

Q2. What is your advice to a young person working in a team with a major generational gap?

Zelalem suggested that the key is to listen and explain one’s own ideas by providing references or proof of how they can be successful. it is important to openly address the “elephant in the room” – the generational gap. Zelalem recommended using statements like “I know there is a generational gap, but we can address this issue by using this and that method…” This direct approach can help bridge the divide and foster collaboration within the team. Shani explained that they dedicate significant time to engaging with their mid-level managers to stay informed about their team’s personal well-being. The goal is to proactively identify and prevent potential burnout. Shani noted that they emphasize to their team the valuable skillsets they are gaining through their current roles, which will benefit their long-term career development. Moreover, Zeleman has an on-site yoga and wellness center, in which they encourage all employees to utilize. However, Zelalem emphasized that they are always open to collaborating with people who work in wellness & recreation. The focus is on creating an environment that supports both high performance and overall employee well-being.

Q3. From your experience, how do you deal with “slackers” – people who undermine the team’s performance?

Zelalem explained that their approach is to first try and help change the attitude and mindset of the individual exhibiting “slacker” behavior. However, if the problem persists, even if the employee is otherwise high-performing, they will make the difficult decision to let that person go. Zelalem emphasized that they cannot move the team forward with negativity and lack of commitment within their ranks. Their priority is maintaining a positive, high-performing culture, and they are willing to make tough personnel decisions when necessary to uphold those standards.

Q4. How did you scale up from a small team to a big team?

Zelalem explained that recognizing his own limitations in being able to do everything was key. He focused on constructing a small, highly capable core team to handle the major work. Furthermore, Zelalem was open about asking for support from his family and friends, as well as being transparent about his ideas. This approach fostered an environment where the team was unafraid to ask questions and collaborate, which naturally allowed them to scale up the organization.

Q5. Research and innovation are not common in our country – how does Zeleman approach this?

Shani emphasized the importance of the “fail fast” rule. Based on research, they have found that it is more beneficial to start taking action and iterating as they go, rather than engaging in lengthy planning cycles. Zelalem added that Zeleman invests significantly in research, as it helps them stay ahead of emerging trends and understand the evolving needs of their customers. Despite the challenges, they are committed to prioritizing research as a key driver of innovation within their organization.

Q7. How do you imprint your vision on your team?

Zelalem explained that it has been a natural, gradual process. Through consistently delivering quality work, Zeleman’s vision has organically taken shape and been embraced by the growing team. Leveraging their existing networks and collaborating with clients that Zelalem had previously worked with also helped build trust and engagement among the team in the company’s vision.

Q8. How do you help your female team members balance their nurturing nature with their professional work character?

Zelalem emphasized that Zeleman’s success is largely due to the strength of its women’s team. He acknowledged that it requires experience to separate personal feelings from the professional work environment. Zeleman’s approach is to teach their female team members to be authentic and develop the mindset that even when parting ways with someone, they should provide constructive feedback to help that person improve. The goal is to cultivate an environment where feedback is delivered in a thoughtful manner, allowing the team to maintain their nurturing qualities while also upholding high professional standards.

Q9. How do you manage your team to be analytical and solution-oriented?

Shani replied that modeling analytical and solution-oriented behaviors is a core value and crucial in shaping the team’s mindset. Incorporating these analytical skills into the management approach is key. Whenever challenges arise, the team members directly involved are expected to come up with proposed solutions. Zelalem added that it’s important not to simply complain about the challenges in the country, but to instead approach issues with empathy and patience. He noted that as the education system in Ethiopia evolves, this will also help cultivate more analytical and solution-focused capabilities within their team.

Q9. How do you retain your employees?

Zelalem explained that Zeleman provides nursery for the children of their employees, helping the team feel supported. Zeleman Academy also plays a crucial role, empowering employees to identify their passions and align those with suitable roles within the organization. Even when employees do choose to leave the company, Zelalem said Zeleman takes an empathetic approach, wishing them well in their future careers. They have established a “Zeleman Alumni” network to maintain connections, with some former employees even becoming brand ambassadors. Shani added that rather than solely focusing on retention, they also aim to make the transition process easier and quicker for departing employees.

Q10. As a private company, how do you motivate your team to work in their areas of passion?

Zelalem explained that they communicate clearly with their team that if they stay with the company for around two years, they will have the opportunity to identify and pursue their true passions. Providing this clarity about the company’s purpose and their employees’ growth potential is essential for motivation. Zelalem further emphasized the importance of empathizing with employees as they navigate the journey of self-discovery. The company understands that each person is shaped by their unique experiences, so they aim to be supportive during this process.

Q11. Many companies are hesitant to hire women – why did you choose to have women as the majority of your team?

Zelalem noted that a person tends to be more peaceful as they get married and this is true for their female employees. After they return from maternity leave, they often perform exceptionally well. Recognizing this, Zeleman actively provides opportunities for women, which has contributed significantly to the company’s growth. Zelalem suggested that women themselves should also work to raise awareness about the benefits of hiring female employees. He also emphasized the importance of streamlining the maternity leave and return-to-work process, to ensure a smooth transition.

At last, the program concluded with Kidist thanking the guests and audience, and AWiB presenting a gift to Shani, Zelalem, and Kidist.

Women in Lead: The Uplifters

Soaring beyond the realm of mere aspiration, ‘Women in Leadership’ has now become a reality. Seizing every opportunity, shattering barriers that stood in their way – even on uneven playing fields, women have caught on to their ability to defy the limits they were told they could not surpass.

These are women of courage, commitment, and discipline. They are the leaders with their eyes set straight on the finish line. Driven by the passion that wakes them up to push each day, motivated by the smiles they paint on faces once etched with pain, the lives they transformed from distress to hope, the relief they bring to the weary…these are the women leaders! The women who embrace success not merely to showcase their greatness but serve as a model of perseverance, passing it down to those denied opportunities.

Yes, women in lead is no longer a dream! Evident as here we sat in a room full of them, humble to learn from the other, eager to teach the next, to empower the young, to remind the old the potential each had and the warrior they could become.

Our speakers with stories that could ignite hope within the captivated audience before us, sat ready to share their wisdom. Eager to learn, we had our eyes and ears fixed on these three remarkable women whose backgrounds proved far more inspiring than we had imagined.

Samrawit Fikru, CEO, Hybrid Designs, Selamawit Girmay, Regional Director, Human Rights Monitoring and Investigation Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and Semhal Guesh Berhe, CEO, Kabana Leather

These women began their journeys with enthusiasm only to realize the world they thought was filled with opportunities had instead left them disappointed, presenting thorns and traps that sought to confine them in their “little boxes.” Yet to the world’s dismay, these women knew no boundaries. They turned a blind eye to every stop sign and danger choosing instead to march resolutely forward. And here today, a testament to their triumph, we are seated before them.

No, these women did not possess great power or wield magical wands to wave their dreams into reality. The divine made us all plain and the same with untapped potential within each of us. Yet these women dared to teach their own hands to weave the threads that could change the world for the better.

Our Moderator, Egzihariya, stated that being a ‘certified AWiB leader’ is not merely a title on paper, nor a flag to be waved high in a display of vanity. Rather, a leader’s role is a responsibility that must be assumed with great care and caution.

– Catalysts of optimism

– Champions of collaboration

– They transcend mere theory and are lived examples

– They don’t simply direct, but inspire

Egzihariya began by listing these beautiful definitions of an Agile Leader, expressing a sense of honor to share the stage with these three marvelous women leaders. The audience was also eager to hear their experiences and insights on the realities of agile leadership firsthand.

SAMRAWIT FIKRU, CEO, Hybrid Designs

As a woman in a male-dominated field, Samrawit  known for her infamous ‘RIDE’, faced many prejudices from the outset. The small stature she had as a young entrepreneur led many to doubt her abilities, but she refused to let her gender or physique stand in the way of her innovative ideas. In a society that often assumes only men can be truly innovative, Samrawit had to hide parts of herself at times in order to allow her ideas to flourish without being overshadowed by preconceptions about her. Yet, as she shared her accomplishments, the audience was left in awe, muttering “Yes, that was me” as they recognized the impact of her work.

When faced with disappointment and opposition, Samrawit did not let it defeat her. Instead, it fueled her triumph. Through RIDE and her other ventures, she has gone on to create platforms that empower youth, not just by providing jobs, but by cultivating the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders.

As Samrawit proudly declared, “We are not only creating jobs, but entrepreneurs, giving the youth the ability to use their creativity and indirectly influencing and leading practically.” 

 Semhal Guesh, CEO, Kabana Leather

“Female agile leaders embrace change, that is why I had three failed businesses and one that sustained… I tried and failed but learned from my mistakes to build a successful business Kabana that employees many… Semhal told the audience.

Semhal had begun Kabana during the time she studied architecture at EIABC. And you could see the female students who currently study there, as well as those outside, looking up to her, smiling from ear to ear as she has served as their inspiration for years. Bumpy road that tried to convince her to give up way too many times, Semhal’s stubborn mind found no relief in giving up. She defined “setback” as “a sign pointing her to keep going” in her dictionary. In all the weight that tried to sink her to the bottom of the ocean, she learned to swim with the weight on, but never to sink.

Semhal’s business did not only aim for riches at the end, but was infused with its own unique purpose. In a world where women especially, pregnant women, are shunned from the working world, Semhal shared her courageous action of employing these vulnerable women. She swore by supporting women and hiring female employees, helping them along the path towards common growth and success.

Currently the third biggest exporter of leather bags in Ethiopia, Semhal stands as another example of a woman who chose to ride the highs and lows of the bumpy road gliding effortlessly it seems the steep falls of the business world, until she reached the end she sought after. 

SELAMAWIT GIRMAY; Regional Director, Human Rights Monitoring and Investigation Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

“We started off by rushing to our classrooms, pushing to find a way inside just to get the front seats. That same drive to push forward has continued, as we now push towards life as well,” says Selamawit. Selamawit is not one to settle for injustice! She chose to study law continuing on the personality of a debater she already had. In the working world, even as many advised her to take the easier path of peace and comfort, Selamawit instead opted for the legal battlefield where children were the victims whose cries she was determined to echo. 

When the siren calling for wealth tried to tempt her, Selamawit remained steadfast, driven by a deep passion that answered her “why” – why she was doing this important work. That passion, sparked by an event in the courts, led Selamawit to stand firm even in the face of those who sought to push her down. At times, she found herself stuck in her memories as a pregnant mother, when the law and community showed no mercy, making false claims against her under the strict pressure of a system that should have supported her. Yet here she is today still embracing her passionate career, nurturing it like a child she wishes to see grow. Selamawit’s continues her commitment even in the face of adversity, making her a true example of a leader driven by purpose. 

Three stubborn, strong women sought success, not to wave it as a form of pride, but to use it as a rope to pull up those trapped in the bottomless pit. They had grown immune to constant rejection, befriending it and welcoming it as it surfaced throughout their journey.

The youth hungry for growth, the children in desperate need, the women struggling – all found relief in these women of solution. These leaders saw the unseen, the invisible, the cries that others had become desensitized to. They are the uplifters!

Questions flooded the room as the audience eager to learn more from these agile leaders, raised one question after another.

Q1. What kept you going even when the challenges seemed insurmountable?

Selamawit emphasized the importance of a supportive environment and a dedicated team. “Accepting the patterns of this world was truly important,” she said. “The challenges will always be there, but I’ve grown immune to them.” Samrawit added, “It makes me happy to see other people’s lives change for the better. That’s what keeps me going.”

Q2. What skills did you use to overcome these hardships?

“The ability to influence my team with my ideas, to pass on my passion – that’s what made the difference,” Selamawit shared. “I had to learn about team building and coaching, and I put those skills to use in building a strong, driven team.”

Q3. As women and mothers, how did you balance career and home life?

Samrawit’s advice was simple yet powerful: “Find the right partner, one who supports your goals and motivates you.” Selamawit admitted that at times, the balance was a challenge, but she made a conscious decision to prioritize her children, swearing that nothing would take time away from them.

Q4. How do you thrive in a competitive environment?

“I don’t believe there is competition in Ethiopia,” Semhal said confidently. “Be creative, always embrace change, and use our country’s export-driven economy to your advantage.”

As the program drew to a close, the speakers shared their final words of wisdom:

“Be bold! Boldness is good,” Selamawit encouraged.

Semhal urged the audience, “Be stubborn enough to push towards your dreams. Success may not come overnight, but it will come.”

And Samrawit’s parting advice: “When you dream, dream big!”

Egzihariya’s closing remarks marked the end of our program. As the participants bid farewell, they did so with a sense of hunger – hunger for knowledge, inspiration, and the chance to put into practice from the lessons they had learned. The day had been thrilling, a whirlwind of insights, wisdom, and the unwavering conviction of the women who shared their stories. Although our dearly awaited May Forum had come to a close, we leave longing to return, God willing, for another year of transformative experiences. We know that the lessons learned today is just the beginning.

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