The sixth annual AWiB’s May Forum with the theme “Strategic Leadership: Getting Where you Want to Be” began with an opening speech by Sewit Haileselassie, AWiB board member. The opening included an introductory video on AWiB and recognition of partners, sponsors, and other collaborators. The speaker introduced this year’s theme, Strategic Leadership and Collaborative Culture, stating that AWiB is a place of possibilities for herself and many women.

The speaker introduced the program for the sixth annual May Forum and concluded by emphasizing the importance of listening to the woman within before introducing the Keynote speaker; Yetnebersh Negussie who gave a brief presentation of her background and introduced the crux of her speech: DEAR – which stands for Determination, Empowerment, Adaptability and Riskmanagement.

She stressed the importance of paying attention to the big picture and not getting bogged down in details, networking and developing social intelligence within the context of the May Forum theme. She distinguished between being consumers versus being active contributors to the world and expressed the relevance of the roles each we play in this world.  Her speech was followed by  Q&A session with the audience.

The opening was followed by a networking session and the morning Parallel sessions kicked off after an hour of industrious networking by participants.

Women Supporting Other Women on the Path to Success

Dr. Sehin Teferra, Desset Abebe & Yoadan Tilahun held a panel discussing “Women supporting other women in the path to Success” moderated by Sewit Haileselassie, AWiB Board.

The moderator started off by asking the audience to consider how women can grow strong bonds and solidify sisterhood in the route to success and the role men play in this paradigm. The panelist were introduced as Desset Abebe, a gender equality advocate, Dr. Sehin Teferra, co-founder of Setaweet Movement and Yoadan Tilahun, owner and manager of Flawless Events. Each panelist then went on to make their respective perspectives on the importance of women supporting other women and the practical aspects of how it can be done.

Desset Abebe introduced “Sike”, an empowering stick passed from mother to daughter when she is married in the Oromia region. The stick is a part of women’s resistance and a symbol of solidarity as a part of the Geda system and typically found around Arsi and other Oromo regions. Desset then posed the question of why currently there are the highest number of women in parliament than any time in Ethiopian history but only 3 women in high levels of government.

Mentorship programs, informally or formally like the Amhara Region Women’s Issues Bureau that installed a mentorship program to ensure women can go up the ladder in the work place, are commendable. Desset emphasized that institutionalized mentorship is important for the propagation of conscious leadership.

Yoadan Tilahun began her opening remarks by stating that she grew up thinking she was a boy and did not face many challenges based solely on her gender. She stated that her feminist consciousness was awakened after joining groups like Setaweet and AWiB. As a business-woman, she looks at what a person does and if they are good at it. Most of the businesses she engages with are owned by women as a result of the gendered industry she currently works in, event management. This wasn’t a conscious decision, she had only looked for professionals that delivered quality product/service, not that they are women.

The flawless office is made up of 7 women and one man, who is the driver. She stated the importance of understanding each other’s needs and finding ways to work together better, where sisterhood has a chance to flourish. She also emphasized that most of her peers would be very happy to mentor younger women, and she herself has found it to be a humbling experience.

Dr. Sehin Teferra began introducing the Setaweet collective, established in partnership with Billene Seyoum. She introduced some of the activities Setaweet engages in terms of research work and discussion circles. She pointed out that being a woman isn’t always an important component of identity, perhaps because most identifiers have been given to women by the patriarchal system. If we want to be equal and move beyond identity politics, we need more sisterhood.

Dr. Sehin stated that is why feminism is important. She shared that Setaweet has created the ‘Setaweet way’, ensuring the conscious fostering of sisterhood. Setaweet’s work is to strategically support sisterhood. Setaweet works with other organizations like AWiB or the Yellow Movement of Addis Ababa University and broadening the reach of the movement. She discussed on method of promoting sisterhood that Setaweet implements, which is to Amplify – resonating things other women have also said, helping each other be heard, a practice adopted from women in the Obama administration.

She ended her speech by quoting Arundhati Roy – “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

This was followed by a question and answer session with the audience. Discussions included:

  • Sisterhood versus partnership in the business: Yoadan said as a business-woman she considers what is most profitable. If the quality of work is consistent she works exclusively with that person, regardless of gender. Looking for quality work instead of a gender based approach is better for business.
  • Setaweet’s work: currently working on a feminist curriculum to be used in high schools around the city, trying to spread the essence of collaboration between women. Setaweet has not begun working with grassroots movements but plans on doing so in the future. Setaweet is feminism in an Ethiopian context, not a western transplantation. They are actively trying to learn from “Sike” and other traditions distinctly Ethiopian. Setaweet has western influences since the west has had a long time to perfect feminism, especially in terms of articulation.
  • The Role of Men: the role of men is essential to the feminist movement and their input is necessary. After all, it’s easier for men to convince other men.
  • Mentorship: institutional mentorship can be very useful and the younger generation should actively seek help approaching women and openly asking for advice or guidance.
  • “How much do you love yourself?’ stressing the importance of self-love and making your voice heard about such a contentious issue. Women are told that they are exaggerating and the problems are dismissed offhanded.
  • Consciously looking to gender roles in our own homes, at work, on the streets and understanding how much burden the woman or the mother takes on helps us comprehend the differences that exist and the importance of fighting the all discrimination.
  • Making sure is not only a leader but a feminist leader is important. We must let feminism enter our homes. Every sexist comment deserves our attention and rebuttal.
  • Social movement: by definition social movements are for the privileged, the educated and have a chance to affect social change. Setaweet is working with schools and the media to reach a mainstream audience and the impact of media can be replicated. The Setaweet meetings are free and accessible to all women interested, which is why the working language is Amharic.
  • Humanism versus Feminism: Gender cannot be extricated from our identity and we are all organic or natural feminists. Dr. Sehin herself learned it from her grandmother. The way we speak to children, other women or in the ways we engage with men, we must be perfectly conscious, she insisted. Yoadan interjected that what you portray is what other people pick up on and that it’s okay to identify children by gender as long as it doesn’t come with other connotations. Desset also stressed the importance of open communication in spreading Feminism. “Patriarchy is our mother tongue” she quoted. Our language is marred by biased and sexist intentions and we must be conscious of them. It is our duty to empower every woman we come across.

Concluding remarks

  • Utilizing networking opportunities like AWiB or asking for recommendations about which women are available for mentorship and using resources available to us.
  • We must all be raising consciousness and asking ourselves about our own personal roles in society and in ensuring sisterhood and our responsibility to spread it as far as we can.
  • We must all support women that have faced gender-based violence and must speak up to injustice. She guessed that fear of feminism is most likely an issue of power sharing between men and women. Once we realize it isn’t about power, develop ourselves, shut down our egos and understand that our voice is equal to other female voices we can foster sisterhood and further the feminist cause.
  • Flawless Events as an example of working towards quality together and that anything is possible if we work together. If we take the responsibility to support sisterhood our power is unlimited.

“Connecting beyond Networking” with Yasser Bagersh of Cactus Advertising

Another parallel session on this year’s May forum was on “connecting beyond networking” hosted by Yasser Bagersh, an art curator and veteran stage actor/producer, currently running Cactus advertising as well as a string of high end and casual dining restaurants and moderated by Semhal Guesh, AWiB Board.

The session began with the first obvious question to ask was ‘what is networking?’. Yasser defined networking as being all about finding common interest, knowing people is not easy it requires diligence, care and deep understanding of what you want. It is important that when you make a connection it has to be real. So the next step is to know how to capitalize on our network. To do that you must follow seven simple steps:

  1. Knowing what you want.
  2. Knowing your audience; knowing them on a deeper personal level.
  3. Research.
  4. Finding your shared interests.
  5. Connect.
  6. Hook.
  7. Cement your relationship; as networking needs further follow up.

The best strategy is to connect with a center of influence (COI).  A center of influence is someone who has a really big network, who is powerful and connects with everyone. However, connecting with a center of influence is far more complicated because they are not found everywhere, they are usually in demand and sought after and they are always on the move surrounded by people.

Therefore, it requires a smoother approach. Thus, we need to understand them deeply. This may involve finding out where they work, where they spend their after hours, what they enjoy and most importantly finding out what they NEED. Then after our research, we have to ask ourselves can we supply that need? If so, we may even need to plan how to talk to them.  While going with this approach, it is important that we make a lasting first impression and we must never forget to be ourselves!

Conclusion: networking is not just about furthering our careers; it is far more than that, networking is about making that human bond and making a human connection that can change your life.

“The Art of Shameless Self Promotion” by Hellen Fissihaie

“The Art of Shameless Self Promotion” was led by Hellen Fissihaie and moderated by Metasebia Shewaye Yilma, AWiB President Elect. Hellen started by  sharing her objective as a speaker on the subject of shameless promotion i.e. debunk the myth that self-promotion has anything to do with shame – a soul eating emotion that prevents moving forward. The shame that we associate with self-promotion is rooted in childhood messages i.e. those lessons, advice and generally accepted norms immediate and extended family members instill in us in our formative years.

Eventually, we end up carrying this huge burden on our backs that we wouldn’t even recognize we have. If we don’t consciously do something about it, this would determine our self-esteem and thereby how we cope – through denial- in the face of personal crisis. Shame makes us feel less than our true selves. It keeps us small, plain and simple.  So, if we want to move forward, according to Hellen, we have to be authentic in learning about ourselves.

The speaker then shared her experience in seeking the support of a life coach who asked her some tough questions. These questions and the self –discovery that came along with the sessions – sometimes deeply emotional and revealing – helped her in identifying her own shame triggers and the reasons behind these triggers.  It also helps if we can identify our physical reaction to shame triggers. For example, a faster heartbeat, shaky voice & sweaty palms.  That being the first and relatively easy step, it is important to continue asking the tough question of “how do we get past this?”

One of the unexpected but pleasant outcomes of this inquiry may be that our shame triggers can turn into our greatest champions who would help us to push forward in times of hardship. While shame is currently haunting us because we may believe humility and modesty are virtues, it is equally important to own our own power. How? Through knowing our self-worth and constantly developing ourselves. She mentioned that every leader and spiritual book tell us about the importance of self-worth. The important questions that we need to ask ourselves, therefore, are:

  • Is this shame real?
  • Will it kill me, destroy my career or business?
  • Are there facts to back it up?
  • What opportunities would I be missing on, if I continue to feel this shame?

In answering these questions, it may help to talk to someone who has our best interest at heart because they may have a more realistic input that we can use to answer our questions.  It is also worth mentioning that we are usually stuck in a loop of negativity because we are very self – critical. Our negative self-talk far outweighs recognition of our unique strengths. Therefore, we have to change our self-talk in to a more positive tone through self-acceptance and forgiveness.

Strategies to overcome shame include:

  • Understand shame roots
  • Recognize triggers
  • Practices self-compassion, self-love and non-judgment
  • Challenge shameful thoughts
  • Give yourself permission to move forward
  • No double layers of shame
  • Accept love, kindness and help
  • Practice forgiveness
  • Above all, recognize that FEELINGS are not FACTS.

Through self-acceptance and dedication to constantly improve ourselves, we can acknowledge the shame we feel shamelessly and redesign our thinking into  “I can do so much to change the things I don’t like about myself”. Knowing what makes us shameful is half way to solving the problem because it helps us to be fully present & ready to put our shame in perspective and respond appropriately.  It is inevitable that we may find shortcomings in ourselves but the key is to recognize them for what they are, learn from them and move on. It takes consistent practice and effort to do this and here are some tools to help us be an unapologetically ourselves.

  • Believe in yourself first and recognize your crown
  • Invest in you and speak power
  • Find your tribe – your support system
  • Set growth expectation

Some Marketing tips shared were

  • Get it together, set up a winning foundation
  • Know your audience and plan for the long term game
  • Know your value
  • Build strong visuals
  • Build a following, a brand
  • 3 Ps – Position to Prove so you can Prosper
  • Metrics Matter
  • Leverage relationships and opportunities
  • Have a sell in Mind.

Helen concluded her session by sharing positive affirmations for getting rid of shame and lives a fulfilling life. The participants were then given a challenge to come up with their own affirmations and stick them where they are constantly, prominently visible.

Women in Lead: The Trials, Tribulations & Joy of Building an Empire

After a day of networking and stimulating sessions, AWiB’s sixth annual May forum ended its program with an afternoon session entitled “Women in Lead: the Trials, Tribulations & Joy of Building an Empire”.  The session provided a rare, humbling look at the lives of three women, Hadia Gonji of Hadia Seed Production, Tseday Asrat of Kaldis Coffee, and Frehiwot Worku, CEO of Red Cross Ethiopia facilitated by Sara Tadiwos, AWiB Board. Each unique in their endeavors and true pioneers of the Ethiopian business sector, breaking gender barriers, creating work opportunities and paving the paths for future generations to follow, these women shared their testimonials of the challenges they faced and the successes they acquired.

Frehiwot Worku

Born into an educated middle class family, as the only girl to her three siblings, Frehiwot grew up always wanting to help others. As a teenager she got the chance to go to the rural areas as part of the government’s educational program called “abiyot” (Revolution during the Derg). There she met her husband and went into hiding as a pregnant 11th grader. After giving birth to her first son she went to live at her husband’s family house where she faced the challenge of co-habiting with twelve of his siblings. Frehiwot attributes her journey in management as beginning in those years; she remembers having to delegate errands and dividing house chores amongst the siblings in the house and planning out schedules for all.

Her journey continued overseas as her husband received a scholarship to a masters program and they both left to begin their new life. She worked as a babysitter to provide the funds for the family and also pursued her master’s degree. She managed motherhood, employment and as a supporting wife would even type her husband’s papers for his thesis submission. She claims to have learned the significance of time management and the importance of planning out your day and making sure every minute counts for a successful and productive life.

After completing her master’s degree, she began her plans for moving back to Ethiopia. Hired at Ethiopian Airlines, Frehiwot worked her way from trainee to director in her twenty-one years of service to the airlines. Apart from her daily job requirements she created various programs for the children airline staff, including building a children’s library. She also created platforms for the management team and the general staff to regularly assemble with the aim to build stronger bonds amongst the employees and strengthen team spirit.

Frehiwot’s true passion and desire was always towards social and communal services and so she resigned from her position at Ethiopian Airlines and began her humanitarian journey at the Ethiopian Red Cross. There, she says, she faced some of the most challenging and extremely difficult obstacles that she had to work through to get to where she is now. Having made crucial changes that improved the efficiency of the association; she prides herself in the state it is currently in, acknowledging the hard work and dedication she put in.

Frehiwot spoke of the importance of viewing every challenge and given responsibility as an opportunity for growth. She stressed that we must first focus on our desires, plan out our goals and work diligently with commitment to see them through. In her closing remarks, she spoke of her daily trials to maintain her professional work life and her personal life as a wife and mother of three, always trying to find the necessary balance. Although not easy, Frehiwot says, nothing is impossible once you make a decision.

Tseday Asrat

Tseday began her talk with an appreciation and pride for her four children. She has been married for sixteen years to a husband who has supported her throughout her astonishing ride from fashion to coffee. She shared that she grew up with a fashion sense and professionally modeled for 5 years after high school before registering herself into ticketing and reservation training to work as a travel agent. She later opened a boutique and after meeting her husband and after marriage and the birth of their first child, she found herself on the verge of opening a second branch.

Tseday recalls her first challenge as the day she was served with a notice to vacate her boutique store within a week. With a second baby on the way, although she had just been handed a difficult task, she pushed forward in search of a location with the very little time she had. After talking it through with her husband, the decision was made that, instead of a second boutique store, a café would be more beneficial. While away on maternity leave in America, Tseday researched the café industry, contemplating on the idea of buying a franchise name and opening that back home. With no replies from all her attempts to many top coffee store chains, Tseday continued her research into her new business venture when she came across the story of the very first farmer who introduced Ethiopian coffee to the world, named Kaldi. She had just figured out the name for her café!

So with a new goal set and the generous help of a family friend for the necessary funds needed in haste, Tseday was able to open up her first Kaldis coffee shop with all of the design elements, furnishing requirements and appropriate staff hired; all this while awaiting her birth due date. After thirteen years since her first launch, thirty-three branches throughout the city of Addis Ababa, and five branches currently set to open by September of this year.

Tseday seemed flawless in her demeanor when speaking of the hardships she’s faced along the way. She spoke of the difficulty in managing people and working with the banking system in Ethiopia and maintaining the quality standard of Kaldis’ products and services. When discussing her many challenges she mentioned one her greatest obstacle and how she transformed it into yet another business opportunity. Because maintaining her supply chains were proving difficult, she opted to open up two more sister companies to Kaldis, one that directly bought and sold coffee on the Ethiopian stock exchange and another that provided her with her own line of milk and dairy products.

Now Tseday has a workforce of 1800 behind her growing empire. She is also working on opening a branch in Dubai. Kaldis, in collaboration with the government’s youth development initiation, has created a training program where it receives youths from the government to be trained on hospitality, service and leadership. Kaldis also provides charitable volunteering services to a Diabetics Association, in addition to a percentage of the branches’ entire macchiato proceeds being donated for Type-1 diabetic patients, usually children.

Tseday also discussed the discipline she has when planning out her week and prioritizing her activities for both her professional duties and her personal life. Interestingly she mentioned how she works as a waiter at any given branch once a week, undercover, assessing the branch’s customer services and quality assurance. Even though the workload is overwhelming and balancing her roles can be trying, Tseday still finds the time to participate in short courses and trainings, and views challenges as ‘life’s flavors’ she says.

Hadia Gonji

Born and raised in the town of Dire Dawa, Hadia says she grew up when the town was flourishing and highly invested by foreigners. This provided her the rare opportunity to go to a French primary school, later on continuing her high school education at the French Lycee Gebremariam in Addis. Hadia attributes most of her leadership qualities, her work motivation and inspiration from her father’s influence. He saw her as one of his sons and took pride in her strength and free will and he believed in her potential for success, especially in her education.

After her time in Addis, Hadia moved back to Dire Dawa and began working at the railroad authority office, also known as “Chemins de fer” in French. She got married and soon afterwards, was offered a scholarship to France for her diploma and left Ethiopia to complete her studies. Upon her return she went back into the railroad industry in Addis and with the birth of her first child, began to look at other career ventures with more pay. She was hired at the Moroccan embassy as a secretary.

She remembers placing English as one of her spoken languages at the time when in fact she had no English experience. With the help of her husband and a dictionary, she thought herself and somehow managed to get through her job requirements. After six years of service and a second child, she moved up and got hired at the ECA and at the time because of the country’s political unrest, she left the country leaving her kids behind with her mother. While abroad she joined the UNDP environmental program after training in Portugal for six months and receiving her “diplomatic” status as a translator and secretarial administrator.

She got remarried and began to work at her husband’s transportation company in Nairobi. Two years later she decided to move back to Ethiopia with the hopes of opening such a transportation service in her country as well. Unfortunately the process was not easy nor was it considered a ‘female’ industry and thus she faced tremendous challenges trying to establish herself.

She worked various ventures in-between from the trading industry, the agricultural sector, to participating in government tenders, all the while assessing the market and establishing connections with different organizations and people that would later aid her in her personal mission. She spoke of her challenges and obstacles with a sense of defiance, nothing was too difficult, too impossible for her to aspire towards. Headstrong and self-willed Hadia managed to break gender barriers in an industry predominantly male. Hadia later became not only the first female but, the first person, to open up Ethiopia’s first private transportation fleet service provider.

The event was concluded with remarks from AWiB President Elect, Metasebia Shewaye Yilma.