AWiB Presents HER Gems recap

After months of pause, AWiB broke the COVID norm by resuming its monthly program at Hilton Hotel. Every year, AWiB showcases HER members through their stories. The Gems are women who have a compelling story to tell. They are like-minded individuals who have unique stories. Yodit, AWiB’s energetic senior project coordinator, opened the program with a bang…acknowledging AWiB’s courage to break the mold. She started by acknowledging AWiB’s partners: Amba Pharmaceuticals, CBE, UNWOMEN, Impala Communication, Peniel Industry PLC, and Yetem Trading. The evening’s program was sponsored by Zay Ride. One of the representatives of Zay Ride, Netsanet, was in the audience. Yodit asked her to come forward for a brief introduction of the company. Netsanet asked if anyone from the audience knew what the word Zay meant. The room was filled with silence. She explained that it came from Zeway Island, where different languages are spoken and the locals traveled with boats. Zay Ride has over 10,000 cars and are branded with pink and green colors. Their call center is 6303 and they also have a mobile application that helps customers not just book rides, but also flights. Zay Ride supports women as pointed out in their hiring policies – 75% are women employees. The company is working on several big projects that they plan to unveil to the community. AWiB extends its appreciation for making the evening’s program possible.

Yodit invited our speakers of the evening—AWiB’s Gems: Kemer Temam, Semhal Guesh and Abigeya Getachew to the stage. The audience that was itching to hear these ladies’ stories received them with resounding applause.

Kemer leads two companies: as an export manager at Yesea Import and Export which is a family business and an operation manager at Barsebe Industires. She is also a mother of three and AWiB’s president for 2021. Semhal is founder & CEO of Kabana Leather, a start-up company that produces a wide variety of handmade leather products and is a past AWiB board member. Abigeya serves as a reform coordinator for the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia and assistant to the Chief Justice. Abigeya also leads the PR committee of AWiB’s 2020 board.

Semhal graduated as an architect in 2014 from Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC). She joined Tower Consulting and Engineers PLC in 2014 and stayed for two and a half years. She had no intention of leaving the field when she started small businesses with six of her friends on the side in 2012. They had an event company named Arkystk Events Plc, a meeting planning company focusing on conference tourism. Afterwards, along with two other friends, she started a promotional and other smaller leather items company. Unfortunately the business failed; that led her to bankruptcy. Semhal was broken but not down… she marched on. Her first inclination was to go back to her trained profession but her former employees’ belief in her and their unwavering support prompted her to resume the business – this time on her own. Although she couldn’t pay them, some of her employees didn’t give up on her. They even agreed to work with no pay for two months. This is a true testament to her character and motivated Semhal tremendously.

It took time but with the support of those loyal friends—her employees included—she rose from the ashes and in 2017 started Kabana Leather. She expressed her love for the Ethiopian leather because it has more texture, more colors and more genuine and natural than other country’s’ leather. It also creates empowerment and employment since employees are proud to work with their own country’s product. She coined “Kabana” from the Tigrigna language meaning “Kegna” (from us). When she hired her first employee, Semhal found out the employee not only used her salary for herself but to also pay for her little sister’s schooling. Semhal realized that the income from her company went to supporting family members. She wanted to bring about change and economic empowerment through her company. Semhal saw changes in her employees and their families for the opportunity given by Kabana, which motivates her to do even more and expand the company.

Semhal has been in business for over eight years. She stated challenges are endless but they will always keep you focused. Hiring 80% women and training makes the challenges minimal. In October 2019, she had 80 employees and 64 of them were women. Currently, her staff has increased to 136, 80% women. She now knows she can overcome any challenges that come her way because she has made it through seemingly insurmountable hurdles in the past and believes she’ll keep succeeding. Semhal is a very passionate woman who loves developing her human capital and designing unique leather products. She celebrates every little accomplishment. As a responsible company that hires more women, Kabana decided to support the female workers by establishing a daycare center in the community. Kabana not only enables its’ employees but also the second generation. They do this by providing child support in the form of paying school fees, providing diapers, milk and the like. That’s when she realized she was achieving her goals and they’re worth celebrating. The goals she achieved were bringing change to the women in the factory through training, exporting quality products and changing the narratives of women in manufacturing. Her next goals are making Kabana the biggest brand and manufacturer on the continent. “We celebrate the human achievements more than the work, but I know it needs balance.” One human achievement was that seven of her employees have started their own businesses because her mentorship. Another achievement is providing support for women living in shelters and hiring them, giving them opportunities to be economically independent. These women have been given the necessary training to advance their career within Kabana. Semhal has taken Kabana from one employee to 136, from a local to an international brand. Kabana went from a small manufacturing space to a large one and created a training center.

Semhal has had growing pains like being second-guessed for being a woman in the manufacturing industry. Because it is a man’s world she had to push to get what she wanted. For this reason, she tries to make her 105 women employees bolder by encouraging them to discuss their concerns in life. Semhal, representing Kabana, has won awards such as Young Female Entrepreneur in 2018, recognition for training refugees and immigrants by the Ethiopian government through a project called “Since Project,” a three-way partnership between EU, Ethiopian Governmental Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and Private companies. Kabana was also given a grant from the MasterCard Foundation along with 11 other companies in June, 2020. It is an important company since it exports its products and therefore brings hard currency to the country.

Abigeya expressed excitement for working with the first woman Chief Justice in the country, including being under the watchful eyes for the woman to fail. The salient character of the Chief Justice that Abigeya is appreciative of is her strong belief in dialogue and entertaining different ideas. “Working at the Federal Supreme Court, every activity dealt here has a direct impact.” When she worked at other institutions, she didn’t see the direct impact it had on peoples’ lives. Abigeya’s daily routine includes prioritizing the activities of the day, giving briefings and updates to the Chief on completed activities. She is given assignments such as following up on directors, partners and the like. Since joining, Abigeya and her team have increased effectiveness by introducing communication by email between inter-office and inter-department. There was no communication before. They also set up a case flow management system, court led mediation, created a system for court etiquette, a program to increase and empower women judges and experts, etc. Her most significant contribution is anchoring cultural and systemic change, starting from the smallest tasks like email communication to bigger projects like coordinating the Free Reform Project with several activities that will be completed in three years. Abigeya said she has learned how to deal with different personalities and perspectives. However, there is a downside to this position. “When you’re a woman at the leadership (level), people always question you and you’re the subject of scrutiny.” The judiciary is a very conservative, hierarchical institution tightly governed by traditions and dominated by men. But because the Chief Justice is an ardent women’s rights advocate she is opening doors for women. Abigeya and her team have set up a program for senior-junior mentorship for woman judges so that more women can come up the ladder.

Abigeya defines success as living out your purpose including uplifting others and creating space for growth. She also said we should serve the current generation including preserving the Earth for future generations and to have a generational perspective – thinking outside oneself. Her success is attributed to several factors, but she narrowed them down to two major ones. The first being the wisdom, council and encouragement she got from ancient scriptures. The second is people who believed in her and gave her the opportunity to grow. The audience cheered at the mention that Abigeya was raised by strong independent women—her mother and grandmother.

As AWiB board member, Abigeya got the opportunity to work with women who are as passionate and ambitious as she is. Being part of the PR team is exciting for her because everyone is energetic and they are open to give back. She’s learning and growing. In her spare time, Abigeya mentors and guides college students about life and the moral compass of leading life as independent individuals. She invests and spends time with the younger generation because she believes they are the ones who will run the world tomorrow.

Kemer expressed the difficulties of joining her family’s business as a woman for she had to prove herself before given the leadership position. What she learned from this experience, Kemer says, is as a woman even in a family business she was treated as a second-class citizen unlike her brothers.

Kemer comes from a community where girls are married off at a young age, her family was no different; her sisters were the victim of this practice. She is the only one in her family and extended family to have a college degree. Whenever this subject is brought up it upsets her because young girls lose their freedom of choice. All the choices are made by the husband and they don’t know what the world has to offer. She has started a book club with the young girls in her family where they talk about a variety of subjects to show them how big the world is. Her hope is that they aspire bigger things and achieve more. “It’s rewiring their thought process,” said Kemer. She wants to extend this rewiring thought process through her community. She wishes to reach out to other girls so they can choose what they want in life.

Kemer states that it’s not easy to juggle many responsibilities: running a business, serving on AWiB’s board (which demands more than other boards) and being a mother of three. Nevertheless, she manages all of her responsibilities excellently. Kemer is detail-oriented and always plans her day. She manages her time by delegating and therefore empowering her employees. ”When we say empower your employees it seems like it is for them but it is also for you because it gives you room to do other tasks,” says Kemer. The audience agreed. She communicated how satisfying it is to find out what employees are truly capable of if they are given room to be independent and creative. Kemer is passionate and thrilled about self-development the change that was brought as a result. She’s also passionate about growth, women empowerment and transformation. “I became empowered by joining the AWiB tribe. AWiB has changed my attitude and the way I see life itself. Kemer says “When you take ownership, you become accountable to yourself, your decisions and the choices you make.” She asserts joining AWiB was a determining factor for her outlook on life. When she became a board member, her creativity was challenged tremendously and she was taught to be solution-oriented which she has also applied to her work.

The moderator asked the speakers what message they would share with their younger selves, knowing what they know now.
Kemer began with two points: negotiate your space; step up, be bold. As women we avoid taking more responsibilities as we lack self-confidence and we miss opportunities. “I’ve learned that the hard way.” said Kemer. The second is to embrace failure. …When we’re afraid to fail, we stop trying and so we stop growing; learn from your mistakes and move on.”

Abigeya agreed with Kemer saying it’s ok to fail. She said we are all unique in our own way so embrace who you are. “Accept that life isn’t a sprint but a marathon that you do in small paces so enjoy the journey and everything that comes in between.”
Semhal stressed giving more time for family and to not shun confrontation. When we are at a painful moment of our lives we focus on unimportant things. We get so tied up with our day-to-day activities that we lose sight of our vision. She says to always look at the bigger picture.

Q1. What Ethiopian tradition do you believe helped you most to succeed? What advice would you give to women to shake off the dust and become a bright star? How do you motivate your staff?

Semhal: I like the word “Ayzosh.” You have community support when you’re going through a rough time. There’s always a support system ready to help you for anything, especially if you’re a woman. My advice for staying strong is to look for a source of energy in others… look for those people who can be your energy, your support system. Semhal was emotional when reminiscing back at her struggles when first business failed and the people who didn’t give up on her. She suggests we should be selective who we trust especially in hard times. “When you’re weak your decision-making process is blurred. You can’t do everything at once so take it one step at a time.”

Kemer said she motivates her employees by acknowledging their potential, by showing that she cares, by smiling and showing a welcoming face, by trusting. She said when you trust they will be moved to be the best they can.

Q2. How could our society be more involved with women and how do we change the patriarchal system in the next couple decades?

Semhal: Most women are submissive therefore don’t reach their potential. Our society has created a dogma about what a male and female can do. I strive to be a better human—not as a man or a woman. We should change our mindsets.

Abigeya: “We have to create opportunities. Opening doors to women isn’t taking it away from men but widen the space. Let’s engage men and women together. When a woman is assertive she is seen as aggressive but if something deserves a ‘No’ then say it. This isn’t a male or female role.

Yodit added that it’s very important to take time to tell the youth to keep asking questions and be themselves. We have to make sure to be there for young women so they grow strong.

In their closing remarks, Semhal said to push forward because being a woman isn’t a hindrance or a bottleneck. For the women who are hidden behind their husband’s façade and cultural norms, to be loud enough to say “We can do it!” Let us speak about injustice and equality. Let us also join AWiB and contribute to our society. Let us be an example for younger generations as well.

Abigeya affirmed that we should contribute on our own as well as together. “Let us create a critical mass to influence and to change the dynamics. We start from our families and friends. We need to normalize seeing people as people.

Kemer said let’s work to change the status quo. She ended by expressing how AWiB has allowed her to claim herself and gave her an opportunity to grow. “We were created for greatness. We are here to serve and make the world a better place.”

The crowd erupted with applause marking the end of the event, the audience moved and deep in thought from stories of challenges and triumphs.

The AWiB Team

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