Billene Seyoum Woldeyes – Inspiring through Grace and Willpower

Billene Seyoum Woldeyes,

Inspiring through her speeches,thought-provoking through her power of writing, steadfast in her organizational skills and enthusing commitment through her sense of service, AWiB celebrates its outgoing 2013 President, Billene Seyoum Woldeyes. In this Spotlight article, we discover more of this multi-talented, versatile leader.

Billene’s Background

Born in Addis Ababa and spent her formative years in Harare, Zimbabwe. She finished high school here and did two years of college in Marketing Management at the Addis Ababa Commercial University College and moved to Canada later on. Billene returned to Addis Ababa three years ago and currently residing in Addis.

Billene also received a BA in International Relations from the University of British Colombia, Canada. She then completed her MA in Gender and Peacebuilding at the United Nations Mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. She has recently completed her MA in Peace Studies/ Conflict Transformation at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

Having a multidisciplinary background with extensive experience in project coordination, Billene worked in both for-profit and non-profit sectors beginning her career at age 19 as a Business Development & Marketing Officer at a software development and integration firm headquartered in California, and with African operations in Ethiopia and Nigeria. She managed her first project at age 20, overseeing the installation of VSAT satellite systems in Addis Ababa and five remote locations in Ethiopia for the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority. Thereafter, Billene began a career in human capacity building working as Clinical Training Coordinator for MA students studying Adlerian Counselling Psychology and also within the recruitment division in Vancouver, Canada.

Billene has also worked in a coordination role in support of founders of Enat Bank S.C on activities leading up the General Assembly and continued human capacity building engagement as Training & Education Coordinator at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies – Africa Peace and Security Program. This is a joint initiative between the Institute and the African Union Peace and Security Department, with the aim of developing the capacity of African senior level peace and security professionals coming from AU member states, civil society, African Union Commission and Regional Economic Communities.

Currently, Billene is engaged as a consultant on the AGP – AMDe project of ACDI-VOCA, focused on content development and management of their knowledge portal. The AGP-AMDe project targets building the capacity and productiveness of small-holder farmers in Ethiopia.

For the past two years, Billene has served in AWiB’s Board. In 2013 she led as the Association’s President, being responsible for publicizing events, actively networking and forging crucial partnerships. Her roles and duties also included, amongst many others, organizing and publicizing public monthly events for the association, leading the partnership drive, leading activities for AWiB’s two major annual events, the May Public Forum and Women of Excellence Event, and leading activities with AWiB Board members.

Conversation with Billene

A few questions were shared with Billene, to discover her thinking and worldview, what motivates her and reflections on her recent experiences within AWiB and beyond. Here are her answers in integral form:

  1. What organization founded or co-founded and what was your aim in doing so?

Co-formed a spoken-word poetry collective called Zemneged-Andinet – ‘from a place of unity’ in 2011 comprised of both English and Amharic writing poets who believe in words as a medium of artistic expression. The collective is a platform for poets/written word performers in Addis Ababa created with the purpose of mutual support in the artistic and professional development of spoken word performers; to publish, promote and market members’ works through different channels; to perform in venues throughout Addis and aspires to go beyond. Members of the collective including myself now perform once a month at JAMS Addis.

  1. How do you define your commitment in life? How do you give back to the community?

My commitment in life is driven primarily by delivering on responsibility that I have assumed. As a task oriented person it’s important for me to finish through something I have accepted to take on. I’m very discerning on what to take on and not afraid of saying ‘No’ if I don’t foresee myself being able to deliver. The guiding principle for me is seeing something through and I feel strongly about closing circles and not leaving them open.

In giving to the community I do so through devoting time and energy to causes I believe in. Writing is my strongest asset and so I have been blogging at since the beginning of 2011 bringing awareness and focus on women’s and gender issues I strongly believe in.

3. In your view, what is your most important accomplishment?

Primarily pursuing my education this far. I come from a family that believes in education strongly and I love the learning process in all its forms. So staying the course through the tumultuous journey of finishing two MA’s is something I celebrate. Secondly, taking on the reigns of AWiB Presidency and being of service to a great mission and objective has been quite an achievement I am grateful for where the expectations and stakes were high. It has been challenging, fulfilling, turbulent at times yet through and through, to have led this Association for the past year is an honor I will carry for a long time as I strongly believe in the AWiB Effect.

4. Can you share about a challenge you had in your life, one that made you grow, and what you learned from it?

I consider challenges to be transformative experiences rather and so in that sense a phase in my life that really transformed me and made me grow as an individual is my learning experience while in my second grad school. Most education systems do not challenge the student to critically assess their individual role in a system. All problems are externalized and the student is ‘taught’ to ‘solve’ that problem exclusive of his/her role in that problematic dynamic. The learning structure, challenging discussions, various workshops that engage one to deconstruct basic assumptions and physically demanding training I encountered with the Austrian Army among many other exercises in the program, challenged me to reflect on my own assumptions, beliefs and actions I hold that affect a system. Additionally, I became very aware of my strengths and weaknesses and my boundaries as an individual. In essence, what I have learned and continue to embrace is the belief that everything starts with an individual and one’s conscious awareness of one’s actions and behaviors is crucial to any positive change both internal and external to the individual.

5. What are the most memorable moments of your time at AWiB so far, especially as President?

The President’s role at AWiB is multi-faceted and demanding in nature. In essence, all moments are quite memorable. Yet those that stand out greatly are:

  1. Collaboratively winning over annual partners at the beginning of the year who came to believe in how AWiB is a positive change agent
  2. The power of co-creating with members of the Board
  3. A highly attended forum in May at the UNECA
  4. Sold out tickets to a memorable Women of Excellence Gala in October for more than 500 attendees
  5. Our collaborative event with AWEP demonstrating solidarity and the power of collaboration with other women’s organizations in Ethiopia

6. What leisure time activities are you involved with? (You are also known for writing poetry and engaging in activities that promote gender equality)

I absolutely love hiking and trekking and seize opportunities to do so whenever I can. I consistently write poetry and now perform every month. However, writing poetry is not a leisurely activity for me – rather it is a continuous artistic exhalation to that endured and experienced in the inner realm. [Billene has been writing since the age of 12].

7. What have you learned over your lifetime that you’d like to share with the younger generation?

I’m still learning and consider myself a perpetual student of life. But from my 32 years so far I have learned:

  1. That no one can take your inherent power unless you choose to give it away – consciously or unconsciously
  2. Writing is a powerful tool and exercise – writing down own intentions, aspirations, capturing moments, reflections.
  3. Courage is defined by the extent to which you can live out of the norm staying true to your beliefs and principles.
  4. At the end of the day you face no one but yourself, your conscious and your God so whatever you do let it pass through the sensitivity test of all three and if it sits well with all three – then do it despite other external voices and comments.
  5. Don’t underestimate the potential to draw at least one lesson from every encounter and to be aware when there is none to learn.
  6. Nothing in life is permanent. The extent to which you are malleable enough to accommodate change and accept uncertainty determines how content you can be.
  7. Be more open to experiences and seek ideas that make you uncomfortable as the comfortable is exactly meant to keep you that way – comfortable. The region of discomfort is where the growing happens.
  8. Friends are the family you choose so choose them well so that your friendship is a source of support, authenticity and depth that float you through the wildest wave.

8. What are you most grateful for in your life?

  1. My parents and two brothers who are a constant source of joy and laughter.
  2. Choice, and my ability to act on it
  3. Experiences that challenge me
  4. Difficult people for it is through such encounters I have learned more about myself

9. Anything else you would like to share?

I consider myself a feminist and not afraid to claim the word despite the perception it draws in people’s minds. In this regard, I encourage people to seek to understand before concluding.

When asked Billene what she sees for herself five years from now, through what appeared to be a dreamy look, the clear words that followed were: ‘Pursuing my PhD and publishing a book.’ Indeed, it is known that Billene postponed the process to begin a PhD to serve as AWiB President, something, she asserts, she has gladly done for the year 2013, as serving as President also involved ‘an action oriented and focused research into leadership.’

Billene the Colleague

AWiB members, associates and Board colleagues, on several occasions, have shared what they admire about Billene, or ‘Bilu’, as she is affectionately called. Some of her qualities notice include: encouraging participation in decision-making, and yet being decisive at an executive level at crucial times, being able to integrate transformative practices and methodologies in her work, and being committed to hold collaborative relationships with partners and like-minded organizations.

Many have also noticed Billene’s refined elegance and contagious smile.

As the AWiB leadership role is now handed over to another dynamic lady, Seble Hailu, AWiB Board members extend much gratitude to Billene for an exciting year of activities, serving the organization’s purpose and its members with high momentum, relevance, professionalism and commitment.

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