Embodiment of Excellence and Congruency: Bilen Aynu
Anyone who is savvy of working outside of the office in a cozy and decent coffee shop knows Savor Addis. At the center of the city yet on a quiet street, the restaurant and café is accessible and a go-to space for remote workers. The spacious, well-lit rooms, range of treats and dining options, customer service, and the clean toilets elevate the mood for productivity. No wonder the success of the business is the reflection of the person behind it: Bilen Aynu.
Bilen founded Savor Addis five years ago as a returnee from the U.S. The independent consultant who works remotely recalls the uncomfortable feeling she had about coffee shops in Addis lacking clean restrooms, quiet and orderly space. But finding a space that met her expectation was not easy. It was then that she decided to create for others what she couldn’t find for herself; Savor Addis with its unique traits became a reality.
The business became groundwork to carry out Bilen’s lifetime passion in human development by providing employment opportunity. Harvesting the fruit of success with Savor, driven by her passion, building on her rich experience in the corporate world, and in partnership with her sister, she embarked on creating a scaled up co-working hotel: Adore Addis. The eight-floor building, which will open in a few weeks consists a co-shared working space, 25 small group meeting rooms, a health food store, and a world-class coffee shop. These accomplishments of the 39-year-old mother of three are not a result of an overnight fortune but faith, hard work, painful adjustments, intentional living and a solid childhood foundation.
The second of four siblings, Bilen was born and raised in Addis Ababa. Her parents were traders who jointly ran a small business in Piassa. Bilen’s childhood memory is filled with growing up with an older brother who showed his bossiness. The children were raised in a sheltered manner with time spent between school and home, and limited exposure except when they were either at their parents’ shop or on family vacations. Even school life was limited to the Sandford International School. Apart from managing their business, Bilen’s parents were highly involved in the upbringing of all the children. Bilen was sent to North America at age 16. Academic excellence was not an option for the parents. Towards the end of her second year, her parents moved to the U.S. for good following the loss of their business. Bilen pursued Management Information Systems and later a master’s degree at the University of Maryland in Strategic Information Management.
After graduation, Bilen started her career in the corporate world which was not designed for an immigrant black woman. Being an information system professional was not interesting to Bilen and she decided to further her education. However, life’s different twists and turns found Bilen as a married woman with children. Bilen stayed on her previously embarked path succeeding in the corporate ladder while raising her son. As the family grew, having a flexible working time became a priority. So, she started her own consulting business. She also made time to volunteer. Two years later the partners decided return to Ethiopia. Being back in Ethiopia didn’t hinder Bilen from remotely providing consultancy service in human capital and performance management, and Savor was born.
Bilen’s passion in life includes women empowerment and creating better future for orphans. This passion is linked with her life philosophy which she describes as, “I believe there is a designer who made me with a purpose…the purpose of life is giving back what I am given. And having an all-time learner attitude helps me to give back now and here.”
Staying true to herself and living transparently is a value Bilen holds dearly. She also understands time is a limited resource. She believes today is the time to do her best and be free from regret. Setting intentionally crafted priorities carried her to where she is now. That includes declining with grace and firmness anything that doesn’t align with her priorities. Life brought her to the point where she can say there is nothing that can be taken away from her for being herself.
Bilen defines success to be continuous growth—a journey not a destination. Success also means having the ability to do one’s best. The best example that describes her definition of success is the grading system at Sandford where efforts exerted carried equal weight as academic scores. “After all, the essence of who we are is neither the external nor our profession but who we are within.”
Bilen believes that she has accomplished a great deal for her age. But she is most proud of the fulfillment she found in motherhood and in the contributions she made by creating employment and supporting orphans. Savor Addis created employment opportunity for 70 individuals in which 80% are women. Bilen also promotes her house help to be employed at Savor. She envisions growing the staff to 300. She believes the most sustainable strategy to give back to her community is creating employment opportunities and contributing for the development of individuals.
A proponent of healthy eating, Bilen gives emphasis on the role of nutrition in brain development. She says any human development initiative must look into the crucial stage of brain development which is in the first two years. She asserts the businesses she sets up are always the extension of who she is as a person.
Bilen credits faith and relationship with God for her accomplishments and strength. She started searching spirituality at an early age and discovered that life is a balance. During the times her family went through the difficulty of losing their business, moving to the U.S., and loss of her elder brother, she recalls that faith helped her to be emotionally stable. She also recognizes the role of her parents for the solid foundation she has in her faith.
Bilen makes time to coach and mentor individuals. She focuses on helping individuals identify their vision in life, what their gaps are, and encourages them to believe in their potential to achieve their goals. Her approach in human development also contributes to low staff turnover in her business.
Bilen believes that she is a leader. In her definition, “Leadership is not a title. It’s the ability to make others be the person they are made to be. If you can inspire, influence, encourage and cheer up a person, you are a leader. It is a responsibility because once a person becomes an influencer, others (will) follow….”
For the younger generation, she encourages to consciously explore their passion and stay committed. With conscious soul searching and aligning your life with your passion, you will eventually become what you want to be.
Bilen is an AWiBer, part of the Female CEO Breakfast Club (FCBC). She has closely observed AWiB’s contribution in building the confidence of women to assume leadership roles. She would like to see AWiB working more on developing soft skills of members and investing in mentorship programs—a powerful tool.
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