Planting Joy, Producing Numbers: Eleni Gabre-Madhin (PhD)

If you have heard the peach tree-to-pie story, you know it is unforgettable.  It makes you smile big and bright, just as the one who it is about flashes her pearly whites:  Eleni Gabre-Madhin (PhD).  Eleni is Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of blueMoon Ethiopia, the nation’s first youth agribusiness/agritech incubator and seed investor.

Born in Addis Ababa, Eleni remembers a wonderful childhood.  Her mother was a huge force who influenced her.  Eleni’s father worked for the UN and the family lived in six different countries.  When they moved to New York, she quickly learned English at 4-years-old.  She picked up French at her school in Kigali, Rwanda.  Swahili came to her through attending a boarding school in Kenya.  She wasn’t happy with the frequent travel at the time, but later in life she realized it taught her to be adaptable and flexible; she realized its power and appreciates it.

Eleni was exposed to diplomacy and development early on, and this had a massive impact on who she became.  She got to see up-close how the UN worked.  When the family entertained guests, everyone had a task; 12-year-old Eleni’s main duty was to chat with ambassadors and other dignitaries.  These precious moments are what she credits for becoming very conversant and expressive with her ideas.  Eleni got to see how colonialism affected Africa as the family visited and lived in communities around the continent.  She truly got the pan-African perspective, especially in her high school years.

While in high school in the early 80s, Eleni found a gem in her father’s library:  How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney.  With vital information soaked, she felt compelled to create her 10-year-plan.  Eleni decided to be a development economist, gain her PhD in Agricultural Economics, find African solutions to African issues, and write a book.  While it took a few more years than planned, she accomplished exactly what she set out to do!

Eleni speaks of wanting to belong—of this continent…of this country.  She also speaks of never discounting what young people dream about.  She feels blessed to see her path so clearly at such a young age.  Eleni has a PhD in applied economics from Stanford University and an MSc in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University. 

When her parents separated, Eleni saw even more of what kind of woman her mother is—a supremely feminine being who radiated perseverance and was a role model for many as a woman who “made it.”  Eleni’s mother gave her insight on the possibility and power of being beautiful and smart.

“Economics had a window into putting all the pieces together for development,” Dr. Eleni said of how she came to choose such a focus.  With no women economics professors in her educational path, her parents’ support helped her stay on course.  For her strength of character, Eleni acknowledges her parents, and how and where she grew up.  Her father being extremely positive, forward-looking, and having essential practices such as his hour-long walks… her mother’s combination of intelligence, beauty, and strength… all reflect her success.

Success means to fulfill the purpose we are here for, Eleni said.  She is most proud to have had the conviction to create a “unique solution,” which impacted millions of lives—the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX).  The founder and former CEO of ECX said the chance to identify a problem and find solutions is gratifying.  Fear sometimes stops you, but, “When the light shone on me, I stepped up to it,” she said.  Now at blueMoon, “To be on this side and say, ‘Yes, you can do it!’” is a continuation of Eleni’s rewarding work.  The innovation center is a motivational and counseling place where voice and brand are built.  She cheerfully expresses being in the front row seat experiencing works of brilliant, creative youth of Ethiopia.

And what is Eleni most grateful for in life?  Her children. “My two sons, Yared and Zega.”

Above all, serve others—serve humanity—Eleni said regarding her philosophy of life.  Be part of something much larger.  As an instrument of God, she responds to however she is called.  Asking, “How do I keep aligned to my core purpose?” will give you courage, she said.

Community involvement comes through various engagements and in many forms.  Eleni is the Chairperson of the Ethiopian Diaspora Association, member of PM’s Economic Advisory Council, and founding member of the Ethiopian Academy for Scientists.

As innovation is associated with those who take risks, it is not surprising to see less women’s involvement; much of life’s responsibilities including raising children and focusing on what is appropriate at a certain age often limits women more than men.  Eleni mentors and coaches both men and women but highlights the emphasis given to guide young women at blueMoon through the Female Founders Club, a networking and experience-sharing group.  Her team is seeing a big difference.  At the establishment of blueMoon, 16% of innovative team members were women, and it is 38% today.  Seeing women fall behind, she speaks of an “invisible ceiling” that we must plow through.  To women:  “I want you to think of yourself as someone incredible….Let’s not limit our dreams.”

Prior to blueMoon, Eleni founded eleni LLC, Africa’s leader in designing, building and supporting the operations of commodity exchange eco-systems in frontier markets.  She is a globally recognized thought leader on agricultural commodity markets and African development.  Eleni has held positions at the World Bank, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., and UNCTAD.

In her leisure time, Eleni indulges in cooking and entertaining.  She digs gardening and grows one wherever she calls home.  Evening strolls are a must before dinner, and she visits her home gym when she feels moved.  She travels a lot for work, but she makes sure to travel for fun and enjoys organizing trips and visiting new places.  Reading is constant for work, but she delights in a good Fiction find…getting lost in a novel.  And that wonderful story from years back of Eleni planting a peach tree, picking the fruit, and baking a pie are to be told again in the coming years.  Now her garden awaits fruit of orange, guava, avocado, apple, and banana trees.  Gardening speaks to the “depth of and QUALITY OF LIFE” one can experience.    “There is something beautiful about being connected to Earth…I am still that person…it gives me joy to see things growing.”

Yes, Eleni considers herself a leader.  To see things others cannot, to excite and inspire, to connect to people’s hearts and longing, to create a movement, to have others see your vision as theirs, to elevate—that is leadership to Eleni.  Are you bringing others into your vision?

To the younger generation:  You are going to be as big as your dreams, so to dream big is everything!  You are the only person who limits who you are and what you end up doing.  The only limit is our own imagination. 

To young women:  Tap into your inner-most longing…you may not know how to put a name to it, but we all have something to drive us.  Tap into it!

AWiB is at the forefront of women organizing themselves, Eleni said.  It is a noble and important pursuit, and she absolutely sees the power of an organization such as AWiB.

Align with your purpose, Eleni calls to all.  The most important thing we can do is find the massive transformational purpose.  How much integrity do you have to be authentic to your purpose?  Find your purpose; pursue the purpose with integrity.  “If you are not whole, it comes out.”  As “integrity” comes from “integer,” meaning a whole number, Eleni said that is key to authentically being.  “Be one.”

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