SHANI SENBETTA: Being the Change She Wants to See

Cleveland-born and world-raised, Shani Senbetta moved to Ethiopia from the U.S. in 2011. The entrepreneur and business executive pauses—content look on her face—and reflects on what she calls a “perfect childhood.”

Shani remembers growing up in welcoming neighborhoods, having lots of friends and going to great schools with her younger brother.  Their mother, AWiB Founder & Director Nahu S. Girma was a stay-at-home mom until kindergarten and eventually started her own business. Their father, Dr. Ephraim Senbetta was working in a demanding career but was always present for important events.  The family moved from Ohio to Italy when Shani was in fifth grade.  She still visits the little, moat-filled town outside of Venice once a year. Returning to the U.S. landed the family of four in Atlanta before the move to Florida.  Shani spent her junior year of high school living and studying in Beijing, China, where she lived with a host family and attended a local Chinese school in China as part of a study abroad program.  After completing high school in Florida, she took a gap year from school and moved to Ethiopia for a year to learn more about her culture and family.  While in Ethiopia she worked for the UN Economic Commission for Africa in the Communication and Public Relations team.

When Shani received her undergraduate degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., she wanted to work in development but was told finding a job would be tough.  Following advice to get an MBA, Shani joined a management consulting company working closely with Fortune 500 companies.  Before applying to business school to pursue her MBA, Shani was the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship.  She used the opportunity to spend another year in Ethiopia to study the private sector, specifically the paradox between businesses struggling to find talent on the one hand, but high unemployment on the other hand.  After her Fulbright studies, Shani moved to Boston, USA to pursue her MBA from Harvard Business School.   She graduated in 2011 and moved to Ethiopia a few weeks later (her degrees in hand) to finally fulfill her dream to start her life in Ethiopia.  Her first job was with SouthWest Energy, Ethiopia’s first indigenous oil & gas exploration company.

Then Shani joined Zeleman.  It was 2015.  She had assisted with projects previously, but this was diving in fulltime.  Shani is Chief Operations Officer (COO) of ZELEMAN, the largest communications, advertising, and production company in the country.  The company employs 140 professionals.  “Operations is my strength,” Shani said.  She puts attention to details, organization, setting targets and attaining them.  Upon Shani’s arrival, ZELEMAN was taking on two large multi-year projects.  Hitting the ground running, Shani led the company’s evolution with ZELEMAN founder (and her partner in life):  Zelalem Woldemariam.

Shani is also the founder and CEO of Kidame Mart, Ethiopia’s largest last-mile distribution network.  The for-profit social enterprise established in 2017 empowers over 3,000 rural female micro-entrepreneurs to distribute fast-moving consumer goods that enhance people’s standard of living in over 110 remote locations. With a better business model recently in place, the organization has 12 official employees (down from over 130—but none lost a job, only got hired in different places).

After four years, Kidame Mart is finally breaking even, headed toward growth.  As for the new working structure, Shani says transitioning wasn’t easy.  Sometimes we want to hold on to something that we’ve been doing one way for a while, but if we are open, a dramatically more sustainable model may appear (as in this case).  The Kidame Mart team is able to focus on the impact of trainings for the women while guiding the business-owners in various ways including access to finance; they offloaded the risks and burden of warehouse management to partners in each area.

Shani feels she has been “blessed from day one, so the only way it makes sense to me is to make a positive difference…that’s what I try to do.”  Her values—integrity, hard work, and discipline—are direct reflections of her philosophy of life.

If one can look back and say they made a positive difference, Shani said that is success.  She achieves this by focusing on developing people:  creating jobs, being a role model and a mentor.  This is one of the reasons she wanted to move to Ethiopia.  Shani feels a whole generation of role models was lost at some point in recent history, and this has impacted Ethiopia’s development.  She is here to make a positive impact.

Proud of having moved to Ethiopia, Shani describes it as the path least taken…less clear…full of uncertainty.  “I am glad I did not listen to the nay-sayers as it has been a fantastic journey…business-wise, family-wise,” she said.  Another accomplishment Shani is most proud of is being a 2020 Young Global Leader.  She always admired the World Economic Forum and used to read up on their work, but being nominated is an honor.  Shani was also named a top 50 Africa Business Hero class of 2020 by the Jack Ma Foundation.  She serves on the board of directors at Wings of Change as well as AWiB, and is on the Advisory Council of the Global Distributors Collective.

So who contributed to Shani’s success and strength of character?  Her family, specifically her parents, did. They encouraged extracurricular activities and “gave me opportunities to travel, be very independent and confident.”  Shani remembers, “summers in Ghana and France,” and through her global journeys she “got to experience independence…understand my intuition.”

Role models include Zayneb Ton, a Turkish professor at Harvard leading a supply-chain class and who Shani recalls being loving and inclusive.  She allowed the eager student to sit-in on her (full) class while not being enrolled, even reviewing all of Shani’s assignments.  A mother of four, she was a positive example of work-life balance.  Dr. Dan Porterfield of Georgetown University is another role model.  He “intentionally mentored me” and was generous with his time and advice.  While naturally ambitious, “What I appreciate is the HUMAN SIDE OF THEM,” she said.

Leadership means leading by example…leading a group of people towards a specific mission, Shani said.  She considers herself a leader and feels she was groomed to be through her education.  “When you are spoken to as if you are the next leader, you rise to the occasion,” she said.

While she gives back to the community through her current work—and specifically to women—Shani used to volunteer in various ways but now doesn’t have time between children and work.  Feeling strongly about impacting community, she is focused on building strong businesses and the inclusion of women in the business world.  At ZELEMAN, over 50 percent of employees are women.

Traveling is so important to understand things different than you,” Shani said of one of her favorite leisure-time activities.  She enjoys riding bikes with her children and makes photo albums of family trips.  She is drawn to photography and even has a darkroom setup she looks forward to unpacking again.

Shani is most grateful for her health and all the love in her life through her family and friends.  She is thankful she has the perspective to know how fortunate she is—awareness is crucial.

To the younger generation:  It’s not that people are necessarily smarter than another, but it is about getting access to opportunities…access to the INFORMATION….

(On scarcity mentality in Ethiopia and the need to detach from it)   There is no place that has more abundance than here….

(On collective success)  CELEBRATE each other’s ACHIEVEMENT and victories because one person’s success makes the path easier for all of us.

Shani knows AWiB to be a platform for women to become better leaders; it creates opportunity in countless forms by providing a space to meet other women who may lead them in a direction they may have not thought about…to gain confidence.  The organization is one-of-a-kind, but one is not enough in Ethiopia.  It is changing mindsets: INVEST IN YOURSELF.  Aid from elsewhere keeps us in a cycle of dependency, but if we pay for our own benefits, true change will inevitably take place.  Still, AWiB is not an easy sell.

What Shani is focused on currently: businesses can impact the development of a country, and businesses need to outlive owners.  They should not only be family-run, but professionally-managed.  This means making sure the businesses Shani runs can sustain themselves—for generations.  It is a great challenge she is taking on with full force!

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