Sonia Pasqua: Strong as Steel

Her name may appear Russian, Indian, and as some of her ancestors—Italian.  Born in Wonji, Ethiopia, Sonia Pasqua was raised in Addis Ababa since about age 5.  The second of four children—three girls and one boy—she attended Lycee Guebre Mariam. Both parents half Ethiopian and half Italian, the family was part of an international community around a sugar factory in Wonji where her father worked prior to opening his own business, Pasqua Giuseppe Steel Factory, in the capital.  Having returned to Ethiopia some 30 years ago, Sonia is manager of the 55-year-old steel factory.

Sonia’s mother was a strong woman, always challenging the children.  Dad’s side of the family was really large and patriarchal.  Sonia acknowledges connecting with her Ethiopian heritage—all the traditions and cultures—from this part of the family; she smiles big with fond memories of her grandmother.  Sonia grew up among great friends at the French school, and Addis life was easy, she said in remembrance of a joyful childhood.

When Sonia left Ethiopia for Italy during the Derg Regime, it was her last year of college.  She started working at a travel agency before her adventures with United Colors of Benetton (UCB) began.  It was the manager of the travel agency who was instrumental in her applying for an opening at UCB.  He always encouraged her to seek opportunities that uplifted her, telling her she can always do much better and advance in her career.  The job’s main requirement was being a French and English speaker, which she fulfilled.  In the interview process, she aimed for the written test but mentioned she was not going for the oral test.  The manager at the travel business insisted she show up, and when she did (and to her surprise), the interview was all about Ethiopia; it felt like an easy-going conversation.  She got the job!

Sonia provided secretarial services in the Foreign Commercial Service department, receiving all customers from across Europe.  After working a year and a half, she got married and welcomed a daughter.  Everyone around her thought her professional life was ending.  But the company was restructuring—the office going from 13 to 80 teammates—and with the shuffle Sonia landed her second position with the company:  Assistant to Commercial Manager for a few years; she then became assistant to the product manager.  “Fashion was my passion,” she said. “I was very young but always finding solutions…I was very good in relating with people…being the filter in every situation,” she said of her early 20s.  She was the contact between the product manager and all the agents across Europe, creating new collections to sell in a short time among other responsibilities.

Sonia decided to gain experience outside of the company, working with other garment entities as commercial manager.  She returned to UCB as commercial manager of a sister company just as she and her husband were parting; moving to Ethiopia was also on her mind.  She met her current partner, and upon expecting a child (her second) she chose to stay home and raise the babies.  She remembers hearing about Mengistu’s departure from Ethiopia right after she gave birth and within five months found herself back in her homeland.  One thing she is certain about:  she is very determined and when she makes a decision, she does not regret it.

When Sonia moved back to Ethiopia, it just so happened to align with UCB and other companies’ interests in investing in the textile and garment industry.  They knew cotton was great here, but it turned out not to be the right time, she said.  After 13 years in Italy, Sonia found it to be the perfect opportunity to spend time with her father.  Soon, he asked her to work with him.  Currently, Sonia spends a lot of time in Italy for medical reasons.

Being curious is what pushes Sonia to grow in many ways.  Upon returning to Ethiopia, Sonia’s curiosity brought her to be involved in many government and private business development institutions.  She has tried to create a partnership with Italian institutions to develop business opportunities between the two countries.  Sonia has been board of the Italian business community for more than a decade and has created an Italian desk at the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce, Ministry of Trade and Industry.  She was a founding member of the Women Exporters Forum.  With UNDP, she was chosen to work on the formation of the Afro Asia Chamber of Commerce.  With Enterprise Ethiopia in collaboration with UNCTAD, she developed a plan for major Ethiopian enterprises to subcontract activities to improve quality and develop small-scale businesses.  Sonia has been a major player in the first Trade and Investment directory of Ethiopia, organized for the International Chamber of Commerce of Geneva.  She has been one of the representatives of the Italian Community Association as well as in the Board of Directors of Lions Club Addis Ababa Greater.

Sonia’s philosophy of life includes developing new ideas and innovation in general.  Creativity in everything keeps life interesting, and when Sonia relaxes, she comes up with a new project.  She always evaluates where she is and where she is going…personally and professionally.  Reflecting on if she is enjoying her life is part of the evaluation; “I don’t like to get bored; it’s a disaster when I feel bored!” she said.

Success, to Sonia, means feeling happy with what she is doing.  She is most proud of the charity organization she established in memory of her daughter, the Sara Cannizzaro Child Minders Association (SCCMA) in 2004.  Creating the project to give a better life to many children in need of support gave space to turn the loss to a positive.  “(It) makes me feel fulfilled in my heart,” she said.  Being a mother to four is also rewarding for Sonia; she has a fifth child—an adoptive daughter who grew up with her since age 8.

As SCCMA developed, another new project in business was born, allowing Sonia and her life partner to stay busy and come out of the devastating status they were in:  a venture in tourism.  With her husband Michele Cannizzaro, a civil engineer, she established the Africa Vacation Club in 2004 originally as a timeshare.  Having grown up frequenting Langano, it seemed the ideal area for a resort and they opened in 2010.  Designed by an Italian architect, it can accommodate about 250 visitors.

For her success and strength of character, Sonia gives credit to her father and husband.  She admires the strength and uplifting energies of friends who have been her support system since her return to Ethiopia—sisters in their own ways.  A role model for Sonia is a woman who is determined to attain her goals while keeping family and business worlds balanced.  AWiB is one way.  She was one of the first 20 who gathered in the formation of the movement.

In her leisure time, Sonia enjoys music…from jazz to Ethiopian songs.  She indulges in tunes whole-heartedly, and said she enjoys dancing.

Most grateful for her upbringing, family has an important part in Sonia’s life.  She is appreciative of her husband—for allowing her to BE (she takes her freedom seriously).

Sonia believes leadership means to have a clear vision.  “I don’t consider myself a leader, but they tell me I am a leader,” she said.

Lifetime lessons to the younger generation:  Life is always up and down for many reasons.  You have to be strong and think any accident can happen, but you have to continue.  Sometimes you think it may not work (but it will).

Having known AWiB from HER conception, Sonia said the organization gives a lot of opportunities for women…to open their eyes…to give strength….  “You may have vision but need support,” she said.  The psychological support and the “you can do it” message, the strength to continue is unmatched.

Sonia’s message to women:  Believe in yourself.  Always.  And while it is good to be strong and overcome obstacles (and we overcome), strong relationship with other women is important. 

AWiB gives gratitude to Sonia for making time out of her busy schedule to share her story.

The AWiB Team

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