Standing Firm for Change: Frehiwot Worku

Frehiwot Worku is one of Ethiopia’s daughters—one who has served her country for years, disrupting systems and bringing astonishing changes in institutions, leaving a great legacy behind for generations to come. Courage, commitment and standing for what is right—with all its adversity—made Frehiwot shine.

Frehiwot was born and raised in Addis Ababa and grew up among three boys. She was a child with a free spirit and spent most of her time running around outside playing soccer with the boys unlike most girls who would be home helping with house chores. Her parents didn’t limit or impose such tasks, giving her the freedom to explore and play. Her father specifically encouraged his children to focus on education and spent every dime he had to send his children to private school for the best education. Frehiwot says her father’s value of education influenced and pushed her to pursue higher education.

Frehiwot carried her free spirit and her fearlessness into her young adult age, which led her to join the students’ movement of the late 1960s, a movement that changed her life and left an indelible mark in Ethiopian society. Frehiwot lost one brother to the revolution.  This experience, going through thick and thin with her husband—her friend then—has strengthened the couple’s relationship for life.  Frehiwot says her husband gave her the space to explore opportunities, took care of the children when her job became demanding, and motivated and encouraged her to aspire for more. She says meeting at such a young age, he has become her rock. She expresses immense gratitude for his support and said he is one of the reasons for her success.

Frehiwot’s life was a result of strong support and guide from her parents growing up and in-laws as an adult, ensuring the couple get their education abroad and supporting them in raising their children. Her father, who was a self-made man, is one of her role models. Frehiwot believes she got her resilience and strong character from him, and patience, inclusiveness and service from her mother.

Serving more than 22 years at Ethiopian Airlines (EAL), Frehiwot has seen the airline transform to become the largest in Africa. She served in different posts starting from a junior marketing position to HR, then to lead the airline as a vice president—the only woman VP at the time in companies of the same level. Frehiwot spent her years at the airline setting new trends, demanding change, building systems and challenging the status quo. Frehiwot says, “When I do a job, I give my 100% and I want to ensure I am contributing and effecting change.” If something is not working we should always try to find a way to make it better and to change it, she said. It is with this mentality Frehiwot was able to bring multiple changes and shifts at Ethiopian Airlines. She was instrumental in restructuring and departmentalization of the human resource and salary scaling of various professions, as well as transforming the lengthy and bureaucratic system in the pilot training and promotion structure that left an indisputable impactful in the airline’s history.

Frehiwot stayed firm when her changes were questioned.  It was (is) not easy but it can be done, she said. “If you fear conflict, you will end up standing still and the change you want will not come.” Her strategy:  “nip it in the bud.” Later in her career though, listening to caring mentors, she learned one has to know how to manage people. Most fight because of fear; she had to understand and empathize without losing her sense of values or self. Frehiwot has respect for her superiors but never feared to voice her opinion. She challenged decisions and didn’t cave in to the decisions she didn’t believe in. This has caused her to bump heads with people throughout her career, but she faced these challenges with integrity and courage. With all the challenges, she believes that a person must love the space they work in. She eventually had to leave Ethiopian Airlines as she didn’t like the outlook then.

Leaving Ethiopian Airlines gave Frehiwot an opportunity to embark on one of her life dreams. She always wanted to open an NGO to give back to the community. Yet she understood that with the way things work in Ethiopia, it would be a difficult task to accomplish. While contemplating this idea, an opportunity to serve presented itself:  Frehiwot was asked to lead the Ethiopian Red Cross. When she joined the organization, it was at the verge of falling. It didn’t have enough funds to pay the salary of its employees let alone help the community. It relied completely on the aid it received from foreign donors and the government. Frehiwot was able to bring a radical change with the help of her new management team, mobilizing local resources and dismantling the corruption and bureaucracy built inside the institution. In the first year, they were able to raise 20 million ETB through SMS lottery from local sources, paving a way to a more independent institute that is self-reliant and can even support its community on its own by developing small projects. She negotiated terms and conditions with foreign donors instead of accepting whatever terms they brought in empowering the institution. In her 8-year service at Red Cross, Frehiwot transformed the institution and made it one exemplary establishment in Africa.

For Frehiwot, success is to live a life that you want and aspire.  She has accomplished a lot in her life and lived a life she believes in, bringing countless changes in her journey. Success is not collecting money; money shall be a by-product of doing what you love.

Frehiwot advises the youth to follow their hearts and dreams. There is nothing that is impossible as long as we stay committed and endure the challenges. But she also suggests looking out for other opportunities, to be flexible and keep their eyes open in case things are not shifting as the thing for them might be in a different place. No one will give you what you want; you have to fight and get it yourself, Frehiwot says.

With all her responsibilities at work, Frehiwot was able to maintain her work-life balance and build a beautiful family which she is most grateful for. She says the secret is to manage your house as you manage your work and integrate the work calendar with the home calendar. She strongly believes taking time to rest is important and ensures that she takes her vacation twice a year, spending quality time with her family. She says moments are more important than years, and spending quality time with your family is very important to make you complete. She avails herself to her children and her family always comes first.

Frehiwot came across AWiB when she was invited as a speaker at May Forum, staying in close contact since then. She appreciates AWiB for bringing women together, sharing experience among one another, and building a strong, supportive network. She believes there are many women out there who have a range of experience and knowledge they could share with one another and hope to see them use this platform. She suggested involving men gender advocates and champions to support and expand the movement.

After years of service in public institutions, Frehiwot took a year off to take care of her parents and spend time with them.  Reconnecting with herself in this new chapter of life, Frehiwot reads a lot and looks forward to writing her story to guide the next generation.

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