Leveraging Her Fame for a Noble Cause

My Story

Anna GetanehI was born in Stockholm, Sweden from Ethiopian parents and grew up in Sweden, Liberia, Belgium, Ethiopia, France, USA and South Africa. Growing up, I disliked my name and wanted an Ethiopian name like my siblings, until I understood the story behind my naming. I was named after a nurse who delivered me and helped my mom through a very difficult labor. Growing up, I was a creative, playful, adaptive young girl. My father, a career Diplomat, has always been a patriortic Pan-African who used to teach us about our rich culture and history, whereas, the media I was exposed used to show Ethiopia’s drought and poverty. When I asked my father about the contradiction, he would tell us it was up to us to tell our story and change the perception. My mother is also a very creative person who would always make and wear Ethiopian clothing during occasions and cook Ethiopian meals during weekends and cultural days of our schools. We grew up knowing and appreciating our fascinating culture and Ethiopian heritage.

“I took a train to Paris one weekend without telling my parents and walked into one of the best agencies and told them I wanted to be a model.”

Throughout my teens, I was not certain about what I wanted to be and do in life, although I had the sense that it would be around the creatives. Although I was told that I wouldn’t make any money in the creative industry, I knew that I did not want to take up the standard professional fields that most young people were advised to take up. I later went on to study Business and Marketing, and while in college many people encouraged me to go into modelling. Through a modelling agency in Brussels, I began to do a few modelling gigs which paved the way for my entry into the Paris modelling scene.

I believe I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time, as there was a demand for black women in the industry then in the 1990s. With Paris as my main market, I also worked in many other cities. I remember an encounter when I was in London with a French international charity organization, Pharmacists without Borders, that wanted to do a fundraiser for refugees in East Africa. When they contacted me through my agency and told me they wanted to create awareness of the refugee issues in East Africa, I told them that I did not want to do an event showing dying children and rather wanted to experiment with something creative and different. Thinking of art, I contacted five renowned Ethiopian artists, including Skunder Bogosian, Yohannis Ghedamu and Tesfaye Tessema who were brought onboard for the fundraiser which managed raise the money to buy medicines for Ethiopian, Somali and Kenyan refugees in Moyale, Kenya. I then travelled with the team delivering the medicine to Moyale for a week and volunteered to participate in the feeding program. What I saw there was the turning point for me. In that moment, it became very clear what I want to do with my life.” Upon my return to Paris, I launched Ethiopian Children’s Fund (ECF). Returning shortly to Ethiopia, I visited orphanages in Addis Ababa and identified three organizations to work with – School for the Blind, Sisters of Charity and Abebech Gobena. My initial approach was to continue utilizing the arts as a fundraising mechanism, but I soon realized that raising money and donating it was not the work I wanted to do.

Desiring to be more involved, I registered my own NGO in Ethiopia and started the work towards building a school in the village of Aleltu, bordering Oromia and Amhara regions. The village only had 15,000 inhabitants with a small elementary school, but no clinic, high school or other infrastructure at the time. My consultation with community stakeholders also established the need for a school, and hence the two-year journey for acquiring land and building the school would ensue. Now, 16 years later, ECF is the only one operational in that village and has grown to supporting over 900 students providing primary education up to the eighth grade, with an equal distribution of female and male students. In addition to the formal education, we have extracurricular activities such as girls’ soccer team, and clubs like photography, art, poetry, dance, music. We have various activities to keep them in school because they do not study when they go home as they get busy with household chores.

One of the worries for ECF was transitioning students into high school in a village that had not had any other schools. However, the year the first cohort of eight graders finished their education, a government high school was operational, making the transition for further education smoother.

“We wanted them to experience the real world outside of our organization. So the opening of the high school couldn’t have come at a better time. We still buy their school materials, uniforms, meals and use our clinics while they’re attending 9th and 10th grades. ”

Modeling opened doors for my charity work. Fundraising for ECF in the initial stages entailed utilizing my own funds and that collected from family and friends. However, I soon found out that would not be a sustainable approach and began organizing fashion shows as a means to raise funds.With my love of culture and particularly African art, the first show comprised African designs, and we named it African Mosaique. In its inception, a one of event, African Mosaique mobilized 50 models, makeup artists, 20 designers from 20 different African countries, for a show at the end of Paris Fashion Week. Although my expectations were high, thinking we would raise enough to build 5 schools, what we managed to raise was just enough to build the first phase of the first school. My friends said “we’re going to go on the road until you raise the money you need”. So, we did 8 shows in 10 cities before we came to Addis: New York (twice), Washington DC (twice), Chicago, Atlanta, and back to Paris. With the funds raised, we built the school, hired teachers and we had it up and running.

With that track record at hand, I started going through the normal procedure of writing proposals to raise money. African Mosaique just became this wonderful thing and the number one priority in my life. I enjoyed meeting the designers and working with them in their countries. In the last 15 years, I travelled to 30 African countries. I decided to stop modeling to focus on African Mosaique, explore and develop a business model that’s sustainable and successful to support ECF.

When my husband was offered a job in South Africa, I was happy because it allowed me to work in Africa, studying the African fashion industry. Thereafter, I started the for-profit arm of African Mosaique. However, my dream has always been to return to Ethiopia but I did not know how I could make that happen in my modeling years. Even after I established ECF, I was coming to Ethiopia few times a year but still didn’t see how it would fit with my life. When my husband was based in Nairobi, he said “I know you always want to return to Ethiopia and I’m not going to ask you to come and settle in Nairobi, so close to Addis. I can’t ask you to do that so I’ll come on weekends”. I moved to Ethiopia with our kids with my husband visiting as often as possible.

I am happy now that I am in Ethiopia, running my school and working on opening more schools with the same holistic model in remote villages. With a lean budget, we managed to create a wonderful community. Our students start in grade one and continue until grade 8. We have no more than 40 students in each class but due to drop outs, they are about 25 in grade 8. In the past 17 years, we have had 900 kids who have been educated in our school. The kids who joined us when they were 4 and 5 are now 20 and 21, and have joined university. Between 10 to 15 students are graduating from universities annually.

My latest venture is expanding the African Mosaique collection. We’re building a center with space for creativity, design, production and manufacturing. We create a space for young talents and designers to come and collaborate. It will also be a space for mentoring, coaching and transfer of knowledge. Apart from the school, I’m consolidating everything that I’m involved in into one place. We’re launching the center in October 2017 and we will continue to hold African Mosaique fashion shows.

Amongst the things I have accomplished, the ECF is probably the one I am most proud of. It’s such a fantastic journey that I sometimes feel like the time has gone so quickly. What makes me happy is not only building a school and having kids in it, but also to see the quality of students the school is providing to the community and how their life is transformed. I’m also blessed with a wonderful son and daughter. They’re grounded and focused. They grew up closely watching my work and the development of the school; now they are volunteering and helping.

I enable others to live by example and through my actions. Everyone sees me working hard and by expecting others to do the same. I worked really hard to achieve my goals. I push people in the right direction to find their potential. People tell me they’re grateful that I pushed them, even though they did not like it at the moment. As it happens, except for the driver, all employees of African Mosaique are women as we are loyal, hardworking and really great with details. So, it makes business sense to have more women. I’m committed to build a strong team and I can say that I have managed to have that.

I recently launched an incubator program to help young designers: African Mosaique Fashion Incubator. Lots of aspiring designers used to come to me to get mentored. Then, I decided to do it on a bigger scale. We asked designers with one year of design school and one year of experience to apply. With a panel of judges, we selected the top 10 that we thought have the most potential. We took them in last September. In October 2017, we’re going to have the designers in the program show their work. We finished phase 1 which is up scaling. In phase 2, they have to do their own collection. The last phase which will start in August is the business of fashion, which entails understanding the process from business plan to registering their business. The designers have to do their jobs and they have to come to us 5 to 10 days per month because we also want them to manage their time. We give them specific trainings on areas they want to develop on.

“I don’t take myself seriously but I’m very serious with my work. I make sure that I’m enjoying the journey. Life is short so you have to do what you enjoy and do it well. Enjoy the journey and have fun.”

The next plan is to develop a television program because every time I see the growth of our designers, I wish I could have recorded it and shown it to the public. This will help the public be aware about the industry and how much work goes into creativity and design. And the designers will get exposure and become a brand on their own rights.

What do they think/say about Anna?

“There are a number of words that come to my mind to describe Anna but the first one is passionate. She is passionate about her beliefs and her values. She’s also a tremendously industrious person; a workaholic supreme. Anna has a gentle heart and is considerate person, sometimes too considerate. When you looked over the years, the way Anna raised money for the foundation clearly shows how Anna used her stature to a cause. She mounted state of the art events around the world including Johannesburg, Maputo, Luanda, Paris, New York, Detroit and of course Addis Ababa. Her fashion shows are always sold out. Everyone involved in African Mosaique fashion shows, i.e. the designers, models, MCs, musicians and so on, are all volunteering for the cause supporting of Ethiopian Children’s Fund. She also puts her own money to the foundation. In addition, Anna is successful in mobilizing all her networks and contacts around the globe to come onboard in sponsoring and supporting. The entire story of ECF is built on the image of Anna and she leveraged it successfully.” ~ Admassu Tadesse: Husband

“Anna is focused, a high achiever and the top leader of the Ethiopian fashion industry. She is very positive and helpful. Anna believes in collaboration and sharing. Anna brought so many important things for Ethiopian fashion such as an incredible fashion show, designers from all over Africa to exchange knowledge. When Anna decides to do something, she invests her time, energy and all resources. She is all about working together and collaborating. African Mosaique is a platform for many designers to work together, to showcase their work, to meet clients and to grow together. Anna is a living proof of how to do business that is also contributing to a social cause. When you see Anna in her element at the school with the students, the teachers and the community, you will easily see her kindness, her presence and her concern.” ~ Fikirte Addis: A Designer Showcasing in African Moseique

“Anna is a remarkable woman with superb qualities and altruistic heart. She is sophisticated, refined, well educated and expressive. Despite her background as a successful model who was on spotlight, Anna is not ostentatious. She has immense perseverance that allows her pursue anything for others. Anna is extremely passionate about Ethiopia and a wonderful mother. She is humorous and sees things positively. I recall a moment demonstrating Anna’s tenacity and leadership virtues. When she wanted to secure land for her dream school, she was going from one office to another, talking to government officials and passing through the bureaucracy herself. It was a frustrating struggle but Anna never gave up. She secured the land after 5 years of perseverance. Although growing up abroad, Anna’s heart is very Ethiopian. Her Amharic is not perfect but she connects with everyone using her broken Amharic. As difficult as the challenges are, Anna is tireless. She is a woman to watch. ~ Eskinder Joseph – ECF Board Member