Nominated on March 10th, 2010 by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the full US Senate, as the Executive Vice President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, [OPIC], the US government’s development finance institution headquartered in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. which has a portfolio of more than USD $16 billion invested in over 100 countries around the world. Mimi Alemayehou has made an outstanding impact in Africa.
She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1969 during a period of political instabilities and inconsistencies, the Prevailing difficulties and confusion propelled Mimi at the age of 9 to relocate to Kenya with her family. Those early years left an indelible mark in the mind of this little girl, who took a decision to fight, not just for her freedom but for the economic freedom of her country.
She recounts; “I was definitely impacted by my early years in Ethiopia, as was every Ethiopian of my generation that lived through the Red Terror years. Seeing family members and friends imprisoned and killed for political reasons gave me a very early life lesson in the pursuit of freedom, not just political but economic freedom. My parent’s and grandparent’s properties were expropriated and overnight they and many other families lost everything they had worked hard for. That’s a lesson that’s hard to forget.”
Few years after arriving Kenya, her family again left for California, where she concluded her high school education from Drew College Preparatory School in San Francisco, California. Drawn by the affordable tuition at the West Texas A & M University, her father, an aircraft mechanic at the time, urged her to study sciences in which she excelled as he believed that a career in sciences would guarantee her a good job. In a bid to obey her father, Mimi went in for bio-chemistry; but soon realized her heart longed for something different; a degree in Business. Despite her father’s displeasure, Mimi switched her major to business with a concentration in marketing and political science.
Today, it is clear that that singular independent decision at a very strategic time in the life of a young female non-citizen immigrant was to form the foundation for a most enviable career in public policy.
After College, during the 1990’s Mimi took on a job as an intern for a Texas Congressman. During this time, she attended every Africa-focused event she could and learned at one hearing of the tremendous interest in investment in Africa and the formation of a new organization called the Corporate Council for Africa, helping firms who were interested in doing business in Africa. Fearless, she walked right up to the Executive Director and asked for a job; since the organization was just starting, he told her plainly that there was no money to hire, but gave her a business card. She called him every single Thursday for months, until he had received some grant money and hired her without interviewing anyone else.
After working for the Corporate Council for Africa, the leading lady worked for a member of Congress who was the Chief of Staff of the Congressman that she had interned for previously. She became a member of the legislative staff, serving as a foreign policy advisor. Realizing that she wanted to go to graduate school, she enrolled in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, earning her master’s degree in both International Business and International Law & Development.
But before she started her master’s degree course, Mimi spent the summer of 1996 working in Geneva for the World Health Organization as a public relations consultant, in order to improve her French language skills to satisfy the University’s language requirement. That job too, required her to think out of the box; instead of looking for internships, which were unpaid, she looked for short-term consulting jobs, taking handwritten notes from job classified papers at the local bookstore since she couldn’t afford to buy them – and found an opening, sent her resume with a cover letter, got a call, and got the job. The summer job was rewarding, focusing on publicizing the devastating impact of tuberculosis in Africa with the aim of raising funds from donors to help alleviate the situation.
After graduating from Tufts University, unlike most of her classmates who were interested in the Foreign Service, Mimi was ineligible, as a non-citizen, for a Foreign Service career and was most interested in working in Africa, in a development field. Reading all the Africa-focused magazines and journals she could, she learned of Worldspace Corporation, a company planning to launch a satellite over Africa; she persuaded them to let her do an internship with them for the summer and was hired full time thereafter as Manager of Business Development, then promoted to Director of International Regulatory Affairs.
After moving to the International Executive Service Corps as a program manager for two years, she founded her own company in 2004, Trade Links Inc., a company that managed the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project to help African Growth and Opportunity Act-eligible countries in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to increase their exports to the United States.
This power woman was also nominated by President George W. Bush to be the United States Executive Director at the African Development Bank (AFDB), where she was responsible for executing Board decisions on behalf of the United States government. Mimi served as the most senior U.S. Treasury official in Africa and was instrumental in pushing for reforms to make the Bank more transparent, to engage more broadly with outside stakeholders, and to promote greater understanding and collaboration between staff of donor and recipient countries. She was the only woman amongst seventeen men on the board at the time. In recognition of her service, she was the recipient in 2008 of the Honor Award by the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulsen.
A mentor to several young women colleagues during her career, Mimi believes strongly in the importance of mentoring for young women. She credits her own success to strong mentoring she has received, to the powerful examples of her strong mother and grandmother who encouraged her to believe she could do anything she chose to, and to her stubborn perseverance in pursuing opportunities she was interested in.
Mimi hopes that in her lifetime, Ethiopia can significantly reduce the number of people living in poverty and have a growth strategy that is inclusive. She says she would be happy to make even a small contribution towards poverty alleviation and economic development by investing in businesses that create jobs, especially for women.
Her advice to young women growing up in Ethiopia: “Stay in school. Ethiopia is not the best country to be born a girl, where girls face huge disadvantages. But I can see positive change taking place because there have been incredible women fighting for justice. Seek out a woman in your village or town or city that you look up to and ask her to be your mentor. Everyone needs a mentor – I seek mentors myself. Stay focused and find your passion, whether it’s to be a teacher, doctor, athlete, or a great farmer. Don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do something, not even your parents. Prove them wrong!”
Mimi certainly didn’t find it rosy climbing the success ladder. But with every obstacle, she grew bolder. What’s your obstacle? Is it blurring your vision? Should it?