Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the last few years, you will know that the narrative on the world’s second-largest continent is changing. After decades of being cast as the poster child for poverty, war, coups, and famine, Africa, and the 54 countries that also make her the second most populous continent, is rising. The change is long overdue and has been driven in part by a new generation of Africans from across the continent and in the Diaspora.
Over 39 million Africans in the Diaspora call North America home. Solome Lemma, an Ethiopian who came to America as a child, is a member of that sizeable community. She, along with her peers around the world are rewriting the African dream of their parents’ generation — which historically was to find the fastest way out of their home countries as the only way to build a better life for themselves and their children. The new dream is proudly African, makes no apologies for a past tainted by foreign invasions or a present often distorted and reduced to one story by mainstream media.
In the wake of the Ebola outbreak, Solome and five others quickly mobilized to build a collaborative platform that makes it easy for African organizations and others to pool resources, networks, and collective voices to respond to the needs on the ground. As part of that effort, the group has been vocal about the international community’s slow response and critical of efforts that continue to paint Africa as a continent waiting to be rescued, whilst ignoring the home-grown response to Ebola which was activated long before the international community jumped into action. The group has generated impressive media coverage, including the UK Guardian, Al Jazeera, CNN, and the New York Times.
It’s clear that young Africans are reclaiming the continent, from wherever in the world they find themselves, celebrating the good and being the change they want to see. Solome’s English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher would surely be surprised, and hopefully proud, that the little girl she thought would at best make it to community college, has walked the hallowed hallways of Stanford and Harvard, on her journey to this career as a leader and an activist for Africa.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
For me, this has been an evolution that has taken many years. When I left Ethiopia as a young girl, I thought I would give back but didn’t know how. So, it is through my education and career experiences that I got to this point. I suppose if I had to pick specific moments, I would choose first, my time in Liberia in 2005. I worked there right after the conflict, working with women’s groups on gender–based violence. These women had great ideas of what they wanted to see in their communities, but we couldn’t fund their ideas because our donors had a different mandate. It made me think about the role of philanthropy and how international development needs to be more community-driven.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I am doing what I love and believe in. It challenges prevailing paradigms that make Africa aid dependent by creating a platform through which Africans can support African institutions. It also taps into my skills sets and strengths, while also allowing me to work towards the world that I want to see.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I studied International Relations with a focus on economics and African studies in college to prepare me for international work. I worked for three years and realized I needed more education to be able to contribute to the field of development more meaningfully. So, I returned to school to earn a master’s in public policy. These experiences gave me the academic training and skills I need to do my work.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
There were certainly challenges. When I first came to America, I didn’t know any English. I remember asking my ESL teacher if I would go to university. She told me that I didn’t have a chance… that it would be best for me to continue in ESL until 12th grade and go to a community college.
I remember going home and telling my mom that and we both said, no way. We will prove her wrong. So, whatever challenges I faced, I had an incredibly supportive family that made up for it. From my parents to my aunts and uncles, everyone believed in me and told me I could do whatever I wanted. As a result, I gained the confidence and resolve I needed even when society threw challenges my way.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I didn’t. I always knew I wanted to work in or on Africa. And I am doing that now. The trajectory of my career has changed. When I was younger I thought working with the United Nations was the highest standard.
Today, I know that is not for me and I am building an organization that harnesses the skills and resources of Africans to build and strengthen their own institutions. I will also say that now as an adult, I recognize I could have pursued my goal of contributing to Africa’s progress differently. I didn’t have to pursue the public policy track. I can do it as a communications expert. I can do it as a businesswoman. There are many paths but I am happy with the one I chose.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I am not sure it has reached a tipping point. I hope to keep learning and growing.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
There were many challenges along the way, especially since I came to this country as an immigrant and had to learn the language and culture here. The most recent challenge has been one of self-doubt. I left my job to build Africans in the Diaspora (AiD), and while extremely fulfilling, the journey is also challenging. At times, you want to give up. I thought within the first year, we will have all the institutional support we need to hire at least two people and get the organization up and running.
It didn’t unfold that way. We got our most significant right around the two–year mark. I was able to overcome this trying time by having an amazing support network of family, friends, and colleagues who constantly remind me that this vision matters and that I should remain patient. My family has supported me financially and emotionally through this journey. Friends have stepped in to help when I was overwhelmed. I have amazing colleagues working on AiD who are giving their time, with little pay, because they believe, which in turn helps me maintain my confidence and perseverance.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I am not sure that I can isolate a single skill as the most useful. I will say though I think being adaptable has helped me deal with challenges, new environments, and new opportunities. I am not attached to a particular way or particular ideas and that helps me navigate situations a bit easier.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am proud of the fact that I was able to leave a career where I was thriving to start a new organization that embodied the changes that I want to see in the world. I was doing well in my field working at a foundation and could have taken many opportunities to grow within philanthropy as it is.
However, I wanted to create something new for Africans, I wanted us to be represented in that sector as philanthropists and leaders, not just recipients of resources and I was able to walk away from the lures of a successful career to start something from scratch. It has not been easy; in fact, it is very difficult. I am still not where I want our organization to be. But I am really grateful that I get to live my dreams and passion, as tough as the journey may be.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Seek mentors. Talk to people in the field. Find out what they love, what they see as a challenge, and what they think is the next opportunity that you should think about. People in the career of you aspire towards are a great resource. It is as important to learn from them as it is to learn from your books.
Originally published at www.womanaroundtown.com on December 8, 2014.