Samuel Tafesse is due to receive an Honorary Doctoral Degree from both Lincoln and Western Universities this morning inside Skylight Hotel. The noted entrepreneur and humanitarian reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on his milestone moment, on his successful company, humanitarian gestures, on creating opportunities for his children, colleagues and young people and where he wants to be a decade from now. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Congratulations on being awarded an honorary doctoral degree from LU-WUC which you are set to receive this morning. How does it feel to be such a recipient?
Samuel Tafesse: I am a lucky man. I am a man who values what I have achieved, including the employment I have created for many people. I have come far and I value where I come from. I started poor and underprivileged. There is no day that passes by that I don’t appreciate what I have been able to accumulate. The journey has made me a better person and in return, a better corporate leader.
I vividly remember when I was a young boy with little future. I started in earnest when I started my footing at Wabe Shebele Hotel, which became my first real job. You see, I was forced to be an adult at a young age because I had to take care of my siblings and my parents. When I started, I was clueless with life, held back by my circumstances but I had big dreams.
I have a vivid collection of those memories, from cleaning and safeguarding cars for minimal payment that simply provided me enough to buy something to eat for my siblings and myself. I was able to value hard work and not take any shortcuts to arrive to my desired destination early on. Everything I did was a lesson learned.
You are an alumnus of Addis Ababa University, right?
That is true. I was a proud student of the university, studying Engineering and just before I was about to graduate, I was forced to drop out to take care of my family. In my transition, I had to work, as a painter and I was also contracted in roof maintenance work. In all I have done, I was able to value hard work and not take any shortcuts to arrive to my desired destination as well as ambition. Everything I did was a lesson learned.
You know, life gives you all kinds of opportunities and circumstances, but that is what helps you build characters and I hope it has built mine. I never want to hide form that part of my life; it indicates the long journey I have taken to where I am today. I want to carry it as a testament that things can be turned around and challenges can be overcome for others. I hope others find inspiration from it and that is why it was important for me to write my first autobiography.
Share with me the dreams of that young man and what became of it?
I find it hard to talk about myself. I really do. As you know, I am now in my early 60s and I founded Sunshine Investment Group decades ago. Then, I wanted to be able to transform the real-estate industry in Ethiopia. The company now has lots of divisions, including the construction that constructs residential, leisure, and commercial properties within our country.
Over the years, we have been able to develop properties to thousands of people. While we may not have always been seamless, I like to believe we have tried our best to deliver superior products and given countless quality homes our customers can be proud of and can have for eternity.
We have also been able to bring a brand name hotel to Ethiopia, the first Marriott Executive Apartments hotel in Sub-Saharan Africa is now located in Addis Ababa. I believe it was important to have this investment due to lack of branded apartments in the city. In addition to that, we have undertaken many government projects in roads, and we intend to continue to open international hotels, not just in Addis Ababa but in other cities in Ethiopia.
Let us go back to the honorary degree you have been awarded to,Tell me about that?
Oh that! (Laughs). I am happy with that milestone in my professional and personal career, not just to me and my family but for my employees, who are not just my colleagues but my friends. I was awarded for my efforts to help create needed employment to many people that are working and used to work with us and many that have gone to greener pastures standing on the foundation they built within our company. Also, I am being noted for my charitable gestures that have become more important and dearer to me. Currently, we are transforming a whole building for our charitable gestures.
We have a school built and operational, in Nekemet, Axum, and Agena, benefiting thousands of students. We also will open a school in Debre Berhan next year. We provide financial help such as stipend, uniforms and any additional cost they may require. These schools not only provide education but a sense of safety for students to excel and rise to their full potential.
We are also building an elderly center in Addis Ababa that will cost us 65 million birr. We are in the final stage and we plan to make it operational next year. I have taken particular interest in these projects because I find the most fulfillments in them and I want that to be the highlight of my legacy.
What is planned to mark the day for you?
To highlight this special day, I have written a book called “Tegbar”, which will be distributed today for free, written both in Amharic and English. This book highlights my upbringing, my challenges and my ongoing determination to reach my goals. The reason why I wrote this book is to tell my story of my indigent upbringing and how I rose to build a landmark company known as Sunshine.
What makes Sunshine different than others in the fast-growing industry?
Good question! Listen, what sets us apart is that we have a growing pool of loyal employees that are content and happy to work and grow with us. For most, we are their first job and their last as most employees are retained for more than 20 years. Not many people know, we give out free apartments to our loyal and best employees every five years for 20 employees. We also pay them adequately and we try to promote them whenever they show us a great promise and dedication to what they do. That is because we see them as our greatest ambassadors and we hope, in return, they use us as a foundation to build their career forward.
Where do you want to be in a decade from now?
Hopefully, I will start transferring the leadership of my company to others, including my children who have thrived with me with patience and have become an integral part of my success. I hope I have given many the opportunities needed to make my company become more than a single person, but something whose foundation is built on a strategy of taking it further, perhaps to uncharted territory.
I also want to be able to attend many graduations of the students I have helped over the years to witness the little investment I made in their lives has helped transform their lives. I want to be able to have many conversations with them on how to transform the narrative of our beloved Ethiopia.
For me, it is no longer about money. If that were the only intention and motivations, I would not be doing what I am doing now. The reason I come to the office at seven o’clock in the morning, six days a week, is to motivate and execute my vision by example. To continue to provide value in construction, and more importantly, is to give employment and scholastic opportunities to my fellow Ethiopians.
Because, it was my first real employment that gave me my first footing, from what see as dead-end jobs to others are what ultimately gave me a chance to excel and create opportunities for my own children, the best of opportunities that was not afforded to me when I was their age.
All the success, the struggles, the sweat is what my life is. I have never taken a short cut. There is not short cut in success, especially when you create such an enterprise. However, it would be wrong of me not to note – again and again – how lucky I really am.