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Cultivating young women into leaders

Cultivating young women into leaders

Gabriella Sirak works with Meri Leadership and Mentorship and she is helping empower the next generation of leaders within the capital. Here, she reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the initiative, on mentorship, partnership and the long-term vision of the program that has attracted much attention in recent months from powerful actors from different sectors. Excerpts:

The Reporter: The first cohort of Meri Leadership and Mentorship program was completed this month. Tell me about the program?

Gabriella Sirak: Meri is a program launched by Earuyan Solutions in partnership with Dereja.com. The program is intended to introduce and match female university students in their final year with experienced career and business women in Ethiopia.

The underlying philosophy behind the Meri Leadership and Mentorship program is that networks are a crucial part of developing various skills and widening the personal and professional horizons of young Ethiopian women with leadership potential. The Meri program also incorporates leadership training for three months to help the mentees further develop their leadership skills whilst also enrolled in the mentorship training. In turn, the combined program will allow us to not only get career advice and mentorships on our last year of graduation but also equip us with the necessary skills that will help us navigate the employment/entrepreneur world.

For me, Meri embraces the understated and key truth that the youth is the standing stone of a nation. Meri is more than just a program. It goes above and beyond by acquainting us with so many values ranging from sisterhood to perseverance.

Meri’s trainings were mainly focused on self; emphasis was continuously given on the significance of personal development and self-mastery. Meri had various enlightening areas of discussion which ranged from self-discovery to self-awareness, value mapping to self-engineering, networking to negotiation skills, the art of letting go to meditation and so many more, each given by different qualified trainers.

I have learned so much from Meri – it is basically a modified and more powerful version of the 17 years of formal education I had taken. It was more powerful because of the practicality and inclusion of all the things I did not get a chance to learn there. Through this program, I was able to get a glimpse of a dramatically different life my sheltered mind could have never imagined. I have become a truer and hence a better version of myself. I sometimes wish I could have paused for a before and after “picture”. Had I taken it, the before Meri picture would have looked like an old television struggling to display an image. God forbid, anyone trying to look at it would have gotten a migraine. God permit, anyone who looks at the after pictures of all the thirty Meri girls would definitely recommend to turn these extraordinary collections into a one of a kind gallery.

Even though the first cohort of Meri leadership and mentorship program just ended, it has left a huge mark on me. I will enthusiastically keep on exercising these twelve weeks of lessons for as long as I shall live. This is just the beginning. I am very eager to see what flourishes from the next cohorts. I am certain the next Meri girls are going to become even more dynamic and influential as the training and mentoring becomes even more refined.

Billene Seyoum, Press Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister, has remarked how champions such as Dr. Senait Fesseha make such a program valuable, in being a resourceful person as well as a mentor. Tell me about that?

By being exposed to women who have had monumental achievements in their respective fields, it gave us an insight we would not have otherwise been exposed to. They guided us with the crucial decisions we have had to make during this pivotal time of our lives. They did this by crafting an action plan that is based on the individual needs of each mentee.

Where Meri highly benefited the participants has been by creating a nurturing yet challenging environment. We were lucky enough to have our first contact with the world outside of academics be filled with support. The access created for us to influential people such as Dr. Senait was helpful in forming a valuable network as well as understanding the challenges we will face as women professional. The mentorship program was prepared with the purpose of making the road we wanted to embark on a little bit smoother through sharing expertise and fueling our curiosity.

Why do you think such a program is valuable and important to young leaders?

Out of all the prodigiously influential topics of discussion at the Meri program, I would like to highlight on one that had an immeasurable influence on my, still on-going, journey to leadership: Value Mapping.

During my stay at the Meri program, I had had the chance to discover my values and reform my standpoints and perspectives. This, for me, has been an eye opener. It has helped me make better decisions easily and logically. Further, having a strong stand actually comes in handy when talking about youths in general. It is very necessary to develop values because leading is based on values and not just experiences for young leaders.

Leadership is not a quality that can be acquired overnight. It rather requires lots and lots of additional features that make it complete. A program like Meri spices up these features and creates a unique ingredient that remarkably flavors young leaders.

As I have said, in addition to the training we were given mentorship support by compassionate volunteers who were assigned to us and, further, by those we were willingly exposed to during the program. This instilled in us the importance of resourcefulness to get ahead in life. Vital networking skills were taught implicitly during these mentorship process, which can be implemented in every aspect of the life that awaits us. Having a personal mentor available to align with our individual needs pushed us to take charge of our lives. As aspiring leaders, the hands-on approach implemented in the program, gave us an opportunity to observe the theory being taught in the trainings exercised in the mentorship program. By doing this, they encourage us to set up an accountability system for ourselves and the people around us.

What do you think is its long-term vision?

Meri’s ultimate goal is to cultivate young women into leaders. It targets graduating women so we can be ready to face the outside world armored with essential skills to not only survive but thrive. The ugly truth is that we still live in a world where it is immensely difficult for young women like us to lead, to make change. Meri aims to build young women that can shake and disrupt the world for the better. I not only think, but believe Meri’s long-term vision is to equip young women with opportunities of growth into leadership positions in whichever path they go on. Further, they want to have this mentorship and training create a trickledown effect by having the ambassadors, us, pay it forward by transferring the skills and information to other young women in our community. Ultimately, it aims to see “women leaders” become synonymous to “leaders”. To show the world that women can lead. To trust young women like us can and will be great leaders in any journey they embark. To get people to hear the word ‘Meri’ and think of not just men but women as well.

There are now a new found interest and efforts to empower Ethiopian women and the word feminism is no longer a foreign word within the nation. What is feminism to you?

Feminism has now become a rather controversial word. It can mean so many things to so many people. I believe this is due to the prevailing cultural situation. In Ethiopia, for instance, speaking of equality can somehow make you sound and look aggressive, like someone who is taking things a bit too far. This can create misconceptions on various perspectives.

To me, feminism in simple terms is the equality of the sexes. I do not believe in superiority of women. I also do not believe in superiority of men. I, however, do believe that men and women are equal. Putting aside biological differences, any other character-based classifications arise from societal and cultural backgrounds. These absurd classifications grow into habitual beliefs and an accepted social norm. These habitual beliefs urge the creation of assuming that men are automatically better than women just because they are, well, men. This creates a vicious cycle that allows a patriarchal system to flourish, one that put women behind and men in front, that denies women equal opportunity as men. We have to understand we cannot talk about economic growth when you have a system that does not allow half of its population (women) to contribute. 

Feminism is not about being a woman. Feminism is rationality. My brother is a feminist – he believes women should have equal rights and opportunity as men. He believes that the world should create a platform where women are acknowledged and not mocked for having grand ideas. He believes in women empowerment.

I am a feminist – a pure feminist who believes the world is unjust for having to explain facts like this. I am a proud feminist confidently fighting for my rights and others. I am an active feminist tirelessly preaching the word feminism every chance I get. I am an optimistic feminist who really believes changes are yet to come. I am an empowering feminist who encourages both men and women to be feminists.