WSG students recently had the opportunity to meet and learn from an innovative and creative entrepreneur through our Leadership Series. The series brings in diverse women leaders from a wide range of industries to share their stories of success with our middle school students.
February’s speaker was Abai Schulze, Founder of ZAAF, a company that produces luxury handbags and products based in Ethiopia. Ms. Schulze was born in Ethiopia and lived in a Catholic orphanage until she was adopted at age 11 by a family in Texas. After studying Economics at George Washington University, she returned to Ethiopia and worked to relearn the culture of her country through service trips and volunteering there. She dreamed of creating a business in Ethiopia that would break common stereotypes about the country, showcasing it instead as one that produces top quality goods, and in the process create jobs and a sustainable life for women in the country.
Ms. Schulze's journey to becoming a successful business woman is inspirational, and she shared a message of perseverance, confidence, and openness to learning with our students. She believes anyone can start a business if they have the right support system around them, and while she thinks of herself as a shy person she has realized the necessity of promoting herself and her business. She discussed the strengths she has found through collaboration with others to build her brand and how her international collaborations have extended her product line. She talked about product design and inspiration - illustrating how she makes design and operational decisions for her company.
It is important for our students to see and meet and interact with a variety of successful people, especially women: doing so helps them to form a vision for themselves, exposes them to new career options, and can inspire a dream they may not have previously had. It is particularly rewarding for our students to see young women of color who have achieved success in their lives. It perhaps makes their dreams seem more attainable, envisioning their future selves in these women. As young black and brown girls who are often marginalized with low expectations for their lives, presenting positive and uplifting messages of what they can believe about their future is critical.
Our students immediately related to Ms. Schulze’s message as her reflections offered life lessons, not just entrepreneurial lessons. Her connection with students was evident in the many and varied questions they posed to her. She also also helped the girls to envision Africa and Ethiopia in a different light than perhaps what they are used to seeing. For example, when a student asked about houses in Ethiopia, Ms. Schulze described it as a major city, much like Washington DC, with large beautiful homes in a metropolitan area. She shared a variety of photos of the country, emphasizing the diversity and beauty found throughout.
A few life and business lessons from Ms. Schulze:
Sometimes done is better than perfect - In business, you have to be prudent in the ways you allocate your time and focus. While that doesn’t mean settling for mediocre, it does mean deciding to keep things moving forward.
Be transparent and be authentic - Authenticity is a way for others to buy into your business, your brand, and what you offer.
Prioritize your worries - You need to know what to solve first.
Expect the unexpected and be ready to be creative in solving problems.
Ms. Schulze’s visit was a good opportunity for students to hear and learn from a young woman who has overcome challenges in her life and realized her dream of running a successful business. Ms. Schulze’s accomplishment in creating beautiful products, working to raise visibility for her home-county and commitment to building a business that uplifts women makes her a wonderful role model for our girls as they begin to imagine and define their purpose and passion.
If you know someone who would be a good contributor to our Leadership Series, please contact Susan Rockwell.