Premier Traveler’s Most Compelling Woman shows us that anything is possible.
Vice President of Marketing
Ask Rahel Assefa how the world sees Ethiopia, and she might describe how people around the world are often surprised when they discover that the country has universities, that the people live in houses, or that the nation even has an airline at all, much less one that is the pride of the people. In fact, Ethiopian Airlines (EA) is one of the continent’s most profitable carriers. “While Africa is our base, we are quite a global airline,” Assefa explained, “with services to 84 destinations (and growing) on five continents—a fact that is a revelation to many people, especially in the West.”
THE WORKING LIFE
Assefa was born and raised in Addis Ababa, where she also attended university. Once graduated, she got a job with EA, and for 26 years has never worked with any other company. She had found her niche. Six of those EA years were spent in the U.K., when she was the carrier’s Regional Manager of U.K. and Ireland. During her tenure in the British Isles, the airline’s market share in the region experienced tremendous growth, not only in terms of passenger numbers and revenue, but in the volume of cargo business—not to mention the acquisition of the carrier’s first Dreamliner, in 2012.
It’s no wonder, then, that EA promoted Assefa to VP of Marketing, where she could bring her incredible skills to bear on a wider stage. She returned to her hometown to take on a host of responsibilities that would likely, at other airlines, be fulfilled by a number of people. Under her aegis falls everything from designing the airline product (including route structures, schedules, frequency, capacity and network connectivity) to overseeing distribution channels and online sales, and from managing the airline’s loyalty program to supervising advertising and promotions—and she handles it all with aplomb, acumen and grace.
Assefa loves her job, especially “the chance to meet, interact and work with a wide range of people with so much diversity in the way they live, behave and conduct business,” she said. “We have a very dedicated and enthusiastic work force, a really dedicated group. It is more than a workplace.”
A large portion of Assefa’s job enjoyment is due to her hard-working team—“‘The Winning Team,’ as we refer to ourselves,” she laughed. “Just being here is a motivation for most of our people.”
Such a corporate culture must in some way be due to the fact that, throughout the carrier’s history, in the face of ever-changing governmental regimes, EA has managed to remain profitable. “It has always been the pride and joy of the country itself,” Assefa asserted. “Everybody wants to be a part of the airline.”
A MAN’S WORLD?
Being a woman in a man’s world is an interesting phenomenon for Assefa. “It has its advantages and disadvantages,” she offered. “Sometimes, the fact that you are a woman can give you added respect, because you must be extra good at what you do. But it has not held me back. I feel that I am in no way inferior to any of my colleagues here.”
As a matter of fact, Assefa added, “sometimes, I honestly think that women are much better than men in most things!” She went on to explain: “We have more responsibility in life than the men of this world. Some responsibilities have been put on us by nature, especially where I come from, where the women have the responsibility for the care of children. Our men are more involved with providing for the family in an overall way. So, there are certain things that women do better than men. Women have great intuition, and I do believe that is a natural gift for the majority of women. They have a sense that their children might be getting sick before they actually become ill, for instance. We pay more attention to detail because we’re responsible for the details of life. And we are better at multitasking, because we don’t have the luxury of doing one thing at a time. We just don’t.”
Assefa has observed that talent for multitasking and attention to detail in the female members of her team. “They do quite a thorough job,” she mused. “They don’t miss anything. I am actually more likely to scrutinize the work that men do than what women do.”
A CULTURE OF INTEGRITY
The ability of Ethiopian women to attain status in business is born out of a philosophical thread that runs through the culture and applies to both genders. In Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), the concept is expressed in the term Yichalal—literally, “it can be done” or “it is possible.” But the deeper meaning is more profound: “It means that if you want it badly enough, you can become or do anything you set your mind to, against all odds,” Assefa explained. “The sky is not the limit. There is nothing one cannot do.”
Another philosophical characteristic in Ethiopian culture is one that seemingly runs counter to modern business practices: the good manners reflected by being modest. “We don’t know how to market ourselves,” Assefa admitted. “Culturally, for us, it’s frowned upon to talk good about yourself. Bragging is something that we teach our children not to do. You just don’t do that. You let others talk about you.”
For a VP of Marketing, steering clear of anything that could be taken for boasting seems like quite a hurdle to overcome. “We don’t do much PR, it’s just word-of-mouth,” she explained. “And that kind of translates into the way we do business. We are less apt to do as much marketing as you would expect an airline of our size to do. It doesn’t come naturally to us. So we just say, ‘Come and experience the culture of the airline and the country.’ We just don’t talk about it, and that’s why the world doesn’t know.” Without much fanfare, though, the world is learning.
When Assefa was young, she dreamed of working for a big, successful entity. Check. She also wanted to have a family. Check. She and her husband have raised “three amazing children. They are by far my greatest accomplishments.”
For an executive at a world-class airline, it’s not surprising that Assefa adores traveling. “I like to experience different cultures, visiting cities, trying new cuisines,” she said. “And I like to shop for unique and weird items” that are unavailable anywhere else.
“I have been a bit of everywhere,” she related. “I frequently visit the U.S., not only because I have work trips there, but because some of my family actually lives there, so I see it as my second home. Europe, also, has its charm for me, and I’ve always loved the U.K. And Asia is becoming quite interesting for us—for most Africans, actually—and I have seen a good number of Asian countries.”
Having traversed the globe, Assefa has been inspired to travel closer to home in the coming year. “I’m planning to just see Africa, all corners of Africa,” she said, “because I have seen less of Africa than anywhere else!” Her focus on domestic destinations coincides perfectly with EA’s hopes for the opening up of intra-African aviation routes and the carrier’s strategy for growth not only from Africa to the world, but throughout the African continent itself.
PHILOSOPHY IN ACTION
Assefa looks to the future with the same zest that has driven her throughout her life. “There simply is no dull moment in this industry,” she enthused, “and the new and interesting experiences in one’s life are boundless.”
On track and on point, Assefa is helping to lead EA down the runway of a truly world-class airline. “We are continuing our aggressive growth plans as charted in what we call our ‘Vision 2025,’” she said proudly, “four years of which have already elapsed, with most parameters not only met but exceeded.” Just ask her how bright the future seems, and she might say: “Yichalal. Anything is possible. We are the architects of our own destiny.”
Source: Premier Traveler