Ethiopian Entrepreneurs

Alea Smaniotto, left, and Salem Kassahun (of Salem’s Ethiopia craft boutique). (Photo: Rick Colbourne)

This summer, Alea Smaniotto experienced a life-changing experience. She was one of six Ch’nook scholars from across BC selected to join a Sauder School of Business Arc Initiative team in Ethiopia. Arc combines Sauder talent with African entrepreneurs to help fuel improvements to their businesses.

The Ch’nook team and Arc delivered a week-long business skills conference to local entrepreneurs in the capital, Addis Ababa. For the Ch’nook scholars, it was also a unique opportunity to exchange indigenous cultural knowledge.

“We were able to learn about Ethiopian life and business while the entrepreneurs were able to learn about business in the Western world. It was quite special to share our Aboriginal history and challenges with them too,” says Smaniotto who is of Metis descent.

Rick Colbourne, executive director of Sauder’s Ch’nook Scholars program – which increases Aboriginal engagement in business education – says the learning and knowledge exchange offered through his program is taking more of an international focus. The goal is to help Aboriginal people gain confidence to work in an environment where global organizations are approaching First Nations communities directly to engage in business.

“In Ethiopia, our Ch’nook scholars gained insights into another indigenous culture, including their Amharic language,” says Colbourne. “Partnering with Arc helped Ch’nook build on its strengths, facilitate cross-cultural understanding and also be innovative around Aboriginal business engagement.”

Working with Ch’nook and other Arc facilitators, Ethiopian entrepreneurs – including a clothing designer, coffee farmer, taxi operator, hospital manager and paper recycler – gained business skills in marketing, strategy and financial management that they could apply to any venture, says Arc director Jeff Kroeker.

A common theme that united both the Ch’nook team and the entrepreneurs they met in Ethiopia was an overriding interest in responsible business. “The Ethiopian entrepreneurs didn’t want to start businesses to get rich, but instead to create jobs and make their country a better economic environment to invest in,” says Smaniotto. “Similarly, as Aboriginal people our Ch’nook team pursued business degrees to become leaders so we can make an impact on our First Nations communities.”

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