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From Refugees to Valued Employees: Eden Tadesse and Ethiopia-based Invicta

Eden Tadesse

Ms. Eden Tadesse, only 25, introduces Ethiopia-based Invicta, an amazing and award-winning global nonprofit (a business in a different format) that links refugees worldwide with online training and remote job opportunities, often in IT and cybersecurity.

Exploring cultural differences such as time and communication styles, Eden shows how multi-skilled and multi-talented refugees are both resilient and an asset to world businesses. She also presents her personal story of being kidnapped.

Highlights:

Eden’s journey

How Invicta works to help refugees

Different business cultures

When freelancers and companies have different expectations

Gender issues

Eden Tadesse Bio:

Eden is a social entrepreneur, award-winning journalist and digital innovator from Ethiopia. She brings more than ten years of experience in the non-profit sector and technology industry across three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe). As a proud non-conformist and global citizen, Eden strives to empower youth to cultivate their digital skills, develop success habits and unlock their inner potential. She is the Founder of Invicta, an award-winning social impact platform that connects refugees and internally displaced youth with online courses, skills development training and remote work opportunities.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus. Every Friday, we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International. Thank you for joining us. 

If you’re tuning in for the first time, we start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays,” in which we explore a funny blooper or mistranslation that does not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project. Yet sometimes wrong meanings arise because of incorrect word order or the tone of one’s voice, even in one’s native language. So, for example, an American man told his neighbor that the police came last night to tell him that his dogs were chasing people on bikes, which is odd because his dogs don’t even have bikes. 

So, with that. I’d like to introduce our guest today, who runs an amazing nonprofit in Ethiopia. Her name is Eden Tadesse, and she is a social entrepreneur, an award-winning journalist, and a digital innovator. She brings more than ten years of experience in the nonprofit and technology industry sectors across three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. As a proud non-conformist and global citizen, Eden strives to empower youth to cultivate their digital skills, develop successful habits, and unlock their inner potential. She is the founder of Invicta, an award-winning social impact platform that connects refugees and internally displaced youth with online courses, skills development, training, and remote work opportunities. Welcome. I’m delighted that you found us.

Thanks for having me, Philip. It’s great to be here.

Even as our first guest who runs a nonprofit, we probably will have many others as well. But since her nonprofit is very international and works with refugees, I thought her experience was equally valid as with any private sector business. It’s important to note that a nonprofit, as we would say in American English in British English, is often called an NGO, a Non-Governmental Organisation. The nonprofit is a business, just under a different kind of format and with a different kind of tax structure. And a nonprofit is still a business with the same issues that other businesses have, whether in accounting or with HR, marketing, revenue, or implementing the product. So, before we dive in, could you please tell us a bit more about your background and qualifications? How did you grow up and how did you gain your global experience and what brought you to Invicta?

Yeah, absolutely. So, my name is Eden, and I’m 25 years old, born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Ethiopia, and then I received a full scholarship to study IT in India. So, at the time, I was very much obsessed with it. The industry and also, the culture of India. So, it was very obvious to me that I would be able to see a future there. And once I finished high school, I applied and once I got my scholarship, I was fortunate to go to India to study for my bachelor’s degree. And while I was in India, I got to specialize in cyber security, which is also a huge passion of mine. 

But even before that, I had quite an interesting background. So, I attended the top private school in Ethiopia, but at the same time, I was living in the poorest part of the country. So, I grew up in the slums. I grew up with eleven other siblings, and I grew up in a super patriarchal society. And the reason that this came to be is that my father was the head of finance at the school that I attended. Therefore, the school enabled him to enroll all his children, including me and all my siblings at the school, free of tuition. And the school even went above and beyond to support us in our health and with everything else possible. So, we got an amazing experience. My siblings and I attended the school from kindergarten to grade 13. 

I was on the Indian National Team, and once I finished high school, I was looking into opportunities to study abroad, but it was obvious to me that I would go to India. So, I was exploring the different cities in India, and I was looking at where the big tech companies are located, because also, I wanted to get a job after college. And something that I had wanted for a long time was to go abroad and make a difference in the world by traveling, meeting new people, and starting my own business. And India was my launching pad for that. And I was very, very fortunate to be raised by two amazing people. The parents who supported my growth and my career ambitions at a very young age included a  very strict but loving and super-nurturing father who raised me and my sisters to be extremely tough, resilient, and hardworking individuals. To be very productive members of society, since we were very young, he would get us enrolled in many, many different activities. And he would also encourage us to volunteer as much as possible to do sports, get a paying job, and network with different people. 

So, I got my first paid job when I was very young, and that kind of fast-tracked my career. Mine and my siblings’ as well. And so, that also, gave me a taste of international business, working with different international organizations in Ethiopia at a very young age and just having that desire to learn more and to be part of, you know, more and more programs in different countries. And I also call myself a multipotentialite, which is someone who doesn’t have one single calling in life. We wear many different hats. We have different skills and interests. And that is very true for me because I have been involved or worked in many different sectors and have projects in all domains. 

This is kind of a bit about my upbringing and when I was in India, I had the opportunity to go to Europe. This was interesting because when you work in India for some time, it’s a completely different experience from working in Africa, or rather Ethiopia. And you know, in India they have a super, super strict working life and also, in the education space, where they’re very strict about that and they take things very seriously and they have huge respect for their teachers, for their employers, and so on. So, they introduced me to a completely new business culture, and when I went to Europe as well, it was completely different. 

But I noticed that I felt more genuine. I mean, I felt more myself. When I went to Europe, I just met many different young people who were like me and accepted me for my beliefs and what I could contribute, my values, my passion, and my purpose. So, I felt like I belonged there. So, I stayed there. I continued to travel between India and Europe for about two and a half years, and I graduated. From India, I went back to Europe again, and then from Europe, I went back to Ethiopia, So, that was around the start of the pandemic.

Oh, wow. So, it’s all very, very recent– a lot of this.

Yeah, absolutely.

And what motivated you to start your NGO or non-profit organization?

When I was studying in India, after completing my freshman year, I heard from a UN press conference that Africa was experiencing the worst refugee crisis in history and the world was experiencing the third-largest refugee crisis in history. So, this was the year 2016 and all around the media were articles about Donald Trump, ISIS, the terrorist group, and Islamophobic attacks across the UK and US, and there was just very minimal media coverage on the refugee crisis both in Africa and in the Middle East. I found this extremely disheartening. 

And so, I did more research. And it turns out that South Sudan was embroiled in a civil war, causing  2 million South Sudanese to flee to neighboring countries, many of whom entered Ethiopia, because we’re a big country in the Horn of Africa. We have an open-door policy. They’re pretty good conditions for refugees from across Africa and the rest of the world. So, these countries welcomed refugees while also, being extremely strict. They were overwhelmed that they couldn’t support refugees with, for example, education or employment. 

It was like they were barely keeping up with the influx of refugees because the communities that the refugees were coming into were extremely rural and low-income, and they didn’t have the backing of the government and NGOs at the time. Now they do, but back then it just wasn’t expected at all that so many refugees would come in, and to such low-income parts of the country. 

So, reading all of that broke my heart. And I said  why am I studying abroad at this prestigious private university when there’s a human crisis going on, basically, and I felt called upon? I had to go back home, for me, home is earth, like I don’t feel tied to any particular country, but I knew that being an Ethiopian and having an Ethiopian passport, it would be most realistic for me to go there and to support them.

So, that’s exactly what I did. I spoke with the university, and I asked them if I could do so. The gap [in studies] here and the gap there is frowned upon in both African and Asian cultures. You don’t tell anyone. I mean, you just don’t accept it; it’s extremely frowned upon. They told you unless you’re having a very serious medical emergency or something, you shouldn’t be taking any time off from school, especially during your university years, and they couldn’t understand why. I tried to explain it to them, and they said something like it’s fine. You know, you could go back to your country, but when you come back, you won’t have a full scholarship anymore. We’ll have to revoke the scholarship and we’ll give your position to someone else. Which was heartbreaking for me because I couldn’t afford the tuition and I wanted to, I started this course. I’m going to finish it. So, I spoke to them, and we negotiated, and the agreement was that I would take a gap year. My scholarship will not be revoked because when I come back, I will have to sit through all the different exams and do the courses. And get the course credits that I missed during the year that I was there. And at the time, it seemed like nothing was more important to me than this refugee crisis. So, I had to go back home. Or I had to go back to East Africa, and support in any way I can. That’s exactly what I did.

So, you started in Victoria and then you were going to continue it, but have you? You then went back. Are you going to finish your degree after your gap year, or are you still doing the gap?

No, no. Yeah, I took the gap year. I went back to Ethiopia, like the southern part of Ethiopia, where a lot of the refugees were living. And I stayed there. For a year, and while I was there, I met with this Ethiopian who was also living in a host community, and she was kind enough to want to support refugees. She knew she had to do something financially, but she didn’t know how. 

And so, I spoke to many of them, and I initially went there to support them with education, thinking that that was where the gap was, that was what I needed to support them with. But it turns out that they are extremely overeducated. They were extremely overqualified for the jobs available. They had their masters, their Ph.D., they were lawyers, they were professors, engineers, they were bilingual, trilingual, very, very highly talented and skilled people.

What they were looking for was access to the labor markets and a chance for them to utilize their skills. At the time the government didn’t have policies in place for refugee employment. Now they do. But back then it wasn’t there at all. And so, refugees had to wait years to get a work permit and be recognized as citizens, or just have their asylum applications accepted. 

I said to myself, “You know, remote work is a billion-dollar industry, and I’ve worked as a freelancer for many years. So, why don’t they? And that’s one option for them to earn an income online, and they were also  able to receive and transfer money. So, they had the infrastructure, they just didn’t have the skills and the knowledge. 

Regarding the woman that I met at the camp, we set up a learning resource center. We were able to support refugees with digital literacy, professional development, and skills development. And it was a very fulfilling time, probably the best, one of the best years of my life. And yeah, it was also very sad for me to say goodbye and to have to leave at the end of the year. 

But the center is continuing, and more and more people are being enrolled, trained, and educated. So, it became the sustainable and scalable business model that we had. Even if I leave or any of the other instructors leave, the training could continue because the refugees who’ve trained with me and trained with the other Ethiopians there have the knowledge and the experience to train other refugees to continue, to learn something new, you know, to improve their CV, for example, or to learn how to become a freelancer, or to enroll in different online courses and build their career profiles that way. So, yeah, it was a really interesting and meaningful project. 

But once I went back to India, I graduated with my degree in cybersecurity. I said, you know, I wanted to work with refugees again, and this time I wanted it to be global. So, I want to be able to support refugees around the world.

It’s amazing. What an incredible background and a great story. Thank you. So, currently, Invictus primarily serves refugees from which countries, and then you match them with online jobs in what other countries?

We work with refugees and internally displaced youth from more than 80 countries around the world, mostly in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, but also, in Russia and South America. In Asia and South America, the top countries are Syria, UAE, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iraq, Germany, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Netherlands, Russia, Morocco, Algeria, and Hungary.

So, maybe these are the top countries that we think refugees on our platform are based in or are living in. And then we work with businesses also, in the UAE because many, many agencies hire creative agencies that hire freelancers online. There are many companies in Turkey as well as countries like Lebanon, Australia, Norway, and Germany, and now we are branching out and we are seeking to work more closely related to some NGOs in Africa that have staff across. OK, So, it’s very international.

That’s fascinating and truly international. So, Invicta began in Ethiopia, but you now have branches in Latin America, Asia, Europe, and elsewhere. Is that correct?

Yeah, So, we are a remote Startup, we work with refugees and companies around the world. Our goal is to be operational in every refugee-hosting country in the world. So, that’s almost every country in the world by 2023. So next year’s quite an ambitious goal, but we’ve been working in many, many different countries, but where we haven’t been working a lot is in South America. 

And as you know, there’s a really bad political situation happening right now in Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia. And due to that, many, many young people are being displaced on the continent Even among the one million. So, that’s something we know and understand is happening at a very alarming rate. So, we want to start working more closely with NGOs to source refugees who are looking for the services that we provide remotely.

Right. That’s truly fantastic and remarkable.

Thank you.

As you’ve worked with people all over the world, surely, you’ve noticed differences in business culture. Let’s start with business culture first. So, perhaps from the refugees’ expectations of the way business operates, you connect them with, I don’t know, companies in Lebanon or Germany. The business culture is very different in Lebanon than in Germany or whatever. Can you give us some examples of the refugees’ expectations, perhaps of business cultures, and then the reality that they confront and how they have managed to bridge the gap to work in these other countries remotely?

Yeah, absolutely. 

So, a lot of the refugees are that. I would say the majority of those we work with, I would say, have never worked remotely before. So, that’s something that we give them training on. Once we determine that they are the best candidates for the roles, we provide them with training, such as on-the-job training, and we also provide them with mentoring. 

Give them a tour of their host companies, and this is where culture and business intersect. Training kicks in for them. They’re able to do this because, you know, the organizational culture is different in every company. So, we try to understand our client’s needs at the beginning, and then we try to help the refugees understand that as best as they can. 

So, I think their initial expectation of us is the way that they engage with us, for example, which is, directly either through WhatsApp or e-mail. To be given strict instructions like “This is the project that we need you to do. This is the timeline that we have set budgets for, these are the deliverables. So, if you have any questions, this is the e-mail.”

So, it’s very clear-cut and this is kind of their expectation going in. So, very low expectations. But a lot of the companies that we match them with, they are very diverse and they have their own fully distributed teams around the world. They have a very fun and engaging company culture, and it’s not always about the work for them. They want to get to know their employees, even if they’re just freelancers. They want to make them feel appreciated for the work they’re doing, and so, a lot of the calls that they have, sometimes they just want to get to know the refugees that they’re working with. About their story, how they learned to speak all these different languages, or what their hopes and dreams are, it becomes a very personal relationship, but that’s something that we admire and something that cultivates great motivation and curiosity among the refugees and the companies as well. So, they bond over that, and I think the refugees, the companies, and Invicta all learn a lot from that experience. You know, we try to create a very positive and supportive working environment. So, I’d say this is how it usually is.

Is it possible that for a refugee, for example, time management is a major problem?

I’ve lived in Africa. So, there, there’s a trait called African time, which is much slower than, say, American time, which is much more precise. And people get frenetic here if you’re 2 minutes late or something. So, do you have these kinds of issues with just different expectations of the work environment? Just the work environment in general and how that has posed challenges to you and the refugees?

Yeah, absolutely. 

I mean, as you said, there are many when it comes to cultural differences. There are lots of things that crop up. So, many challenges here and there. And you just have to first acknowledge that it’s something that you know needs to be addressed if it’s a problem. And I think about the challenges or the hiccups that we’ve seen. The biggest difference between refugees and companies is when it comes to communication. 

So, I believe that we—you know, the refugees we support, train, and work with—are very hardworking and professional. But I think in terms of communication, it’s completely different … the difference in many different cultures is and there’s also, a great book about this called The Culture Map. It just shows how diverse the expectations and realities are in many parts of the world. 

And so, we’ve had situations where the refugees are working on their projects. From the get-go, they find they understand the objective very well and they understand that there’s a timeline for that, So, they say to themselves, OK, I’m going to maybe do 20% until the deadline is almost there and then once there’s like a week or so before the deadline, then that’s when they are motivated to do the bulk of the work. Because in their mind, they’re thinking something like, as long as I get it done to the best of my ability or the client’s expectations, then there shouldn’t be any problem. 

So, they don’t communicate that well, like the way that they’re able to. They create a different time management process and how they’re able to organize themselves to be productive on the company side as well. A lot of companies, especially when they work with young freelancers in a project-based situation, like to check in with the freelancers a lot, and they like to know because they’re paying by the hour. So they like to check in quite frequently and say things like, “Hey, where are you? right? Where are you now? Do you need any support? Is there anything that we can provide for you? Do you mind sending us a demo of the work that you’ve done So, far? Would you mind meeting X and Y members of the team?”

A lot of the time, from the client side, there’s this great need to communicate regularly. However, from the perspective of refugees, many of them do not have very good communication abilities. Or they don’t see it as important as the client does, So, there are some blunders there. And I mean, it doesn’t lead to anything bad, it’s just a matter of acknowledging that this is a gap or a hiccup and coming to terms with it and addressing it in a healthy and positive way. And that’s usually what happens. Once the client makes it clear that we expect so and so, updates from the project. Because we want to know where you are. We want to support you. Then come to the refugees, who are very understanding of that, and they’re able to work at a much greater speed and be able to communicate that, and then they see the benefit of that as well. 

So, that’s usually where the challenges are.

It’s remarkable, it’s fascinating. I know that you’ve had some personal difficulties, shall we say politely, being a woman and having to confront some gender issues in Africa, primarily. Can you give us some examples of some of those issues that you confronted and how you dealt with them?

I’ve had many near-death experiences in my life, unfortunately. 

Both in Ethiopia and abroad as well, even in Europe. I even wrote a book about this called Rebellion. Yeah, it’s just an ebook, but it’s supposed to educate young people, particularly women, on how to avoid very bad situations in life, and how to be more self-aware, alert, and compassionate with themselves after such.

You know, these scary experiences happen. Some of them are things that happened not only to me but to other people as well. So, I’ll give an example of one, which is the earthquakes that I experienced when I was living in northern India, which came to the border with Pakistan, and earthquakes were happening in Pakistan, but I lived very close to the border. So, it felt like the aftershock of the event. And it was very, very intense.

And I remember one, I think in 2018. Pakistan had about one of the largest earthquakes. I think it was like 7 on the Richter scale. It was really bad and very intense as well. And I remember being in a classroom when it happened. It was just the middle of the day. Nobody had expected it. But you know, they did give us training, but it was just so strong that at no point did I think that I was going to survive that, not just me, but of course, my classmates as well, and my professors. 

But the Indians, I feel like they are much more prepared because they experience these shocks a few times a year. But me, especially in Ethiopia, because there aren’t any natural disasters where I grew up, so, it was very, very scary. I think that was the third one that I had experienced, but that one was the most serious, and yeah, just coming face-to-face with death, was a terrifying experience, but also, enlightening in many ways. It’s so true. But they say that your life flashes before your eyes and the thing that matters most to you, it will come front and center in your brain. So, yeah, that was a very eye-opening situation. 

And then there was also a time when I was kidnapped in Ethiopia when I was, I think maybe 15 or 16 years old, with my younger sister, and it was a really bad experience. I got out of that experience. I wasn’t hurt, thank God, but it was probably one of the scariest two or three hours of my life.

I was once in a situation where we were kidnapped and taken to an abandoned forest in the northern part of my city, and I had gotten out of that situation by remembering a post I had read on Quora. So, Quora is like a forum where people get to ask questions of the community. And the community gives answers, and I remember reading this amazing story about this woman who was able to free herself from her deranged stalker. He had been following her everywhere. She didn’t know him, but he was just following her obsessively, and then one day he made his way into her house while she was just cooking and putting the baby to sleep. There was no one else in the house. So, when she walked in through the living room, he was just sitting there, and he was probably a bit insane, he didn’t react to her seeing him and her. At her house, he just stood there. I mean, he was just sitting on the couch acting normal. And she remembered something that her mother had told us, told her when she was young, about surviving these crazy situations with stalkers. So, she pretended to have Stockholm syndrome. When she saw him, she wouldn’t panic at all. She recognized him, of course, and she said, “Hey, it’s great to see you. Why don’t you come over? What should I get you? Something from the kitchen? Why don’t you stay here, and I’ll make you a cup of coffee?” And so on. And he was just a bit baffled by this, but he didn’t say anything, and so, she pretended as if she wanted him there. She was glad to have him there, just to keep him calm, and he didn’t want her out of his sight. But eventually, she convinced him. And once he told her, like, OK, yeah, get me something to drink, she went to the kitchen very carefully. And then she called the cops, and she explained the situation to them, and they were able to come. 

But she noted in her Quora post that the moment between her calling the cops and the cops arriving at her house was one of the scariest moments of her life. Because she’s pretending to be something she’s not. And saying these things to him made her feel… well, disgusted with herself. And she had a baby sleeping in one of the bedrooms, so also, terrified of what would happen to him if anything went astray, so, thank God it had a happy ending. The cops showed up on time. They were able to arrest him and take him to jail. 

But reading her story has inspired me. And it just stayed with me and I never thought, of course, that I would have such a similar situation but it turned out that I did when I was kidnapped and I was with my younger sister, as I had said. And, you know, in hindsight, she was acting much smarter than I was because from the get-go she was feeling very fishy about the situation, she said, “Why are we taking rides from these strangers? We don’t even know them.” And when they stopped in an abandoned forest, that’s when she said, “We have to get out of here.” And once they started saying very inappropriate things to us, we opened the door as she banged it and she was able to run off into the middle of nowhere. She just disappeared, and there were two guys. There was one driving and one in the back, and the guy in the back wanted to run after her, but the driver said, “No, no, leave her alone. So, it was just at some point, it was just the three of them. And he said something like, “Yeah, you know, it’s fine, leave her. We’ll just go, the three of us, to my home.”

And I said, “Yeah, that sounds perfect, but why don’t I just quickly go and find my sister, because if I don’t, then my father will kill me” and so on. And somehow, I was able to convince him. I mean, we argued a lot, but I think I could convince him. And I said, if you don’t trust me just follow me in your van. I’m not going to run, and there’s no way to run to and he was like, “Fine”. And then he let me go, and I carefully got out of the car, and I just started yelling her name. She saw me, but she also saw the van following me, so, she didn’t say anything. 

And we got to a point where, in the very far distance, we could see some people and a bus. And so, I saw her shadow behind a huge dumpster, and I just ran toward her. I grabbed her and we just walked towards the bus and the people could see us. I was running at the time. And they were wondering what was going on. And that’s when the van took a detour, and then they just disappeared from there on and we never got back to see them again. So, that’s another crazy, crazy thing that has happened to me. And in the book, I mentioned this story and what I learned from it, as well as how other women can help themselves if they find themselves in similar situations and escape these situations. But also, even if they don’t and something bad happens to them, don’t worry, and have self-compassion and emotional resilience and you won’t fail. You will overcome anything.

Oh, it’s remarkable. Most people have never been kidnapped before. It’s pretty astonishing. This was in Ethiopia, right?

Yes, in Addis Ababa.

Before we close this, is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Cultural experiences or cultural issues or business issues or anything? Anything else that you’d like to add?

Yeah, I think remote work has changed the way that a lot of organizations around the world are embracing it. Embracing work. It is something we’re navigating in a technology-driven era, and so, while companies make a positive shift toward remote work, I think it’s also good for them if you’re listening to this podcast and you’re a business owner or plan to be a business owner, consider hiring refugees. They are extremely resilient and extremely talented people, and as you know, they’ve lived in many countries. They have a wide range of cultural and business experience so they are a huge asset to any business that they join. And nowadays, companies are looking for multi-talented, multi-skilled people who speak many languages and can bring that diversity to the organization and the workforce. And so, this is my message to anyone out there who is in international business or seeking to get into international business. The point is to always remember to diversify your workforce, and what better way to do so than by hiring resilient refugees. So, that’s it. 

I know words of wisdom. And then, yeah. It’s extremely, as you say, refugees have been through life experiences that most people can’t imagine and certainly don’t want to imagine. But it’s horrible. And to survive, you have to be resilient. And you have to go with the flow and change. Situations can change on a dime almost instantly. And just adjust to situations and figure out how to cope and the best way is to be straightforward. Refugees are extremely resilient because there is no other choice, and having no other choice is a great motivator in many situations.

Yeah, absolutely.

Well, thank you. It’s been a superb pleasure to gain your insights and your wisdom with all of this. This has been Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International, www.auerbach-intl.com. Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business.

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