I finally meet the second-most powerful person in the US government’s development finance arm at a lavish awards evening in Manhattan, New York City, in late September. The 60th anniversary of the Africa-America institute; it is a spectacular affair. The who’s who of the Diaspora and African glitterati mingle with global business leaders, dignitaries and heads of state. At ease among them all, in a fabulous blue Tracy Reese cocktail dress, is Mimi Alemayehou.
We are seated at the same table, along with former Congolese-American basketball star Dikembe Mutombo and Nigerian model Oluchi Onweagba. Alemayehou manages to look as much a modern woman of the world as she is intrinsically African. She is a global player, with a très chic sense of fashion. As we exchange pleasantries, I am struck by her self confidence and keen sense of direction.
Alemayehou is the executive vice president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (Opic). Based in Washington DC, Opic works with the US private sector, and has a portfolio of more than $17 billion invested in over 100 countries around the world. And as the body’s second-in-command, Alemayehou oversees the distribution and implementation of these funds. She explains that Opic fosters investment in developing nations, by addressing “major world challenges, from poverty and hunger to access to electricity and financial services”, which also helps the US gain a foothold in emerging markets.
Alemayehou has held the senior Opic position since March 2010, when she was nominated by US President Barack Obama; a decision the Senate supported unanimously.
“I feel privileged to help lead an agency that is making a real difference around the world every day. Opic’s work supporting American businesses and mobilizing investment in emerging markets is particularly relevant today at a time when the private sector is playing such a key role in development,” Alemayehou says.
Although she is a naturalized American citizen, living and working in Washington DC, Alemayehou was born in Ethiopia, and the African nation has shaped the woman she has become. “I was definitely impacted by my early years in Ethiopia, as was every Ethiopian of my generation who lived through the Red Terror years,” she says.
A dark period in the country’s history, the Red Terror was a violent political campaign carried out in Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1976 and 1978. It is estimated that up to 500,000 people were tortured and killed under the brutal regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
“Seeing family members and friends imprisoned and killed for political reasons gave me a very early life lesson in the pursuit of freedom, not just political, but economic freedom.
“My parents’ and grandparents’ properties were expropriated and overnight they and many other families lost everything they had worked hard for. That’s a lesson that’s hard to forget.”
When she was eight years old, Alemayehou’s family moved to Kenya, where she spent some of the most impressionable years of her life. “I still have more friends in Kenya than I do in my country of birth,” she points out. Four years later, the family left for California, in the US. Shortly after they arrived on American soil, Mimi started high school.
“I was fortunate enough to have had parents who valued education and particularly to have had a mother and grandmother who were progressive, loving, and had the same expectations of me as they did for my two brothers, Addis and Daniel. In fact, my brothers would argue that our parents expected more from me than them,” she recalls, laughing.
Our short encounter leaves me yearning to know more. As fate would have it, I meet Alemayehou again the following evening, this time at a party organized by Sudanese telecommunications entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim. The billionaire philanthropist is celebrating the launch of the New Africa Center in Harlem, New York. Once known as the Museum of African Art, the building is being reinvented as a policy institute and space to showcase both African art and African intellect.
As on our previous encounter, Alemayehou is perfectly at ease ming-ling with the high-profile guests. Among them are musician and philanthropist Bono; Ethiopian-born
supermodel, Liya Kebede; the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae; and head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
With Afrobeat melodies playing in the background, I probe Alemayehou for more details about her career path. “I got to where I am today partly because I did not always listen to the advice I got,” she concedes.
Before she joined Opic, Alemayehou tells me, she served as the US executive director at the African Development Bank, effectively the most senior US Treasury official in Africa.
“Earlier in my career I was always interested in working on Capitol Hill, but a lot of people – including some of my own family members – told me that there was no way a member of Congress would hire someone who was not an American citizen. I pursued this dream anyway and was ultimately hired as legislative staffer on Capitol Hill.
“I have found it invaluable to question things and not necessarily take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says firmly.
After graduating from the West Texas A&M University, Alemayehou completed a Master’s degree in international business, law and deve-lopment at The Fletcher School in Massachusetts.
Today, she juggles her high-powered, travel-intensive job with the equally demanding roles of a life partner and mother. She says having a supportive partner, a live-in nanny, and close-knit network of girlfriends make it possible. “I think the family that you make is much more important that the family you are born into.”
But she cautions that “every woman is unique, and what is the appropriate balance for one is not necessarily right for another”. For Alemayehou, going for light jogs with her son means that she can spend quality time with him and still get her workout done.
“One thing about being a mother, I have become an expert multitasker! For example, I could breastfeed the baby and send out emails at the same time,” she quips.
Alemayehou’s roles as a life partner and a mother are clearly a great source of joy and pride to her. “My daughter has been to Switzerland, Senegal, and Puerto Rico. Three continents and she is only two years old! It is very important to me that I expose my children to much more than I was exposed to growing up,” she says seriously.
She also derives great fulfillment from her work: “Opic has supported many exciting projects in Africa in the past few years”. These include the development of a plant cultivation and agricultural production facility in Rwanda and the rehabilitation of municipal water systems in Ghana. She points out that Opic is one of the largest private equity investors in Africa: “I am very proud of our record. Our investment in Africa has gone up by 300 percent over the last four years.”
She is particularly interested in young people on the continent. One of Opic’s projects in Kenya is a microfinance loan program, which lends money to various entrepreneurs such as youth cooperative groups. Alemayehou also believes in the importance of mentoring.
“What is truly important is mentoring young women who look up to us. It’s our duty to mentor as many young women as we are able to. (Former US secretary of state) Madeleine Albright said: ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’. She is right. We have to do our part to make sure the next generation learns from our experience and hopefully benefits from it.”
She may be a global executive operating in the fast lane, but she claims to have “no desire to run for political office”. Instead, Alemayehou says she focuses on what she cares about: development in Africa: “The most important thing is to find out what you are passionate about.”