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Powered by Purpose

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Torchbearer: Melate Bekele. Ethiopian. Los Angeles - USA.

“From a young age I've always had a sense of purpose and understanding of who I am. I have been very intentional because I knew where I was headed.”

Melate Bekele, who at an early age played her part in philanthropy, didn't realize until early adulthood that not all organizations have the same genuine passion to serve. It was then that she knew she had to use her network and skills and create a new way to make a difference. This is her journey.

Seeds of Service

My life's mission is really about being of service. I've always known that my purpose was to find resources and bridge gaps where I can see them. It could be providing a community for people. It could be providing job resources – whatever it looks like. But I know for me, it's about caring for others and being compassionate enough to understand that life is hard for all of us – How can we make it easier and better for people?

My parents have always worked in philanthropy. When we were in Ethiopia, my dad worked for multiple organizations like Food for the Hungry and World Vision. Therefore it was very innate while growing up. We've always grown up with that as kind of the cornerstone and backbone of our family – being of service. My family has always been very supportive of my work in this space and instilled the values in me to do it. Even my husband supports my vision and is selfless in how he gives back.

We come from a culture that requires and celebrate those who choose to pour into the community. I didn't know anything else. I thought everyone wanted to give and help.

The Disappointing Side of Development

I was a little naive.

It was pretty interesting because when you think of (international) development, you think it must be a good thing. I was just assuming that any kind of development in communities is good development.

My actual experience in development - it was more about business than it was about giving aid. A lot of organizations were abusing the system. For example – they didn't use a lot of local resources, which is really frustrating. There are a lot of local contractors and experts for different things, but we would always outsource. That was frustrating. There are great resources within a country that could be a lot more cost efficient, but they wouldn't use them. They assumed anyone or anything outside of the country would have more expertise versus those that are local.

In Ethiopia, I was working at a German organization, but there was World Bank and IMF workers there too. So there was Europeans, Americans and local Ethiopians working for the same organization. Those who weren’t local Ethiopians were paid higher, paid in dollars, given homes, given cars - while the locals who had masters and doctorates were taking mini-buses to work and were being paid a fraction of what the expats were being paid – even though the locals were doing most of the work.

There was also a bigger issue of capacity building. You come in, do your project and then leave. You then wonder why it didn't succeed after you left – I mean, you didn't empower the locals! You didn't teach! You didn't give the resources to them for it to be theirs! There's no level of engagement and communication. It isn't this collective program that organizations and local communities are doing together. It's - 'Hey, we're the experts. We're going to come tell you what's best for YOUR country.' You're not teaching men how to fish, you're just giving them the fish to eat for that day.

In many respects, it’s the 21st century version of colonization – the dependency on economic support and aid.
Development was nothing what I expected.

The Solution

Just because I see an issue and it frustrates me, doesn't mean I stay away from it. I feel like we have to do better – Otherwise, who will?

I don’t want to discriminate, but for me - it's like there's a ‘white savior complex’ that a lot of nonprofits have. As an Ethiopian, I have noticed my privilege and intentionally use my resources and skills to help my country, my continent, my people. Why wouldn't I!? We should be doing it and take responsibility.

When you see there's a gap in something, go solve it! Don’t just complain. I’m not just going to complain. I have to be involved in order for it to change.

In 2017 I founded Habesha Networks. We're in multiple cities around the world and emphasize community development. Our goal is to develop and implement ways to connect communities across the globe. We provide thought leadership to change narratives and bridge gaps. We want to help people professionally network and provide opportunities for meaningful connections.

Counting on Calculated Risks

I took a lot of risks in my career. I've always been a little bit fearless – I know no matter what things will work out. I just have that kind of faith. After my undergraduate degree, I moved to Ethiopia without a secured job. I contacted nonprofits and organizations before I came to the country.

At one point I moved from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. The US was in the middle of the recession and I didn’t have a job plan. I spent the first 6 months in DC without a job. I was able to stay with family. I had contacts here and there, but not much else. I would constantly email anybody I knew, anybody I met, ‘Hey, my name is Melate and I'm looking for a job. Do you know anybody looking? This is my resume.’ I went to every networking event you could find in DC. I joined every group – anything I could do to meet people and make connections. That was my number one priority.

I was scared – there were so many times where I thought to myself ‘this is the worst decision I ever made in my life! Why did I do this?’ I had a bunch of savings and I had to use all of my savings at that time. But I also was privileged enough to take those risks. I did have a really strong support system to help me just in case.

I leaned on my faith and I knew eventually it would work out and I would find a job. That was an interesting experience.

The Satisfying Side of Development

The work I do at Free Wheelchair Mission is phenomenal! We're only 30 people, but the work we do is huge. One of the main reasons why I even took the job was because I just love the transparency of the work. We get daily reports on the countries we're in, where the wheelchair shipments are, how many we've shipped. It’s really clear. So when you give me $80 for a wheelchair, I can tell you it's going to this country and it'll arrive at this time. I love having that kind of transparency .

Want to Start Working in Development?

If you want to start working in development, I would say –

What sectors do you connect with?

Is it women's issues?


Public health?

Everyone has different passions. In development there's so many places and things to do. I recommend looking and thinking about what does your heart connect with the most – then evaluate your skill sets.

Also, you can't look for praise or money as your form of happiness. The money will never drive you over the passion. Your drive has to come from a place of value for yourself and the work you do. There's a level of ego check and self-awareness that is really important. There has been a lot of peaks in my career that I'm really proud of, but for me – I feel most successful when I see the impact and transform a life.

~ Melate Bekele


Enjoyed Melate's journey? Then let us know! Here are other inspiring moments.

  • Read: "Turns & Twists Makes Me Stronger" - There was a woman that invited me for a TV interview to explain the work of the book clubs. During the questions she asked, ‘you already started two book clubs, why don’t you continue and make it wider? Like a movement.’ Then I thought, ‘okay, I can do that!'

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