Mimi Alemayehou is the second most powerful person at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, [OPIC], the US government's development finance institution headquartered in
Washington DC Nominated as the Executive Vice President of the organization by President Barack Obama on March 10th, 2010 and confirmed unanimously by the full US Senate, Mimi co-manages OPIC which has a portfolio of more than USD 16 billion invested in over 100 countries around the world. The mother of two is as much a modern woman as she is an African woman. A global power player with a tres chic sense of fashion, Mimi is a naturalized US citizen who was born in Ethiopia and spent her early years in Kenya before immigrating to the United States.
In her present role as second-in-command, Mimi explained that she "helps to lead a dedicated and talented team of professionals who work to provide the expertise and creative solutions to foster investment in these challenging places, and to address major world challenges from poverty and hunger to access to electricity and financial services." Farai Gundan, a contributor for Forbes magazine, spoke with Mimi to learn more about her career journey that took her from Africa to top position in Washington DC, her current role as one of the most powerful African female executives in the United States and lessons she learned along the way. Excerpts:
Question: Back on March 10th, 2010, you were nominated as the Executive Vice President of Overseas Private Investment Corporation, [OPIC] by President Barack Obama and confirmed unanimously by the full US Senate. Belated congratulations given that we are in 2013. How did that make you feel especially being nominated by a US President, in your case President Barack Obama and unanimous confirmation by US Senate?
Mimi Alemayehou: It was a huge honor. 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.
You are the second highest ranking Executive within OPIC, can you give us an insight to your specific role and responsibilities with OPIC?
I co-manage the US government's development finance institution which has a portfolio of more than USD 16 billion invested in over 100 countries. I help lead an amazingly dedicated and talented team of professionals who work to provide the expertise and creative solutions to foster investment in these challenging places, and to address major world challenges from poverty and hunger to access to electricity and financial services. While OPIC's focus is on development, we apply financial rigor to our work and consistently generate a net profit.
You are a naturalized US citizen, an African woman born in Ethiopia and spent your early years in Kenya before immigrating to the United States. Tell me about more about your formative years, college life, and early career path and how you got where you are?
I was definitely impacted by my early years in Ethiopia, as was every Ethiopian of my generation that lived through the Red Terror years. 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 parent's and grandparent's 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.
My most impressionable years were spent in Kenya, where for the first time I met people that were not Ethiopians. I still have more friends in Kenya than I do in my country of birth. 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 brothers. In fact my brothers would argue that our parents expected more from me than them. The first successful entrepreneur I knew well and looked up to was my grandmother. She could not read or write but she was one of the smartest women I have ever known. I often wonder how far she would have gone if she had been allowed to go to school by her parents, who chose only to send the boys to school.
I got to where I am today partly because I did not always listen to the advice I got. For example, 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.
You have been very smart with your career decisions, hence a stellar/outstanding career, how did you know you were on the right path as far as your career is concerned? What is your ultimate role? President of Ethiopia, World Bank?
I don't believe there is such a thing as a perfect position or a dead-end job. At every step, you learn. Life is a journey of learning. I have no desire to run for political office but I care deeply about development in Africa and around the world, and that has driven my professional decisions I see tremendous opportunity to improve people's lives and I want to be a part of that. I just returned from a trip to South Africa and Tanzania, where I was fortunate to be part of President Obama's dialogue with business leaders from across the continent. Africa remains a place of great challenges as well as great opportunities.
As an African woman in a high profile position, can you describe the current landscape for women in general and African women in particular as far as career opportunities available to them?
When I was on the Board of the African Development Bank, I was the only woman and I served with 17 men. While some things have changed for women, many things have not. When I returned to Washington in 2010, President Obama also nominated me to be on the Board of the African Development Foundation, where I was once again the only woman on that Board. Today there are still very few women serving on the boards of Fortune 100, Fortune 500 companies. What that means is that we are not making the best use of 50 percent of our talent. One of my favorite quotes is from Christine Lagarde who said if Lehman Brothers behaved more like Lehman Sisters, things might have turned out differently for the bank. We have a way to go on this issue.
You previously served as the United States Executive Director at the African Development Bank and in that role you were the most senior US Treasury official in Africa. What are some of the highlights of the time you spent at the African Development Bank? What were some of the challenges?
The highlights were the projects we approved that created thousands of jobs and improved lives in Africa. We approved a modern highway construction project in Senegal and multiple power projects and port projects. I have tremendous respect for my friend Donald Kaberuka who has been a great leader of the institution.
The challenge was making sure that the African people were involved at every level in their own development agenda. It often surprised me that NGOs in the Western world had more to say than local groups about projects taking place in Africa. Too often, the African voice is lost or discounted. We have to build stronger civil society in Africa that can speak adequately on behalf of their people.
Your organization, OPIC, the US Government's Development Finance Institution, manages over $16 billion in financing and insurance in support of private sector investment in emerging markets. What are the specific emerging markets that your organization targets and which sectors? How are the regions and sectors determined for investment by OPIC?
OPIC provides loans, guarantees, and risk mitigation products like political risk insurance to companies, entrepreneurs and NGOs that pioneer investment in developing nations.
We work in countries across the globe, from Afghanistan to Kenya, the Far East and Latin America, and in a variety of sectors including power, agriculture, small and medium enterprise (SME) lending, housing, infrastructure, and manufacturing. Our criteria for investment are shaped by our own internal investment policies, and most importantly, where our clients see investment opportunities. Currently, Africa is our largest portfolio region and our fastest growing.
We pride ourselves in being nimble, flexible, and ready to take risks that commercial banks will not as well as developing with our clients the kind of creative and accommodating structures that investing in frontier market requires.
At the same time, we believe in taking prudent risks. That's why our portfolio continues to be profitable, and we return funds to the U.S. Treasury every year.
I read on your blog that OPIC, the US Government's development finance institution is advancing President Barack Obama's "Presidential Policy Directive" on U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa by supporting investments that create sustainable growth and prosperity throughout the region. Can you shed light on President Obama's "Presidential Policy Directive" on US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa? And what specifically is OPIC doing to "create sustainable growth and prosperity" in the region?
In June of 2012, President Obama unveiled a new Presidential Policy Directive on Sub-Saharan Africa, which further codified the United States' long-standing commitment to the nations and peoples of the region. The document reflected our commitment to Africa through improvement of democratic institutions; supporting peace and security, promoting opportunity and development, and driving economic growth, trade, and investment.
OPIC seeks to create opportunity across Sub-Saharan Africa by helping businesses invest in the region, creating jobs, knowledge transfer, and economic growth. In President Obama's first term, OPIC has provided USD 2.9 billion of investment in support of private sector projects in the region and we look forward to continuing that trend in the coming years. Furthermore, OPIC has committed USD 1.5 billion towards President Obama's Power Africa initiative, aimed at doubling access to electricity on the continent.
Last year, you went on a trip to Ethiopia, with OPIC CEO Elizabeth Littlefield and witnessed the challenges Ethiopian women experienced in preparing meals for their families. As an Ethiopian, how difficult is it to witness some of these basic challenges that Ethiopia and Africa currently faces? What role do African women play coming up with solutions for Africa?
It's obviously very difficult to see that so many people, particularly women, still face these kinds of challenges. Unfortunately, my country of birth, Ethiopia, is one of the worst places to be born a girl. You don't have to go far from the capital of Addis Ababa to witness the hardships faced by women. A visit to the fistula clinic where child brides get treated for obstetric fistula will do it. The positive trend is that women are fighting back; there is change taking place, but not fast enough.
In OPIC's 2012 Annual Report, the letter from OPIC President, Elizabeth Littlefield mentioned that the OPIC had "redoubled efforts in Africa, in support of Obama Administration priorities. Today, projects in Africa account for nearly a quarter of OPIC's global portfolio, up from six percent a decade ago". What are some of those projects in Africa? What are some of the changes you have seen in doing business in Africa now, versus a decade ago? What are the areas for improvement that need to be addressed to make Africa a destination of choice for investment and for doing business?
OPIC has supported many exciting projects in Africa in the past few years. They include financing for a major geothermal power plant in Kenya, which added 52 megawatts to the grid, insurance for rehabilitation of thirty-eight municipal water systems in Ghana, and financing to develop a plant cultivation and agricultural production facility in Rwanda. OPIC is also one of the largest investors in Private Equity in emerging markets, particularly in Africa.
There have been major changes to the business climate in Africa over the past 10 years. It's becoming a better destination for the private sector every day, but there is definitely room for improvement. It's easy to tell which countries are doing better on the enabling environment front because that is where the investments are headed!
Many commentators have been critical of the level of attention devoted by the Obama Administration to Africa, what are your thoughts on this? Do you think your organization / Obama Administration is doing "enough" or do you think more can be done in Africa? And what would be the prescription for the Obama Administration to Africa, given that this is President Obama's last term in office?
The President just returned from a successful three county visit to Africa and increasing US-Africa trade and investment was a major theme of his trip. The President made a point to meet with both American and African business leaders at a roundtable which he personally moderated. The President has also announced that he will be hosting a head of state summit for African leaders in Washington, DC in 2014.
At OPIC, I am very proud of our record; our investment in Africa has gone up by 300 percent the last four years compared to the four prior years.
I look forward to continuing those trends and our work in Africa in the second term of this Presidency.
By 2050, Africa is expected to represent 15 percent of the world population, compared with 10.8 percent in 1980 and its share of the world's youth (between the ages of 15 and 24) is projected to grow to 31.3 percent (currently this share is 17.5 percent). As part of OPIC's commitment to the President's policy, last year on November 11 - 12, you traveled to Dakar, Senegal, to attend the Mo Ibrahim Youth Forum - an event focused on African youth. What were your findings there and your key take-aways? What excited you the most about Africa's youth and why?
The Ibrahim Forum was a great event and I applaud him for his leadership and work in this realm. What excites me most is the great potential, enthusiasm, and optimism I see in Africa's youth. This is a sentiment shared across the US government, as we see in President Barack Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative and support for leadership development across the globe.
I recently interviewed Nelson Mandela's grandsons' Ndaba Mandela and Kweku Mandela Amuah, and both shared that Africa's future lies in its youth, yet access to capital is a challenge for most of the continent's young entrepreneurs. What role is your organization doing to empower Africa's youth and give them the necessary tools for success? How should governments, businesses and relevant institutions address the issue of youth unemployment in Africa?
One of the keys to job creation is support for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs, which are central to economic growth in every country. OPIC actively works to create opportunity for entrepreneurs and small businesses in Africa by supporting microfinance lending and lending to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). For example, in Kenya, we have worked with an Africa focused private equity fund and Equity Bank of Kenya to create a microfinance loan program lending to entrepreneurs like a youth co-operative group and a metal hardware store. Also, as part of President Obama's Young Africa Leaders Program, OPIC will be hosting young African entrepreneurs as fellows in Washington.
Despite their vital contribution to GDP, economic growth and job creation, SMEs in Africa generally lack access to affordable financing - given your pan-African and Western experience, how should access to affordable capital be addressed in Africa?
One of the biggest challenges these small businesses often face is that they have no formal bank account or no track record of borrowing and repaying loans. That often means they are not deemed creditworthy. One of the ways OPIC has helped address this challenge is by supporting projects that promote greater access to financial services even in rural areas with limited physical infrastructure, and by providing loans and guaranties to support lending to these small businesses. For example, our loan to the Medical Credit Fund supports lending to many of Africa's small health clinics that struggle to obtain bank loans. Along with providing them funds to pay for the upgrade and expansion of their facilities so that they can serve more patients, this program helps clinics establish a credit history.
According to your 2012 Annual Report, OPIC's experience doing business in emerging markets is unrivaled and its financial support helps American businesses gain entry to these fast growing new markets, where there is a growing class of consumers and growing demand for goods and services. Are these American businesses that are going into these emerging markets, specifically Africa, for the "growing class of consumers", benefiting Africa? How involved are the relevant African stakeholders in the investment decision making by OPIC and American businesses?
When OPIC supports American businesses in emerging markets, it's a win-win. The country benefits from an investment that will support development and stimulate growth; the US business benefits from growing into new and fast-growing markets. We work closely with our local partners on all our investments and evaluate all our projects for how they contribute to development for African stakeholders.
The US businesses we support benefit from gaining access to some of the fastest growing markets in the world. OPIC works with businesses of all sizes and actively seeks to partner with small businesses. Last year, almost three-quarters of the deals we supported involved a US small business.
Still, structural transformation has been a challenge in Africa. Industry captains as well as African governments are aware that if they are to increase or even maintain a robust growth, they must move away from agriculture and extractive industries (oil, gas, gold) and move towards industrial value added services and technological innovation. Knowing what we know now, why is structural transformation a challenge for Africa? What steps should we take towards this end? Africa's most valuable asset is its abundance of natural resources. Many of the challenges the continent faces today such as malnutrition and limited access to electricity are a result of those resources not being sufficiently developed. We must work to make the most of its natural resources and seek to do so in a sustainable manner that will support development over the long term.
A very troubling issue is the low level of formal intra-Africa trade, what are your thoughts on this and how should Africa boost intra-Africa trade amongst member countries?
As long as African countries are only selling raw commodities as opposed to processed goods, there will be low levels of trade. There is no reason for Kenya to export loose leaf tea to the UK, and then import English Breakfast tea. We know the UK does not grow tea but they are one of the largest exporters of tea. Africa should aim to become exporters of English Breakfast too! Another impediment is infrastructure. It is cheaper to import coffee from Indonesia to the Port of Durban in South Africa than from Port of Mombasa. That makes no sense. Ford in South Africa is sending their vehicles by air cargo to Kenya. How ridiculous is that? But that is the reality because of poor infrastructure. Increased investment in infrastructure is key. Soft infrastructure and better policies are also important. 54 countries with 54 passports is a little outdated in this globally integrated world we live in.
The Obama Administration is committed to expanding Africa-US trade and investment and to facilitating trade within Africa itself. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is an important tool for achieving these objectives. The Administration also seeks to strengthen AGOA, which has been around for over a dozen years now, to make it a more effective instrument for Africa and the United States. Toward this end, President Obama announced Trade Africa in Tanzania in July 2013.
Trade Africa is a new partnership between the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa that seeks to increase internal and regional trade within Africa, and expand trade and economic ties between Africa, the United States, and other global markets. This initiative's initial focus is the East African Community.
Some African countries are consistently ranked near the bottom on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Bank's governance indicators and various other indices on competitiveness and governance. How do we encourage transparency, accountability and good governance with African leaders?
First of all, it is important to note that many African governments have made significant progress introducing regulatory and legal reforms, and generally improving the business and investment climate. More needs to be done, but as governments see the benefits of their reforms I think the progress will beget more progress.
Lastly, what advice would you give to African women corporate executives and entrepreneurs?
The most important thing is to find out what you are passionate about. I know there are all kinds of people giving advice about this topic at the moment - from telling people to "lean in" to warning that "women can't have it all". Every woman is unique, and what is the appropriate balance for one is not necessarily right for another.
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. One of my other favorite quotes is from Madeline Albright who said; "There is 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.