January 16, Wubetu Shimelash
The Business Card That Changed My Life
I grew up the second of nine children in rural Ethiopia. At six, I was the main caretaker for 200 sheep, horses, cows, and goats, spending my days searching for food and water for these animals and my nights protecting them from predators and sleeping in a cave.
At ten, my father allowed me to attend school, despite my mother’s insistence that farm work provided a more practical education. The nearest school was two-and-a half hours of barefoot walking each way. I organized a running club to make the “commute” faster, easier, and more fun. After school, I worked alongside my father as a tour guide in the Simien Mountains National Park. At night, I studied with my feet in cold water to stay awake. I came in first in my class.
When I was fourteen, Blake Mycoskie, “Founder and Chief Shoe-Giver” at TOMS Shoes, visited my school. I happened to be playing soccer, barefoot, with a ball made from old socks tourists had left behind when Mycoskie stopped to watch our game. On a whim, I kicked him the ball, and he joined us. Afterward, he gave me his business card and money for shoes. I didn’t understand about business cards, but a friend did. He also knew about email and walked with me 37 miles to Debark with its one internet café.
To make a long story short, Mycoskie offered to pay my way at a school first in Addis Ababa, then three years later to Scattergood Friends School and Farm in rural Iowa, then on to Wake Forest University.
I am grateful for all the opportunities provided to me on this journey – the things I have learned, the challenges I have overcome, and the people I have met. I am grateful for the love, kindness, and care that Mycoskie and his family have shown me and for his mentorship. I am also grateful for the support and encouragement I receive from my family.
Every summer, I return to Ethiopia to help the community I grew up in by teaching English and providing other community services. Over and over again, I am reminded of my tremendous good luck. Someone came along, saw my potential, and invested in me. My goal is to become an entrepreneur like Mycoskie and to do the same for other young people.
Thus, I have started two companies, Simien Eco Trek and Wake Storage, to accomplish this goal. I can think of no better way to repay my mentor or any more rewarding a life than to help others. I am grateful for this beautiful journey of mine.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina