After spending a few years as an HR analyst at the World Bank, Yoadan Tilahun, an accomplished Ethiopian entrepreneur, in 2004 launched Flawless Events, her own event company. First based in Washington, DC, she relocated Flawless Events to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, in 2008.
At 41, she is now the head of the Ethiopian event industry and works with large groups such as Coca-Cola, Google, IBM and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Was it complicated as an African woman to join the World Bank?
At that time, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do despite my master’s degree in business administration (MBA). As I have followed a series of diplomas, I did not have a lot of experience in the world of work to know exactly where to go.
In general, joining the World Bank is not easy for anyone. When I left I had a good job with a long-term contract, but I was never a permanent employee.
“I fell in love with Ethiopia again”
Why leave the world of banking to get into the event industry?
I had a good job at the World Bank but it didn’t make me totally happy. With a few friends we thought about what we could do outside of our working hours.
We liked to organize parties and had noticed that the African events we attended were often lacking in organization. In fact, we decided to go into events. This is how Flawless Events was born while I was still in Washington.
At the beginning, we worked part-time because I was still working at the World Bank. We organized weddings, charity evenings and other social events for the African community. Then I realized that I love to organize this stuff.
My husband has been very supportive of me by encouraging me to quit my job at the World Bank to be in charge of Flawless Events full time. I was very scared because the American market is large. And many such service companies exist. I didn’t think I could be successful in this environment.
In 2008, you set up Flawless Events in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia …
We always wanted to go back to Ethiopia and in 2007, after 15 years away, I went back for vacation. I fell in love with the country again. It was as if I had never left him since I was a child.
At that time, there weren’t a lot of event companies in Ethiopia. I took the risk and installed Flawless Events there in 2008.
When we started Flawless Events there, my biggest wish was to do at least one event per month. Now, almost 10 years later, we’re down to 5 or 6 a month. It’s not enough yet (laughs)!
“The difference is in the dedication and the quality of service we offer”
Why leave Washington when your business was running smoothly?
Going to Ethiopia… it was an emotional decision. I am from Ethiopia, grew up there and had wonderful memories. I also wanted to raise my children there. We deduced that if we wanted to move, we had to do it when the children were still small.
You know, when you are in Ethiopia, the opportunities seem bigger to you. The market was free and small. It was almost easier to become a leader there.
You turned the Ethiopia event industry around, what made it so successful?
In 2008, there was only one other Ethiopian company that had seriously entered the field. Ethiopia is such a big country with great opportunities and a very fertile market. Many large international companies were starting to come there to organize events.
My first event, I organized it successfully for a company specializing in medical. Then word-of-mouth and recommendations from several people did their part.
But I think the difference is that I like to organize events! I dream about it at night! It’s very exhausting, but the more tired I am the more energy I have to keep going. I think when you do something you love and always push yourself to try to do better, other people notice it. Therein lies the difference: in the dedication and in the quality of service that we offer. We don’t just do it for the money, we want to make sure the event goes as it should. We are never satisfied if the customer is not.
“Ethiopians are always surprised when they meet a business leader”
How does it feel to work with large international companies?
Whenever a company contacts us and then accepts the quote to work with us, I always think it’s a joke. I say to myself: “seriously? Will this big business trust my
small business for this big event? “
We prefer to take it little by little because if you take an overview, it can be scary. We set up schedules to get organized, one step at a time. It’s so rewarding when someone trusts you for one of their events.
Your company is made up of seven women and one man, the driver, why?
I have hired men a few times to work with us. Despite their professionalism, I found they did not have the same patience and attention to detail. With women it’s almost natural.
Yoadan Tilahun and the Flawless Events team
The energy in our office is also very different when there is a man. It’s almost like a sorority, we eat together, we laugh together… One of our managers had a baby and it was almost automatic for us to realize that maybe she needed more time to take care of it. . We understand each other.
Are all of your employees African?
The employment law in Ethiopia is very strict so there are only Ethiopian women.
“The fact that I am a woman never mattered”
What are the challenges you have faced as an Ethiopian entrepreneur?
We need to work with government offices as well as officials as in big events the government needs to be involved in one way or another.
Officials are always surprised when they meet me, especially after talking to me on the phone because of my masculine-toned voice. My confidence, which they attribute to my upbringing and Western life experience, amazes them too. But I’ve always been like that. I will always fight for my clients.
Ethiopia is a country of patriarchal culture where men dominate and women have to unofficially stay at home to care for children. So people are always surprised when they meet a businesswoman.
What is the best piece of advice you received when you were younger that still serves you today?
I grew up with two brothers, all of my cousins are boys, and the majority of my neighbors are men. That’s how I grew up with them. I fought with men. I always thought I could do whatever I wanted. The fact that I’m a girl never mattered. If he has something you want to do, do it! Gender has nothing to do with that.
“Be the best at what you do! Today, we can learn inexpensively thanks to the Internet “
What advice could you give to young women who want to get into entrepreneurship?
You shouldn’t denigrate yourself for being a woman. You have to persevere despite the fear. Most of the time we are our own barriers. If we’re wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It is important to meet people who have already started a business, and to find their mentors. We need to talk ! Talking about your difficulties is not a weakness, on the contrary.
When you embark on something, you have to give yourself the means. By educating yourself, to be the best at what you do! For those who cannot afford a major education, that’s okay, now you can find everything on the Internet. You can train at a lower cost.
What’s next for Flawless Events?
I think the next step is to do more events and most importantly, to do them elsewhere than in Ethiopia, and thus expand the box.
And for you ? What’s your next personal challenge?
I would like to be more socially involved and set an example for my three sons. Do more for the community and for the youth, both socially and for education.