Ethiopian Business Review

And the Winner is ... Sara Mohammad: Winner of the 2013 AWiB’s Woman of Excellence Award

When Sara Mohammad was 12 years old, she was a little girl with big dreams. She told EBR that this was the age she decided she would grow up to be a businesswoman. If she had any naysayers, her newest achievement must surely quiet them.   This year, the designer and founder of the first fashion school in Ethiopia, Next Design Institute, received the Association of Women in Business’ Women of Excellence Award.  A humble woman, the designer and former model talks of the utter surprise she felt when she found out she would be this year’s recipient. If anyone knows anything about this particular businesswoman, it is that she is a pioneer in her field;  and of course all pioneers have to fight to break new ground; so how did she do it? We can find her strength and resilience in the crooks of her past. 

Sara, who grew up with five sisters and a brother, was instilled with the competitive nature one often finds in people who grow up in large households with unavoidably warring siblings. She speaks fondly of her childhood and her mother; despite the less than ideal cards the family was dealt. Sara’s mother is a woman who single-handedly raised and supported all seven children, a situation that would undoubtedly affect the type of woman the young Sara would become. “My mother was alone when we were growing up, and I had to help her in every way” she reflects, “and she’s a businesswoman, she’s my role model, she always found solutions to anything negative. That makes me strong because when I started this path, this business, it was a big challenge, so I just started searching for solutions”. It’s easy to see the cloth from which this woman has been cut; like her mother, she is pure positivity and exudes a confident strength.

As we discuss the environment that nurtured her as she grew up, Sara speaks passionately about Harar, where she was born and Dire Dawa, where she was raised. “We have many cultures in Dire Dawa. It’s a place where Harari, Oromo, Somali and Afar people  live together; they all love colour, they are ornate and have their own styles and that gave me a strong urge to go into fashion”. This career path in the late 90s in Ethiopia, defied convention, and Sara’s desire to leave Dire for a modelling career in Addis would have been difficult for any parent to come to terms with and although Sara did not get the permission she’d hoped for, she chased her goal anyway, moving to the capital on her own. Sara remembers the difficulty she faced and eventually, overcame; “I was alone and I was fighting to be on top, and I did it”.   The key word here is “fighting”. That fighters’ spirit she inherited from her tireless mother seems to be the key to her success. She fought for her opportunities, like when she was accepted to DSTV’s Face of Africa modelling competition, but opportunities mean nothing if you can not recognize how to use them. This particular experience, Sara says, became an inspiration; “When I went to Face of Africa, there were so many designers from East Africa who had such a wonderful touch to their cultural clothes so I saw that traditional clothing did not have to be all traditional, so I always add a touch of something different, that became my rule”.  When she was doing beauty competitions, Sara eventually began designing the clothes she wore on the runway. “I did not ask anyone to give me clothes, of course at the beginning, Gigi [a well known Ethiopian designer] helped me with that,  but then, I began to make clothes myself, and people complemented me, they really loved them and that was when it clicked for me.  This fearless approach Sara had in pursuing her goals placed her in the path of opportunity and when it knocked, she does not seem to have missed a beat. She explored the inspirations and interests that came with her experiences and molded them to pursue the art of design not just for herself, but for others as well. 

Sara Mohammad founded Next Modelling Institute and Next Design Institute not for money, or notoriety, but to create opportunities for women (and men too) through something that was not available at the time. This is obvious when she answers the question “what would Sara be doing if she was not a designer and businesswoman?” Without missing a beat, she says “charity work”. It is no surprise that she explains she would work with women and children in a non-profit capacity if you consider the amount of charity work she’s involved in, and the fact that half the students at Next Design are on scholarships that she helps secure. She explains that the most important thing her business achieves is the success of her students, and this is no spiel, because Sara has a reputation of helping promote her students. So what can we learn from someone who pursued their goals regardless of what challenge presented itself? Sara says about women in business, and women who aspire to be in business, “they have to be strong; they have to always think positive and look for positive solutions in negative situations, even if it’s difficult. If they are positive they’ll find a solution, if someone always tries to find fault, they will not go far”. Sara echoes the lessons she pulled from her mother’s life and work, and then, her own; lessons that seem simple and obvious but are quite difficult to live by day to day. With these qualities, Sara transformed something many may believe to be a superficial or unimportant into a legitimate business that has been recognized internationally, that not only creates art but also nurtures talents that would otherwise be left unexplored.

Amusing snippets from our interview:

What do you prefer: designing for others or designing for yourself?

I like designing for others, especially people with great figures!

How do you deal with someone who comes in and asks you to design something that in your opinion is in bad taste? How do you deal with the less-than-modest customer?

Sometimes when people have money, they think they can do everything. I do not do anything without advising my clients. I look at their body, and then sketch the look I think best suits them.

Have you ever refused to make something for a client?

Yes, many times! I will not make something that does not look good just for the sake of money.

Can you describe some of your favorite designs you’ve ever done?

I love Menen fabric and when I do designs with it, people love it, especially outside of Ethiopia. Even if it’s just a sample, they want it, and it’s a challenge for me to give it to them but I will if they offer a good price!

What are your predictions about the future of the Ethiopian fashion industry?

(She laughs) We will be the next China!


2nd Year . November 2013 . No.9


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