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Q&A with Biniam Gebre

Biniam Gebre is Pathfinder’s first President, Africa. In this leadership role, he supports the roll out of Pathfinder’s country-led strategy, which is building a more equitable and inclusive organization—one whose priorities are driven by established deep bonds of trust with local partners contributing to resilient health systems and changing lives for the better. He is a father of two young girls and is striving to be the ‘Best Dad in the Universe.’

What brought you to Pathfinder and what motivates you to serve in this key leadership position?

What brought me to Pathfinder was its mission to serve women and girls in low- and middle-income countries, and particularly, its focus on reproductive health and rights and giving agency to women and girls. I joined Pathfinder to focus on issues I care about—things connected to my daughters and background. I am from East Africa, raised by a single mom.

I took on the interim President, Africa position because I love Pathfinder. I believe in Lois Quam’s vision and leadership, and Pathfinder’s fearless energy to be a role model for how to be locally led. I am energized about doing everything I can to help Pathfinder and the industry transform the notion of localization and community ownership, and essentially, reallocate the wealth that exists in international development to the countries it’s meant to serve. It’s a hard change, and I thought I could be helpful at this time of transition. That’s why I took on this leadership role.

Tell us a little about your story. What about your personal journey makes you especially interested in Pathfinder’s mission?

I am the single child of my mom and dad. My mom was the youngest of 10. All of her sisters and brothers had many children. She told me a story about how she convinced her dad, an important figure in the village, to not marry her off at age 9, although all of her sisters were married at that age. She said that was one of the best things that ever happened to her. Her dad decided to let her not get married and wait. He let her go to school. She went to sewing school, which is how she met my dad. It was a marriage based on love. She would tell me stories about how he would read to her under this one tree in our village.

I think about her story and her sisters’ struggles. I also think about my daughters and how the world is stacked against them. Women and girls are our future. I believe deeply in Pathfinder’s mission. It’s connected to who I am, where I was born, and how I was raised.

What are your priorities for this position and why?

Over the next six months, there are three important priorities.

First, I will work to strengthen the resources we have available to our teams to deliver on our mission, support more women and girls in the countries we serve, and expand our support to other countries.

The second priority is to deepen our approach to how we work in different countries. We have a strong group of local leaders where Pathfinder works. We want to empower them and explore other mechanisms through which we can truly be locally led. We will reinforce systems and processes to achieve this goal.

The third is to find a permanent leader for Africa, who is going to be based in Africa to lead our work into the future.

What are some learnings from your past personal or professional experiences that you will bring to this leadership role?

When you are in a position of power and control, one tends to judge those who aren’t as limited, needing help, and less than. I’ve worked with three consulting firms, as a political appointee in the US Government, and served dozens of companies across many industries. What I’ve learned through all of that is that trusting and empowering people is incredibly powerful. Having conscious and unconscious biases about their seeming lack of capacity or need of your saving is dangerous. This is true in almost all contexts. Whether it’s a bank, a pharmaceutical company, or a government agency. In the development and international aid world folks call it ‘the colonial mindset,’ but that obfuscates the issue and passes the responsibility to some vague actor in history versus the individuals who are in it. And the behavior of those individuals is a familiar pattern across all industries. It happens everywhere.

Where leaders recognize that they can trust their teams, and they are there to support them—those teams overperform. You will have some places where it’s a challenge, but on average they deliver much more if you give them the space and trust them. That is the most important lesson that I’ve learned. When you think about Pathfinder’s country’s directors—who are brilliant people—I want to take this lesson to create a space where they can take risks, give them the resources to navigate those risks, and trust them to do great things.

Pathfinder works in more than a dozen African countries. How do you plan to work with Pathfinder leaders from these diverse countries, particularly in carrying out our country-led strategy?

My job is to support our leaders across Africa to be successful. My role is not to create a model and tell our country directors where to go or what to do. As I think about all the different countries, each one has a different need. There are some places where abortion access is easier than other places. In some places, youth empowerment is a big deal. These kinds of things will vary from country to country. Overall, my job is to challenge country directors about whether we are being aspirational enough, whether partnering with the government in the right way, and how we can deliver greater impact  for the people we serve.

How do you envision Pathfinder’s role on the African continent could grow and transform in the years ahead?

Because of our range of expertise and enduring achievements, Pathfinder can be a true leader across the African continent in supporting women and girls to gain and preserve agency over their lives. Every single health ministry across every country can look to us for our expertise. I want to reach as many women and girls as possible, including those that aren’t being served well by others, and aren’t being served at all.

If you could use three descriptive words or phrases to describe Pathfinder’s work in Africa, what would they be?

Inspiring, courageous, and…resilient.

What kind of future do you envision for young girls, like your daughters, everywhere?

I want a future where they can be free, feel safe, and do anything they set their minds to.

Follow Biniam on LinkedIn here.