Within each of us resides at least one fundamental paradox: a contradiction that makes us who we uniquely are. Adedana Ashebir shares with us how her paradoxes fuel her journey toward self-compassion, her relationships with friends & family, and her career in venture capital, empowering overlooked entrepreneurs.
“The PhD-level [of empathy] is: how to have grace for other people, when they don’t have grace for you .”
Adedana: Or we’re trying to help the underdog. So the local founder, who has a really great idea, how can a fund find them? Because it’s interesting, funds complain like, oh… there’s not enough investible pipeline, there’s not enough investible companies. And then founders will complain, oh.. there’s not enough money. So, okay… clearly something is wrong, you know, but hey, even in real life, dating isn’t easy either, right?
Brian: Hey, I’m Brian Pagán. Welcome to episode seven of MindFolk: Human Creativity and Mindful Innovation in a podcast. Here’s my conversation with Adedana Ashebir, conscious tech investor, advocate for the underdog and all around wonderful human being.
We met a little over a year ago and she’s one of the funniest people I know, but also one of the most ambitious, extremely confident in immense vulnerability. Adedana shares with us in this episode how being paralyzed by stress taught her a lesson in empathy, the unexpected places she’s found love despite the quarantine, and what it was like for her to spend the summer hiking with her mom across Spain.
Adedana: Being a regional manager for whole continent at 29 is a lot. And I think one of the upsides to migrating and to being in a new ecosystem (is that) you can build your career in a way perhaps that you wouldn’t have been able to build it had you stayed at home. So it’s classic immigrant tale. And so (in) myself and it’s actually something I saw in a lot of my friends, which is…. folks were entrepreneurs, people were hustling. People were in these really high profile and high titles… and what have you, but because they didn’t stay in let’s say the US or the UK, and kind of go through the hierarchy of an organization, they kind of skipped to some of these positions, but without any of the preparation or context or training… all of it (these preparation processes for higher management roles) … or perspective to know that it’s going to be okay, this is not the end all, be all …you know… you’re going to… it’s going to be fine.
But how I learned this lesson is that I think I was 30…. I was 30 and there was just a summer where I stopped… work-wise I couldn’t, I mean, I did my work, but I worked from bed. I didn’t want to go to office. I was, I, I think I was scared because if I went to the office, people would see fear in my eyes and I didn’t want people to see fear in my eyes. And that’s how I learned grace. I mean, I had to learn it because I stopped. I couldn’t.. you know… it would take weeks to send an email. And it was just a simple email. If I looked at that email now, I’m like, seriously, it took me that long to do that? And we all have these tasks that, you know… we put off and there’s documentation about what procrastination means and what the real meaning behind it is. It’s not, it’s not necessarily that you’re lazy. It’s not necessarily that you’re not motivated. You know, there’s usually some sort of underlying, you know, message behind. And also to be fair, if you are unmotivated and if you are lazy, that’s also okay. It’s like, we all have our moments, just pick your moment and know which moment you’re in and do your best.
But anyhow, so I think that’s how I learned it. It is because I just stopped and I couldn’t move anymore. And then I thought of, if this is my moment where I can’t move, imagine the other moments of other people when they can’t move. And what does that look like? And I mean it’s different things to different people, right? For some people they can’t move because someone is sick or because they’re sick or because they have boundaries, you know, and I think that’s a big lesson as well. Sure I can carry things if I really want to, but I don’t have to. And really the differences in some people is not so much about whether or not they can do it. It’s… will they or won’t they, and then realizing that there’s a grace for that too. Like if that’s your (boundary) , it doesn’t have to be some soft story behind why someone is not choosing to… why someone is choosing to not do meet you in a certain place or do a certain thing, or what have you.
Sometimes it’s just, they’ve identified a boundary and you just have to respond in a way that makes sense. And so that’s really how I learned it. I learned it through getting to a point where I needed to give it to myself and then using that moment to realize, you know, there’s probably other moments where others need it too. And then the PhD level is how to have grace for other people when they don’t have grace for you.
Brian: I love that. Yes. I want to talk about that, but first let me ask you something. What’s like a nice example of when someone showed up for you and really helped you out?
Adedana: Ah, I have a, actually one that’s very top of mine. So there was a moment last year… there’s a moment like, was it last year? (or) the year before in recent memory, there was a time of my life I think that I was really focused on…. I think it expressed itself as looking for a relationship, but really what I needed were words of affirmation. And so, I’ve been single for a long time and, rah, rah, rah, you’re a lioness, like go for it… you know.. all of the stuff that you’re supposed to say to yourself everyday to keep going. And really that’s.. that’s all well and good. But at some point,,I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. I would really like someone else to say that I’m awesome. Or that I’m amazing… is that so wrong to want someone else to say that and to believe it?
And so I was sharing this with a friend of mine and I think I told him, I was like, I’m tired of the sound of my own voice. I’m tired of being my own booster. I’m tired of being my own cheerleader. At this point I would just really like someone else to say it. And it’s not because I don’t believe it anymore, but because it’s not really working anymore. and so… he set a calendar reminder for every three weeks and it said, appreciate Adedana. And so every three weeks I would get a note about like, you’re amazing. You’re so great, keep going, whatever it is, again.., it expressed itself as the search, the pursuit of partnership, but really it was…. the heart of it was words of affirmation and, and he’s not a partner. You know, in fact he’s dating someone, you know, he is in a relationship and he’s a friend of mine. But what I needed was someone to just be a cheerleader. I needed a break, you know, of being my own cheerleader and I needed someone else to just do it for a little bit.
Brian: Yes. That’s such an important lesson. Love can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to be someone necessarily that were romantically involved with, but it can be something (someone) else.
Adedana: Ask a single person in COVID and they know this very well.
Brian: How are you doing with human contact, sort of physical contact with human beings?
Adedana: Well, how am I doing with it? I, yes, I haven’t been hugged since March. That being said, I don’t actually…maybe there’s in my subconscious or in my body I feel it. But front of mind, I don’t know. I’m not really (suffering because of it) it’s not like I might burst into tears. The next time that’s happens whenever that day is. But in the meantime, it’s not, it’s not a pressing need. I think in this moment, I’m really focused on some of the conclusions that I’ve come to in this time. I think that is actually what is holding me. And I think that,… being held by the clarity that I’ve achieved in this time and the awareness I’ve achieved in this time and the health and nourishment I’ve achieved in this time, I think that is holding me and that’s why I’m not thinking about, you know, oh, I haven’t been hugged because I’m being held in a very different way now, compared to before COVID.
Brian: What’s the awareness that’s holding you?
Adedana: Realizing that I’ve been molded by fire for a lot of my life, you know, and the pressure to get into a good school. And, and we talked about that earlier and then getting there and not being good enough.. and not being as good as everybody else. And I think what I’m looking for now is I want to be… I do not want fire. I don’t want the fire that burns me. I want the fire that illuminates me and keeps me warm. And I want to be molded in the future by intention and by direction and by care. And that is what I’m looking for at work. That is what I’m looking for in dating. That is what I’m looking for in life and what I’m looking for in terms of pursuing….you know… all my writing ideas. I’m seeking intention, direction and care. And so I think one of the reasons I don’t care about hugs right now is because, you know, I’m taking a bunch of workshops, on writing, whether it’s comedy writing or script writing or theater writing. I signed up for an acting class, which I would’ve never imagined I would do. but pro tip, if you get Brian’s book, that’s one of his suggestions on how to build empathy.
Yeah. And realizing that yeah. You know, the last time I felt alive or really, really happy was highschool theater. And then I got away from that because I went to a school where people went to Juilliard for the summer, just for fun. And then you don’t get into the shows. And so I think in a weird way, COVID has given me the opportunity, especially because everything is virtual and all these resources that would normally be inaccessible are now coming to you.
It’s allowed me to kind of go back to things that I really care about. So I’m taking improv classes and I was 15 years ago when I was a freshman in college, I was too scared to audition. And so literally 15 years later, I’m finally doing the thing I was too scared to do. So I think that’s the reason that when you asked the touch question, it was, I haven’t really thought about it. To my credit, I’m really good at working with what’s in front of me. I don’t want to discount that. But another part of it is that I think my relentless and focused pursuit of the things that I care about and are interesting (to me) and the things that I’m now open with myself that I’m interested in… that is holding me right now. And that that’s a good enough hug. That’s a great hug to finally get to where I want to go or own up to… is enough for right now.
Brian: Beautiful… being open with yourself as to what you’re interested in. That’s profound. How does your faith factor into that?
Adedana: So I guess the backstory is that my family is Ethiopian Orthodox and that means a lot. I mean, that means a lot.. I guess if you ask me so what is it that you believe? It’s like, it’s one of the oldest churches in the world. Let’s start there. In terms of the nuts and bolts of it, I could not tell you, don’t ask me for a parable. I can’t help you. But what I can say is that I think over time, my faith…. my faith has strengthened after moments of it not being strong at all. And I think I do aspects to the faith that actually help in other areas of my life. So one of the things that we are known for as Ethiopian Orthodox Christians is that you are fasting all the time… like. 70-80% of the year is like a fasting day.
So wednesdays and fridays, no meat, no dairy. Easter is 55 days for us. Not 40. There’s two weeks in august for Mary. There’s five weeks between mid-November and Ethiopian Christmas, which is, January 7th. There’s a bunch of other ones I haven’t even mentioned. I don’t even know them. There’s a lot of it and so fasting for us, it’s not necessarily not eating, although you could do that. It just, it means no meat, no dairy, no animal products. And so I do that on wednesdays and fridays. And I think what that added to me to my life, which I didn’t realize was it was adding discipline. And there was actually an interesting tweet about that. Somebody in my professional network sent about, she finds that in her network, the people that fast religiously are having a much easier time of social distancing and COVID. Because they’re used to forgoing and they’re used to lack, or they’re used to wanting something perhaps, but knowing it’s not an option and just dealing with it. And I thought, who would’ve thought this whole time I was being prepared for a pandemic.
Adedana: So yeah, I guess, and I think adding discipline to my life has been, has been a big one. And I think the biggest faith related thing that has come up of late, it was last year. I did the Camino Santiago with my mom. And so for those who are not aware of the Camino Santiago, it’s one of the three most important pilgrimages in Western Catholicism.
And granted we are not western nor catholic, but, I became aware of it when I studied abroad in Spain. Ooh. When was that? 14 years ago, my freshman summer. And I think we had met people doing the Camino, or it was that time of year. It was a summertime. So people were kind of doing that whole thing.
And I remember in that moment, deciding one day, I’m going to do it. I never thought about when that would actually happen. And then years later, I actually, in my mind, I wanted to write a movie about a woman who does it with her mother and her aunt. And it would kind of be loosely based on my family life, very loosely. So if this movie does come out, none of this is true. Okay.
Brian: It’s on the record now.
Adedana: Very loose.. so loose… so yeah, so that was kind of my idea. I was like, I want to write a movie about, you know, a woman doing this with her two… with her mom and her aunt or her mom’s sister. And I think in a way, maybe in my mind, it was because I didn’t know, or didn’t think it was going to happen in real life.
And then I went to Spain, September, 2018 and I met with the person who was my couch surfing host when I was in Spain in 2011. And we went to a coffee shop. We caught up on life. And what have you. And I talked, we were talking about the Camino for whatever reason it came up. I think he was recommending a book about it. And I mentioned offhand, like, yeah, I’ve always wanted to do it. And he said, so do it. I was like, oh, it’s so simple.
And I think Nike has really caught onto a very catch (phrase) … like whoever decided, JUST DO IT… should be paid in perpetuity. I mean, that is the smartest line. Really one of the smartest lines for any company of any (sector) . And so it was in that coffee shop that day that I decided I’m going to do the Camino next year with my mom, with my aunt.
And so I went, my aunt didn’t end up joining us, but it was my mother and myself. And I think in my own, in its own way, that was probably for the best. And so we had 12 days together, five days of walking, 111 kilometers. And it was just her and I, and we talked every day and I asked her all the questions I wanted to ask her. And, you know, she probably asked me some questions that she wanted to ask me and, you know, and I can only imagine I’m so glad I did this before coronavirus, because that was such an important moment for my life. Not only, you know, spending time with my mom, but also some of the like aha moments that kind of came up after. And the mantra is that I think I live by now as a result. And so now that I’m in, people are still doing the Camino. People have done it this year, but you know, there’s masks and I’m like, ooh, I cannot, I’m so glad. I’m so, so glad. I’m so grateful. There’s two things I’m really grateful. (for) I’m grateful I had my 10 year college reunion last year, and I’m grateful I did the Camino before all this kicked off. Cause both of those events were so important and I’m really, really grateful that I was able to do both. And so this was, I know I’ve winded away from the question, but, yeah, I think faith, faith for me is less dogmatic or less about dogma and more about… I dunno…. I just think my relationship with God and talking to God and you know, people look at you crazy when you say, god talks back or you hear god. BUt I’ve just ended up to it. I listen when I’m spoken to, and I think that’s been a part of the magic in my life.
Brian: I love that story. And how you owned up to your relationship with your own faith. It feels to me like another example of you giving yourself compassion. And I’m reminded about what you said earlier of this PhD level empathy being when you can have grace for others who don’t have grace for you. So I’m curious to hear what you think about this. Cause as a person of color, born on colonized land, I struggle with understanding how to apply that PhD empathy, to things like… things like social justice or race. So coming from a place of empathy, what do you think is the biggest thing preventing humankind from healing these kinds of collective trauma.
Adedana: Brian, this is a whole other episode. but I would say, I would say.. not knowing the full total unadulterated history and being taught. I mean some of these textbooks, if you look at some of these textbooks, like yeah. And then these Africans came over, like, no, no, no, no, no, no. So I think it’s honestly the fact that people don’t know really critical pieces of history and just how murderous, just how heinous, just how terrorist people were. You know, and, and, and what that did to communities and to families. And, you know, everyone’s like, wait, what do you mean? Like, how did neighborhoods become this way? Or why is this highway going through this town? Or like the wealth income gap, but like, no, it’s just people don’t try hard enough.
It’s like, whoa, okay. We there’s, if you’re learning different history and you’re learning a history that is not.. that we, if we’re not agreeing on the same story. And if that story has been watered down, a lot of what happens now makes sense, for example, and this is not something that. I realized was odd until I left the US and until friends of mine from other countries brought it up.
But they said, do you really pledge allegiance to the flag every day? And I said, yeah. I mean, yeah. You know, it’s like, it takes 15 seconds, you know, pledge allegiance that, you know, raise your hand, whatever. It comes on the PA or on the TV, depending on what kind of school you go to. You know, I didn’t think anything of it, like, of course.
And then I’m realizing, wait a second. And I think it’s like, you don’t know sometimes. You don’t know sometimes until you meet other people, like how strange, like some of our idiosyncrasies are. I think also a lot of Americans don’t know they have a foot on their neck. I think there’s, we have normalized hardship because that’s supposed to be the dream.
I think we’ve normalized going bankrupt because of healthcare costs, you know, France has everything it has because…. I can’t remember what the quote is, I’m paraphrasing it lightly, which is, you know, the French are ungovernable and that’s why they have everything they have, you know, they light things on fire every summer. No wonder, you know, and I don’t think, and I honestly don’t and it’s interesting. I don’t …one of the biggest differences I’m thinking of how, or I see on social media about how Americans are relating to their country is that I’m starting to see Americans tweet about their country the way I have seen Kenyans tweet about Kenyan government and Nigerians tweet about their government in the last few years. Which is our leaders hate us, our leaders despise us. And I’ve never seen that explicitly said before. Now people maybe said this in group chats, but on social media to say, you know, explicitly our leaders despise us. That’s new… I mean, I also joined Twitter late compared to my colleagues of my generation, but you know, to see it articulated in a very similar way to me, it’s very, it’s very interesting.
I think people are getting hip to the game that things are not supposed to be this hard. And that having a foot on your neck and still making it is not something… that’s great, but it’s not necessarily something to be glorifying or it’s not, it’s not what it should be. And I don’t honestly know how many of our leaders in the US and maybe you could extrapolate this to other places, like, do our leaders want us to be healthy and happy?
Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t. I mean, I don’t think, I don’t think they do. you know, I mean, the way they’re voting health and happiness is not, you know.. (their priority) … why did we have a five day workweek? Really? Out of seven days, five days you’re supposed to work. That doesn’t make sense. Five out of seven. Why? Other people do that too, but two weeks out of 52, two weeks out of the fifty two (are holidays) , What ? Like what, what are we? (Robots?)
I think, yeah, it’s a, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of things going on at one and there’s a lot of fire, but I think the history piece and the bots piece, if we could start at those two. And then, you know, more political things like voter suppression. You know, why are people in line for 11 hours in Georgia? 11 hours, it’s unreasonable. It should be a holiday or a weekend.
Brian: I’m curious how you see your work at Village Capital, does it have anything to do with what you just said? Are you combating this with your work there? Or how does that work? Are they connected?
Adedana: We’re aiming to build a system where overlooked and underestimated founders can access investment capital and mentors and resources and tools that they need to succeed. In East Africa in a two year period, most of the funding went to three energy startups and most of the funding in Africa goes to three countries. One of our big talking or research bullet points that has.. It was the first interview I gave when I joined Village Capital. It was something that I will present on in a few weeks. Felt like it has been THE report, but basically that 90% of funding within a two year period of disclosed funding within a two year period went to startups with at least one foreign, not African co-founder.
We’re rooting for the underdog or we’re trying to help the underdog. So the local founder, who has a really great idea, how can a fund find them? Because it’s interesting funds complain like, oh, there’s not enough investible pipeline. There’s not enough investible companies. And then founders will complain, oh, we don’t, there’s not enough money. So, okay. Clearly something is wrong, you know. But hey, even in real life dating isn’t easy either, right?
Brian: Are you all (guys) the Tinder of investment capital?
Adedana: We, oh my God… we should put that on… we’re the Tinder of venture capital. My comms (communications) person is going to kill me. I’m feeling good today and I’m going to stand by that statement.
Brian: There you go… Booyeah!
Is there anything you want to add or anything you want to ask me before we wrap up?
Adedana: I don’t have anything to ask. I guess it’s just a general wish. This is kind of like my…. my email, there’s the… I hope all is well…. which I hate, I hope all is well, and I hated it before COVID and I definitely don’t like now. But what my kind of opening line is… on emails these days is I hope this season has given you more good than bad. And so to the listeners, to you, I know it’s been a wild ride of, the last few months, but I hope it’s brought you more good than bad.
Brian: And that’s officially my new email greeting.
Thanks for that Ade and also for your vulnerability. But what about you, dear listener? What has this season given you? Leave me a voice message through our website, mindfolkpod.com or get in touch on Twitter and Instagram via @mindfolkpod. Special thanks to Zubin Nayak for the transcription. And keep choosing love, dear one.
Debby: Hey Brian, it’s me Debby from just2match.com. Just trying to answer your question as what is the purpose of life? Well, actually to be honest… my personal purpose of life is getting ready to meet my maker because one day I know he will return for me so I can meet him face to face and be with him forever.
And. I know this might sound weird, but when I had my God encounter about like 20 years ago, it just changed my life completely. From the way I eat and drink what I would read and where, and as far as how I would look at life and my fellow human beings. And since he’s the God of love, the one who gave his son for us, I figured the only thing I need to do is to follow in his footsteps and to share his love wherever I go.