As an eight year-old child in Ethiopia, her troubled father abducted and subjected her to a year of torture.
Her mother fled an imploding dictatorship to the United States when Alfa was two years old and worked as a seamstress and fashion designer in Boston, often waking at 4:30 a.m. and working until midnight.
The jarring memories run deep, but the childhood of Alfa Demmellash galvanized her into the strong and ambitious leader she is today, one with the talents and drive to succeed at any tech startup or top fortune corporation, but who instead, chose to give underserved people with dreams and vision, the opportunities to find success in their own way as entrepreneurs.
In the paragraphs below, you’re going to learn about her story, how her experiences shaped her philosophy, and how she turns her philosophy into action and results.
Her Father and a Transformative Vision
After 18 hours of a drive into a remote African desert town, Alfa knew it was the end. He was going to kill her after more than a year of beating her since he kidnapped her from her grandparents.
Instead of beating her as he usually did, something unexpected happened. He let her go.
The reason her father let her live was probably due to Alfa’s mysteriously peaceful demeanor. A couple of weeks before, Alfa had had a transformative vision. She saw an image of the cosmos, of how uniquely made she was, and how uniquely made he was, which made her and him infinitely valuable. She saw her place in the world and how anything was possible. It was beautiful. Although she said nothing of that experience to him, ever since that vision he could no longer hit her, but only cried instead.
Finally free but stranded under the beating rays of the burning sun, she walked to a main road where she saw the trucks heading to the capital. She stuck her hand in the air and hitchhiked until she finally found her way back to her grandparents in the sprawling capital city of Addis Ababa.
The vision—every person has infinite value and anything is possible—gauzed her wounds and prepared her for what awaited in the United States with her mother.
Her Mother and Harvard University
Using her wages and earning from her business, Alfa’s mother had saved enough money to bring her daughter to the States, where Alfa entered a catholic middle school in Boston. As a teenager, Alfa remembered her mother waiting for her at the airport holding toys for a two year old — the age she had last seen her daughter in Ethiopia.
Reunited, Alfa lived with her mother, loving stepfather, and little sister for seven years. During that time, Alfa’s mother modeled grit and tenacity, but revealed something formative to Alfa. Alfa’s mother worked hard selling custom gowns and waitressing, but was never able to scale her business. “She didn’t think she could grow her business,” said Alfa. “Despite her talent and robust customer base, she didn’t identify herself as an entrepreneur, even though she was a phenomenal one.”
When it came time for college, Alfa applied to the full continuum of undergraduate education, from community colleges to Ivy League schools. Of the nine institutions she applied to, all of them accepted her, with Harvard extending the most substantial scholarship and making the choice simple.
Again, while at Harvard, another experience with her mother showed her something wasn’t right.
One day, Alfa took her mother to a meeting with a business development consultant. The intention was to give her mother takeaways that would help improve her fashion business. Alfa’s mother sat down and listened as the consultant spoke in typical business jargon with concepts that seemed abstract and disconnected from the concrete realities of her mother’s daily experience with her business. Words like “competitive advantage,” “market analysis,” “cash flow projections,” left Alfa’s mother with the impression she needed an MBA to manage and grow her business. She felt disconnected and that she didn’t belong in the world of entrepreneurship. Alfa knew something wasn’t right.
At the same time, Alfa began leading a volunteer student organization called The Franklin Teen Mentoring Program (FTM) that connects Harvard student volunteers with mentoring opportunities for eighth and ninth grader at-risk minority students.
FTM showed Alfa the crucial impact of “social capital” and the value of creating a platform to connect people with different backgrounds. “By bringing education and mentors into the neighborhoods, it levelled the playing field,” said Alfa, “There was reciprocal joy.”
This experience with hands-on community development proved to be one more catalyzing force to Alfa’s future career. Something clicked.
Alfa Meets Alex and Launches Rising Tide Capital
At Harvard, Alfa met Alex Forrester, a freshman from New Jersey with a passion for philosophy and theology. Over the course of four years, they developed a deep friendship and shared values around a trifecta of lessons — everyone is infinitely valuable, entrepreneurship is for everyone not just the elite, and communities are transformed by social capital. Immediately upon graduating from college, they co-founded Rising Tide Capital (RTC), a nonprofit organization that reverses the effects of poverty by using the principles of entrepreneurship to build strong businesses that create jobs and economic opportunity in low-income communities.
In 2004, Alfa and Alex opened the first Rising Tide Capital office on Martin Luther King Blvd in a vibrant but deeply economically divided city in New Jersey: Jersey City.
Shortly after, the first 15 entrepreneurs graduated from Rising Tide Capital’s Community Business Academy — a 12-week business management education program. This first cohort of graduates received the three pillars to entrepreneurial success:
- Knowledge capital — business management education
- Social capital — networking, mentorship, and sales opportunities
- Financial capital — access to lenders and loan preparation
Throughout the classes, participants learn a new narrative about entrepreneurship, one that shows how it’s accessible to everyone, not just for the over-glamorized tech startup founders of Silicon Valley.
“We unintentionally buy into the narratives that make entrepreneurship sound like it’s only a young person’s game, or a higher education play—that you can’t have agency unless you have access to privileged bubbles,” said Alfa. “So people turn away and say, ‘It’s not my world.’ But this is not true.”
The word “entrepreneurship” means different things to different people. A Sand Hill venture capitalist might say it’s all about hockey stick revenue, but Alfa’s definition is more profound.
“Making money is not the most important thing,” she said about entrepreneurship. “It’s starting a small business and persevering over time. An entrepreneur is a creative problem solver who has a vision larger than themselves and the courage to learn how to bring it to life.”
Carrying a banner like that, Alfa believes entrepreneurship is the key to breaking communities out of cyclical poverty. It has the power to create stability, new jobs, and generational wealth. This is the philosophy behind RTC and so far, close to 2,000 entrepreneurs have graduated from RTC and 70% are women.
How to Measure Success
Education is a powerful long-term approach l, but it doesn’t automatically create short-term solutions. It requires hard work, follow through, and trusted guidance. So Alfa measures RTC’s impact with a central metric: sustainable longevity. Will the small business survive and cause lasting change?
The data says yes. In the United States, an average of 50% of small businesses shut their doors before five years, according to the Small Business Association. However, at Rising Tide Capital, 87% of graduates’ small businesses survive past the crucial five-year mark. For every dollar donated to RTC, it generates $3.80 of economic impact.
Alfa has received a number of awards and recognition for her work with Rising Tide Capital. In 2009, she was selected and profiled as a CNN Hero, recognized as one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Women Changing the World with Philanthropy in August 2012, and has been awarded honorary doctorates from St. Peter’s University and New Jersey City University.
Alfa’s incredible story from her youth in Ethiopia to graduating from Harvard and becoming CEO of a highly-acclaimed, fast-growing nonprofit is not only an inspiration, but also a model. It’s a model that she and the Rising Tide Capital team, are working to bring to other communities throughout the United States.
To other young women and men who want to be agents of social change, Alfa has this to say: “Go ask a lot of questions. Meet a lot of people. And be willing to listen. Just because you have a brilliant idea doesn’t mean people will believe in you from the get-go. Don’t be discouraged. No one takes you seriously the first three years. But if you aim not to be a hero but to be a host—and I’m not talking about just hospitality or good manners—you have a vision that encompasses the vision of others, it will expand your listening capacity and help you look beyond the obvious and see innovation.”
Dave Schools is guest contributor on the Stand Together Foundation blog. He’s the founding editor of Entrepreneur’s Handbook on Medium, a columnist for Inc. Magazine, and the cofounder of Party Qs app. He’s the author of Runaway Millionaire and a freelance brand storyteller. He’s passionate about entrepreneurship, deep questions, and nomadic life. Follow him on Twitter @DaveSchoools or connect with him on LinkedIn.