Atti Worku was born and raised in Adama, Ethiopia, where at an early age she noticed a distinct difference in her private school education and those in the public school system.
During college Worku began modeling and competing in beauty pageants, and in 2005 was crowned Miss Ethiopia. Shortly afterward, she made a trip to Dallas where she met with the Campbell Agency and signed a modeling contract. With a bit of career success in hand, Worku founded Seeds of Africa, a non-profit that strives to create education and community development in her hometown.
Next week Atti, along with local restaurateur Royce Ring, is hosting a dinner at Bolsa Mercado to raise awareness and money for Seeds. Recently I got the chance to chat with the former Miss Ethiopia about her foundation and, of course, food.
What's your connection to Dallas? After winning the crown for Miss Ethiopia, I came to Dallas to visit my brother who was a student at UTA at the time. While I was here I met with the Campbell Agency and signed a modeling contract with them. I lived in Dallas for several years before moving to New York City.
Did you move to NYC for work or school? Both. I did sign a modeling contract in New York City, but also always knew I wanted to go back to school. When I was in Ethiopia I studied computer science, but then I got into modeling and beauty pageants and that sort of took on its own life. I wasn't expecting it to go to the level that it did. Finally in 2010, I decided it was time, so I applied to Columbia and started in 2011.
What are you studying? Sustainable Development.
Are you studying for finals right now? Yes, and trying to finish a paper.
What's it about? Then Harlem Renaissance.
After beauty pageants and modeling, how do you like being back in school? I love being a student. It was difficult at first to adjust and have the discipline to be in a library for 8 to 10 hours at a time, but I really enjoy it now because it's directly related to my work in Ethiopia. My work and school blend into each other, so it makes it more interesting.
What made you want to start Seeds? Growing up in Ethiopia, early on I understood the differences between the education I was receiving at a private catholic school versus the children in the public school system. I always knew change had to be permanent. Unfortunately aid doesn't always provide a permanent solution. People talk about the vicious cycle of poverty because it really is a complex issue. I understood that there are multiple things that need to be done. One of those things is building human capital and providing education can do that. Are you able to visit your home much? I'm always on the phone with them and I'll visit this summer. In 2007, Seeds started in my mom's backyard, and eventually moved into our own facility, but she's the matron of the program and is always there. We also have constant communication with the teachers. We keep very close communication with the program.
I imagine getting a degree in Sustainable Development at Columbia could provide a few insights into running a multinational non-profit agency... Yes, it really does. I'm able to make connections with my fellow students who are interested and understand the needs for similar programs. Also, I just met with Jeffry Sachs [Director of Earth Institute at Columbia] who does a lot of development work in Africa. And I'm able to use my experience in Africa first-hand in classrooms. So many different professors have provided me with advice and network relationships that have helped. It goes on and on.
How do you like New York City? I love New York City, but I miss a lot of my friends in Dallas. New York is so dynamic and it provides a lot of inspiration. It has everything you're looking for.
What brings you back to Dallas for your fundraiser next week? I love Bolsa and their whole concept of sustainability and using local growers. When I'm in town it's one of my favorite places to visit. And Royce Ring is on our board of directors and the entire program got incorporated in Dallas, so it's important to me to maintain that connection.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Dallas? I love Mi Cocina, and actually, Dallas made me a steak eater. I wasn't one before, but after living there I love having a steak from time to time and go to Al Biernat's on occasion. I love Village Burger and Chocolate Secrets. There are also a couple Ethiopian restaurants there I really like: Lalibela and Queen of Sheba.
When you think of your childhood, what food comes to mind? Ethiopian food is comprised of different kinds of stews with chicken, beef, lamb, vegetables and a soft spongy bread called injera. When I think of my childhood, I think of the food my mom used to cook for us. For breakfast my favorite was genfo and kinche, which are like porridge and oatmeal. For lunch and dinner I like shiro, which is a mashed pea stew, misir, lentil stew and gomen, cabbage. For holidays my favorite was doro wat, a spicy chicken stew. Royce Ring is co-owner of Bolsa and Bolsa Mercado and is hosting a benefit dinner for Seeds next week.
How did you meet Atti? I met her through a mutual friend originally, then ran into her a couple times out. We had a few different connections - I also knew her brother through Bolsa. I was always fascinated by how smart, talented and driven they are. Atti and her brother are both just really switched-on people doing really great things, which is a little unusual to see in Dallas.
What made you decide to work with her on this foundation? About two or three years ago as she was making her transition up to New York, I saw her one night at Bolsa and we chatted for a couple of hours about her foundation and I was again just really fascinated with it. At the time she was applying to Columbia. She just has such great ideas and I wanted to support her. Then about a year ago, they had an open position on the board. It was a good fit, and so I was named to the board of directors. My business and marketing background allows me to weigh in on some things.
There are a lot of charities out there, particularly for Africa, what made you decide to invest your time and interests in this one? One thing that is a real motivator for me is that last year when we reviewed the budget I remember asking her why a specific thing cost so much and Atti told me, "You have to divide by 18, those are Ethiopian dollars." And once I realized that $5,000 goes so far in Ethiopian, the shoe dropped for me. Then I realized how much of an impact every dollar makes. We all sort of know that, but it became more apparent.
Atti's drive must have a lot to do with that. When I met her I realized she was an exceptional person - the kind of person you just don't see around here. I've always sensed that a lot of the philanthropical initiatives in Dallas are social based. Someone will spend $6,000 for the outfit to attend the party and I've always thought if we could just have a part of that. If someone benefits from it, then great, I suppose. But with Seeds it's very tangible and real.
The dinner for Seeds is next Thursday, May 17 at Bolsa Mercado at 634 West Davis Street in Oak Cliff. Tickets are $75 with a special "spring market dinner" created by Bolsa chefs Jeff Harris and Matt Balke with a few Ethiopian-inspired flavors added to the menu.