5 Leadership Lessons from Israeli Model Titi Aynaw

by Diana Drake

Yityish “Titi” Aynaw is not your typical 25-year-old. Some might say she has already lived many lifetimes. A top Israeli model, Aynaw is a television personality and community activist with 52,000 Instagram followers. And those are only a few of her accomplishments.

During a recent visit to the University of Pennsylvania, Aynaw shared stories of her life growing up in Ethiopia, her experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces as company commander with the rank of lieutenant, and what it felt like in 2013 to become the first Israeli-Ethiopian to win the Miss Israel beauty pageant title. Throw in two months last year on an island in Honduras competing for the Israeli version of “Survivor” — where she placed second — and her latest social enterprise, the “Titi Project,” and you’ve got some great conversation starters. And talk she did on her visit in November to Perry World House in Philadelphia, during which KWHS reporter Anthony Williams gleaned some valuable leadership insight. Here are some of his key takeaways from his time with Titi:

  1. You can let adversity swallow you – or motivate you. Aynaw was born in the village of Chahawit in the Gondar province of Ethiopia, a state in Africa that is surrounded by such African nations as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya. Her father died when she was a toddler and her mother died after a long illness when Aynaw was 10, prompting her and her brother to move to Israel to live with their grandparents in Natanya. Though she had experienced instability in her childhood, Aynaw found her footing at a high school for religious girls near Haifa. She was elected president of the student council and participated in track and field. In Ethiopia we had “no electricity, no private bathrooms and used horses for transportation,” said Aynaw, who had formed an image of what Israel would be like from the Bible. “I was surprised by what I saw in Israel – buildings, cars, industrialization.” She realized that she had to learn the language quickly to do well in high school. “I thought, ‘No one is going to do it for me.’ She learned Hebrew in three months and has since picked up English as her third language, largely from watching television.
  1. You must challenge yourself if you want to grow. Aynaw joined the Military Police Corp of the Israel Defense Forces after high school to “test myself all the time.” Ultimately, she had up to 300 people under her command. She made “the tough choice” to be in an all-men platoon because “it was really important to me” to be the teacher, mother and parent of my soldiers. While most women stay in the Israeli military for one year, she chose to stay for three. “I learned to be very strong and how to be a leader,” she said.
  1. Opportunity can appear in disguise (wearing a dress?), and when you least expect it. When Aynaw was 21 a few years ago, her BFF registered her for the Miss Israel competition. She had never even modeled and was not accustomed to wearing makeup – she showed up to the audition in a plain, large men’s shirt. “I told my friend that I didn’t have time for this,” said Aynaw. “I had to go to university” and continue my education. The interviewers at her audition asked her one question: why did she come today? She explained that after 35 years of champions, it was time to have a “black beauty” Miss Israel. In February 2013, she was crowned the first black Miss Israel, sparking a flurry of media attention from the likes of CNN and the BBC. “I had no idea it would make such huge noise in the world,” noted Aynaw, adding that she has since seen more black girls auditioning for the competition. “They lean on me as a role model,” she said. “It is an amazing feeling to give them hope and power to do something – to be brave.” By the way, Aynaw counts U.S. president Barack Obama as one of her role models. He invited her during his first trip to Israel in 2013 to attend a state dinner at President Shimon Peres’ residence.
  1. Leadership is not just commanding units and inspiring young girls, it is making a conscious effort to help others. Aynaw said she feels a strong connection to her childhood community, particularly to Ethiopian-born Israelis living in Israel. She recently founded and helps fund the “Titi Project,” which provides extracurricular activities and enrichment like basketball and computer classes to 66 Ethiopian kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in Netanya. “It is easy to get into bad habits at 13 and 14,” said Aynaw. “I want to help them stay out of trouble. I want to give them a place to be. They aren’t bad children, but they have been born into a hard life.” Aynaw is passionate about expanding the project around the world and helping to give other kids educational opportunities that she lacked growing up.
  1. It all comes down to hope and perseverance. “I work hard, I keep dreaming, and I never listen to [negativity], said Aynaw, who believes when you transcend color, you open yourself up to a world of possibilities. Despite other “Survivor” competitors seeing the women in her group as weak, she challenged those stereotypes by speaking up often and honestly – a strategy that nearly won her first place (she lost by one vote). “I don’t see color when I look at myself. People always say good things and bad things. You need to continue stronger and not listen to the bad. You don’t know what you’re going to be tomorrow — you just have to keep doing the hard work.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Does Titi Aynaw challenge your perception of a beauty queen? How? Have you ever heard of her before? If so, in what context?

Where do you think Aynaw gets her ambition and willingness to step outside her comfort zone? Do you think we all have this drive? What motivates her? Does she inspire you? Why or why not?

Using the “Related Links” tab, watch the YouTube CNN video interview about Aynaw’s first time meeting U.S. president Barack Obama at the state dinner in Israel on March 21, 2013. Why does she feel a certain connection with Obama? What particular Obama attributes inspire her?

Using the “Related Links” tab, research how diversity and discrimination might play into the life and experiences of Titi Aynaw.

2 comments on “5 Leadership Lessons from Israeli Model Titi Aynaw

  1. Yityish Anyaw is undoubtedly inspirational, beautiful (inside and out), and compassionate. However, what distinguishes her as a true leader and female role model for me is not her prize-worthy looks and personality; rather, it is her resolute outlook on life, her willingness to break barriers and tackle challenges, and her unapologetic self-confidence.

    Titi’s words, “No one is going to do it for me,” resonate deeply in me. Titi faced an indefinitely more difficult childhood than I or any of my friends did by being orphaned at such a young age. Yet her idea of independence- the execution of responsibility- the ability to actually deliver positive change in the world around her by her own doing regardless of the obstacles faced- feels universal. Because her idea of “doing it herself” applies to everything she achieved (small or large, whether it was learning Hebrew upon arriving in Israel or creating her own youth charity), the lesson seems applicable to me too. Titi’s story reminds me of many of my own- especially one in which the solution came from within.

    One of my major passions in high school is international relations. I love competing in Model United Nations to debate policy and craft solutions because it is a generally empowering and enriching experience. However, the committees I most enjoy competing in are often male-dominated, and gender bias is a real problem in the activity as a whole. I remember feeling particularly outnumbered in one committee where the guys kept excluding me and the other female delegates from circles of discussion and purposefully not involving us in the patterns of debate. They would take papers out of our hands and nudge us aside while they stood in a huddle in the center of the floor. I imagine that as Titi rose in the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces, she felt similar (albeit more intense) sentiments of unfair treatment, whether expressed explicitly or in undertones (it is important to note that while issues remain, the IDF is constantly undertaking positive measures to improve gender equality). As Titi defied stereotypes and became a successful lieutenant, I navigated my way into the inner-circle discussions and managed to shift the committee into a more open playing field in which the girls had space to contribute meaningfully. By using skills and strategy, us few girls eventually broke down the barriers, and I eventually became the metaphorical commander of my own battalion of 300 men. And as Titi says in a biography video on Youtube about her experience as lieutenant, “At first it was really tough… Only boys. I was the only girl, but I am tough!”

    In stories such as this, I dream of myself having a lot in common with Titi. When I hear her speak or read about her achievements, I aspire to walk in similar footsteps one day. Girls- and in fact, all young people- need to remember that “no one is going to do it” for them. As Titi believes, achievement comes from challenging yourself and persevering when obstacles stand in your way. Of course, my small victory in the simulation world of Model UN has no comparison with Titi’s very large victory in the actual world of the IDF, the Miss Israel pageant, and social advocacy, but again, if we can’t liken our own small actions of leadership to the big victories of our heroes, then how effective is leading by example anyway?

    I hope you all enjoyed this article as much as I did! :p
    -Mikhal Ben-Joseph

  2. Of the five salient leadership lessons from Israeli Model Titi Aynaw, three of them uniquely hit home to me. First, you can either let adversity and fear control you or you can control your fear. Second, you must challenger yourself if you want to grow. Third, it all comes down to hope and perseverance.

    These three simple yet profound ideas encourage us as readers to push through the pain and continue down the path to success, inspiring us to never give up and to follow our dreams. To Aynaw, her hard work and perseverance through negative feedback allows her to challenge stereotypes and hope for the future; To me, these concepts seemed to be mere ideological jargon until one specific cross-country practice…

    My greatest moment in cross-country was actually not that great. In fact, it was the exact opposite. For many, one’s “greatest moment” may be his or her personal best in a specialized race or even the completion of a marathon. For others, it may be watching teammates grow and improving alongside each other. And though I enjoy experiencing the moments of fulfillment described above, my most influential moment occurred when I tried to cut a practice run.

    In the first several weeks of freshman year cross-country, Coach Turek followed an extremely Spartan workout schedule, piling intense mileage, hoping to build a foundation upon which we could achieve personal bests. We started with “Long Hockaday,” “Jeremy’s,” and “Long Ricks” as the three main runs, each totaling to around six and a half miles in distance. And though I was unaccustomed to running in general, let alone running six miles under the blistering sun, I tried my hardest to keep pace with the rest of the freshmen and ran the full courses with intermittent breaks for walking. But about a month and a half in, my motivation dropped significantly. I was exhausted by the daily two-hour practices and weekend meets, and I disliked the idea of running for hours without anything to do. Entirely worn out, my peers and I were unable to muster the energy to carry light-hearted conversations and gossip like other school teams, and feeling drained for the rest of the day put a damper on my other pursuits. But, the worst part was the pain. And though I had been lectured by a litany of motivational speeches on perseverance, I abhorred the idea of continuously running six-mile intervals and lifting weights when I was too sore to even climb the stairs to the weight room. I understood the value of hard work through my hours of piano practice, yet pain made me forget all of tenacity’s value. My mind was now solely focused on skipping practice or cutting the run. And so, I tried.

    Staying near the back with my close-knit group of friends, I followed the others for about a mile and a half before taking an early right. My plan was to fall back and cut without drawing the attention of the senior captains, so I hid around the corner as soon as they turned their backs around. As the seniors passed, I peeked out of my hiding place like a groundhog on spring’s blissful first day, awestruck by how easy it was to neglect my daily routine and idle until the others returned. With forty-five minutes to spare, I happily explored several roads, turning left and right as I pleased, ecstatic that I had escaped another “tortuous” workout. Yet as I walked into an unfamiliar main road, I noticed that I was lost, alone in “foreign” lands with no Sacagawea to guide me. I circled the street once more, scouting for hints of the campus and its relative positioning, but my view was inhibited by imposing fences, boisterous highways, and towering trees. The clouds grumbled, foreboding rain, and the smell of the innocent grassland I had since wandered into was now redolent with fear. My glorious escapade had turned into a failed expedition with no foreseeable end in sight. After an eternity of mindless pacing and backtracking, using leaves and pebbles to mark a trail, I took a lucky left onto the main road heading back to “home base.” The only problem: I was two hours late.

    Waiting in the sports conference room for my return, Coach Turek stared blankly past me as I arrived, soaked and muddied by my frantic attempt to get back. But instead of his usual outbursts or vocal insults, he merely shook his head. Silence has the potential to be calming and peaceful, but in this moment, his silence spoke louder than words ever could. I felt his trust in me dissipate and winced at the tangible sharpness of his disappointment. I had completed an odyssey, but like Ulysses, my return wasn’t as dreamy as I imagined. I had trekked far more than six miles, but even more than my physical setbacks, I had cheated myself.

    My attempt to cut the run not only ended in failure but also proved to be the harder route. While I had been soaked and suffered from a small cold the next day, my peers escaped the storm unscathed and untattered. As I lay bed-ridden, I understood that the easy path is not always the best option. In addition to physical illness, I had deceived myself with the pleasures of laziness and had fallen massively behind on my training schedule. Some things can only be achieved through grit and determination, and suffering the consequences of indolence and irresponsibility helped me learn their importance. I was responsible for my own actions, and my actions led me down the wrong path. However, sometimes misfortune engenders fortune, and just as the sun rose again the next day, I too was born anew, ready to start again, foot on the gravel line of life, prepared to run the whole course, this time correctly.

    “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost

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