Sisat Igzao was a miracle baby. His twin sister was born healthy, but he wasn’t breathing when he left his mother’s womb. The doctors in Ethiopia pronounced him dead. But then his little mouth let out a struggled whimper in protest. His overjoyed parents named him Sisat, which means, “to give”; God had given their son a second chance.
Yet if you speak to Sisat, he’ll tell you that his true second lease on life began more recently — when he started selling billboards.
A bit of back story, first.
The youngest of seven siblings, Sisat immigrated to Israel in 1994 from Ethiopia. He was 4 at the time and didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, let alone English. His mother single-handedly raised the family; his father, who had stayed behind in Ethiopia, soon died. Finances were tight. Although his elementary school grades were OK, yeshiva high school brought with it a new group of friends (“not the good ones,” Sisat admits) and assorted troublemaking.
In time, Sisat was wearing two earrings, sporting dreadlocks and sleeping in class. Then, at age 16, he decided to drop out of school. His friends had been kicked out of school, he says, and he no longer felt that he belonged. His mother begged him to return, but Sisat had made up his mind. And so, he wiled away each day, spending most of his time sleeping. When he managed to tumble out of bed, he’d make a little money working for a demolition contractor.
In Israel, Sisat was just one of 350,000 kids — about 15 percent of the under-18 population — who are considered at-risk youth. When a representative from the Ministry of Education visited Sisat in his home, Sisat agreed to enroll in an alternative education program. A counselor there recognized Sisat’s business savvy and encouraged him to join Galshan, a small business venture run by Ashalim, which pilots more than 300 programs aimed at at-risk youth, in conjunction with The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the UJA-Federation of New York.
In exchange for agreeing to continue his studies to pass his Bagrut (matriculation exams), Sisat would be trained in entrepreneurial skills and given a steady paycheck along with a job — selling billboard space. “Here’s another way for them to trick me,” Sisat thought. But the money was good so he gave it a shot.
Sisat’s face lights up when he recalls the first time he successfully sold billboard space. “They teach you the importance of body language; even if you’re excited, you don’t show it,” he says. “But as soon as I walked out, I started shouting [with joy].”
The discovery that he was actually good at something persuaded him to continue coming to school. “Sisat’s clever, he connects well with people,” says Sharon Ohana, the general manager of Galshan. “It raised his self-esteem.”
And the business classes at a local college in Ashdod gave him a reason to get out of bed each morning. “For the first time, I was respected,” Sisat says. “They had high expectations for me. The professor said, ‘Come or don’t come; it’s a privilege.’”
Last May, Sisat was chosen to participate in BizCamp, a weeklong business camp sponsored by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and the First International Bank. Participants teamed up in groups of three and were instructed to come up with a viable business plan. “It was an intense experience,” he says.
Sisat’s business plan — to open the first nightclub in Ashdod featuring reggae music — won the competition. He received a $500 prize and was flown in from Israel to New York to attend NFTE’s annual dinner earlier this month. Galshan awarded him $100 at the time and 1,000 shekels spending money. “Friday night, everyone takes buses to Tel Aviv, because there’s no club in Ashdod,” Sisat says. Since Tel Aviv clubs are packed, teenagers hang out near the clubs, getting into fights and drinking. Sisat hopes that in building his new club, he can solve some of these social problems. “It can be another way of bringing teens in,” he says.
Right now, Sisat is preparing to enter the Israeli army in July — something he never would have considered before joining Galshan.
“I learned that if you want something and you work hard enough, you can get it,” says Sisat. “It changed my way of thinking.”