If you have been at Wake Forest long enough, chances are you have seen Wubetu Shimelash sporting his signature fedora, working on clips for his next documentaries with heavy camera sets at the quad. Or perhaps, you might have attended one of his many speeches at a public event on campus about philanthropic entrepreneurship.
As a Communication major with a double minor in Film & Media Studies and Entrepreneurship, Shimelash has had a myriad of interests and projects at Wake Forest.
Yet, the one thread that pulls all his college endeavors together is his passion for uncovering human stories. He has produced documentaries focused on bringing to light the social importance of different cultural aspects of society, such as his film on “The Power of Ethiopian Coffee.”
“A lot of times, the stories that I am telling are about ‘Hey, there’s this type of culture. Let’s explore it. Let’s navigate this culture.’ The fact that I am a Communication major and [Film & Media Studies] minor help me tell a more appealing and richer story,” Shimelash said. “In Ethiopia, especially as you go into the countryside, people perform coffee for someone for three hours each time and they do it three times a day, which means that a person might invest about nine hours per day on a coffee ceremony alone. When I tell this story to my Western friends, they are shocked … You know, you go to a Starbucks and [waiting for] five minutes is a frustration. So, the point that I was trying to make is that coffee in Ethiopia is not just to drink coffee. It is also a place and a time for people to come together, to value each other and to talk about the most important issues in the community,” Shimelash later added.
Coming from the Simien Mountains range in Ethiopia, Shimelash’s journey to Wake Forest was an unorthodox one. He always had a keen eye for entrepreneurship since early on, being it selling handcrafted hats and shoes to build school supplies or giving rides to tourists across the Simien Mountains’ breathtaking views. Shimelash always knew how to make the most out of his opportunities.
One day, the opportunity came in the form of a casual talk between him and his friend with Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes, who coincidentally was visiting the Simien Mountains. Mycoskie left a business card and a promise to help Shimelash. He took that business card and walked for 12 hours to the nearest online café just to be able to email Mycoskie. That email changed his life.
Now, nearing his graduation, Shimelash has followed a similar philanthropic entrepreneurship path during his time at Wake Forest by establishing Simien Eco Trek, a tourism agency in the Simien Mountains that reverts part of its profits in supporting the local community.
“I look at [Mycoskie] as a role model and as a mentor. The projects are my own. I ran and started it myself. Yet, he definitely has mentored me to grow both as a person, a businessman and as a humanitarian,” Shimelash said.
Simien Eco Trek has supported initiatives ranging from providing sunlight lamps for households without electricity to making and demystifying the use of menstruation pads by young girls in Ethiopia. Shimelash’s storytelling curiosity and genuine interest in learning about different perspectives and cultures have also marked his time at Mother So Dear among his faculty and peers.
“I spent a lot of time with Wubetu outside of the classroom, but the Fall 2017 Global Village living/learning community was a truly amazing experience. I watched Wubetu develop strong friendships with his fellow residents, as he connected class material to his experience as an entrepreneur, community organizer, and philanthropist,” said Professor Alessandra Von Burg, Shimelash’s Communication adviser. “He has never taken his time here at Wake Forest for granted, even given the incredible mix of charm, fortune, and hard work that got him here. As he grows as a filmmaker, he never forgets why those stories matter to him, and why others should care also. His genuine passion and commitment to storytelling are as contagious as his smile.”
Once he finishes his undergraduate studies at Wake Forest, Shimelash will head to the West Coast to continue his filmmaking dream at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television, where he will pursue a three years MFA degree in Film and Television Production.
“My ultimate goal is to start my own channel and travel all over the world covering untold stories. Stories that no media has been covering,” Shimelash said. “I am interested in what type of tools and methods people use to come together. In Ethiopia, for instance, people use the coffee ceremony as a way to come together. What about other cultures? What type of method or type of techniques do they use to come together? … I am interested in those aspects of human stories.”