Wubitu Ayana Sima ’89, ’15 MBA might never have predicted she would end up as the proprietor of a classic British tea room, but she never expected to spend more than a decade in Geneva, Switzerland, working abroad for the United Nations and the World Health Organization either.
At 54, the dual-degreed Auggie has always been a woman who likes a challenge. She’s happy when she’s busy, and as the owner of Lady Elegant’s Tea Shoppe in the leafy St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul, and a part-time MBA student at Augsburg, the mother of three is already thinking about her next adventure.
Lady Elegant’s, which she purchased from the previous owner, is actually two businesses—a tea shop and a tranquil tea room that is perfect for conversation and popular for groups of all sizes by appointment. Ayana Sima does the baking for the formal teas, including croissants and scones with clotted cream. The adjoining tea shop sells more than 80 varieties of tea. Her husband, Admasu Simeso, helps manage the restaurant, from the paperwork to the online shop.
She manages four part-time employees, and everyone works Saturdays, because it is their busiest time.
Each place in the tea room is set with a distinct tea cup. She’s collected cups from all over—they come from the United Kingdom, China, and Japan—and washes each one by hand. They break easily, she warns, especially in the transition from a group service in the morning to a group in the afternoon.
“I’m a coffee drinker,” she confesses. Growing up in Ethiopia, she would pick coffee out of the backyard at her mother’s house and they’d roast it themselves. She learned to enjoy tea while working in Switzerland, and has grown to know the delicate chemistry of time, tea leaves, and temperature of boiling water.
Taught to Give
Raised Presbyterian in Dembi, Dollo, in the Wallagga province of western Ethiopia, she went to an American missionary school as a child, and came to the United States to study at Golden Valley Lutheran College. Two semesters after she arrived, the school closed in 1985. With two young sons, Gada and Leeban, she didn’t know what she was going to do next. Kathy Swanson, English Professor at Augsburg, was her teacher at Golden Valley, and in transferring to teach at Augsburg, she assured Ayana Sima that she could go to Augsburg, too.
Dr. Frederick and Mariel Wolter, from Central Lutheran Church, let her live in their home for two years with her sons while her husband remained behind in Ethiopia working for the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus and the Lutheran World Federation’s Department for World Service.
When she first arrived in this country in December, she saw snow on the ground for the first time. She still remembers how scared she felt. But Mariel was there with a jacket and with gloves.
They never knew her, but they were there to support her. “It’s beyond my thinking,” Ayana Sima says now. “Staying with the Wolters taught me and strengthened my faith that as Christian you don’t have to know people to help. You give and help when people are in need,” she says.
She remembers Mariel encouraging her to continue her education, letting her know that it was something she just had to do. “I came to Augsburg and it was like home,” Ayana Sima remembers.
Many people contributed to her success at Augsburg, she says, including Sally Daniels Herron ’79, director of Admissions at the time, whom she remembers being a great help to all international students; and Herald Johnson, former director of Financial Aid. They helped her find a job working in the payroll department at Augsburg. “That check helped a lot,” she says, and the experience proved invaluable.
A New Challenge
While she was finishing up her undergraduate degree in accounting, her husband got a job in Geneva, Switzerland, working for the Lutheran World Federation. She joined him there shortly. They soon had a daughter and Ayana Sima stayed home for four years, raising the children.
With another new language to learn, she did not want to go out anywhere, she laughs.
The kids picked up French right away, but Ayana Sima was frustrated. One day she returned home and said, “I’m going to go back to school to learn French.”
After getting her French in order, she got a job at the United Nations. She says that her supervisor, an American, decided to hire her after seeing Augsburg on her application. Although he didn’t know the College well, he knew Ayana Sima would be a good fit for the position.
Using her payroll experience, she worked for United Nations in Geneva for 8 years before moving on to work in Zimbabwe, Congo, and Malawi for another 12 years combined. In Congo, she worked in the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa, in charge of payroll for 46 countries under the Regional Office.
Finally, after 20 years working for the United Nations, with her children now grown and living in Minnesota, she was ready to come back to the States. She didn’t have any idea what she was going to do when she came back, but she wanted to be near her children and sisters and brothers living here.
They are active members of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, and stay connected to the large Oromo community in the Twin Cities. Her daughter, Lalee, raised internationally and fluent in English, French, and Spanish is now getting her master’s in education at Hamline. She helps Ayana Sima at the tea shop when she can.
Ayana Sima feels at home and embraced in her adopted country.
The Next Chapter
After arriving back in Minneapolis, she was ready for a change from office work and wanted to open up a café. They found Lady Elegant’s Tea Shoppe was for sale. The location in St. Anthony Park’s Milton Square reminded them of Old Town Geneva, and they felt it was a good omen.
Ayana Sima was planning on a coffee shop, but saw it had a good customer base and success with a unique concept. A year and a half later, she is happy with the business.
Then one morning she woke up and decided she wanted to get her MBA. She never thought she would go back to school, but something was missing in her life without it.
“It’s amazing,” she says. Augsburg is like home. “I never felt like an outsider. It feels like I know everyone, but of course I don’t know everyone.”
She appreciates her professors and the professionalism of the program, as well as the diversity of students in her cohort (M51). “People around you will help you to succeed,” she says. “You can’t always do it on your own.” She is finishing her final two classes this July.
“Don’t ask me what I’m going to do with my MBA,” she says, “because I don’t know yet,” but she’s already had offers. “This MBA program opened my eyes,” she says, especially in her leadership and management classes. Assistant Professor Peter Stark is amazing, she says. The practical lessons in how to manage conflict and people have allowed her to look back at her experience and realize what she could have done differently.
“Any place I go with my experience, I think I can manage,” she says.