Menbere Aklilu, East Bay community leader, recipient of 2009’s Contra Costa Woman-Owned Business of the Year Award, and owner of Salute e Vita Ristorante in Richmond, Calif., will deliver the keynote address at Holy Names University’s (HNU) 87th commencement on Saturday, May 18.
Born in Ethiopia, Aklilu has demonstrated resilience, determination, and courage in building her successful career. She has faced many hardships on her journey to becoming a restaurant owner. As a child, she witnessed and survived the murder of her mother. She lived with her brother in high school, and after graduation she pursued an acting career. Aklilu married and moved to Italy with her husband to continue pursuing her dreams of acting. She endured an abusive relationship with her husband until she found sanction and gave birth to her son in a women’s shelter in Rome.
In Italy, Aklilu worked as a maid and in restaurants to support her son. Ten years later she visited her nieces in the United States. “I saw my nieces, what they are doing here and I said, ‘Wait a minute, you know if I came to America I am sure that I could be somebody.’ I didn’t expect it to be like this but a little different than Italy,” Aklilu said.
One week after moving to the U.S. in 1995, Aklilu visited Salute e Vita and impressed the owners with her ability to speak Italian. Although she didn’t have a car and couldn’t speak English, she began working at Salute e Vita as a hostess. Through her hard work, Aklilu became the assistant manager in eight months and later became the manager and general manager. When the owners of Salute e Vita decided to sell the restaurant in 2002, a regular customer approached Aklilu with the offer of a loan to purchase the restaurant. Aklilu accepted the offer and purchased Salute e Vita.
Recently she said to herself, “OK, I paid my loan. My son he (was) born homeless, but now he is at NYU getting his doctorate . . . and now I have to give back.”
In 2011, Aklilu opened her restaurant to 300 homeless individuals for a Thanksgiving lunch. Last Thanksgiving, she served 600 homeless, and this year she plans to close the restaurant completely and serve 900 people. She has also helped pay for the purchase of a local church and has supported girls in the community by hosting etiquette dinners and financing tuition for Northern Lights School.
Her life story will soon be a book and her keynote address will be filmed during graduation for an upcoming movie of her life. HNU President William J. Hynes said, “Menbere’s personal story is one of successive conquering of tragedy, deprivation, and loss—by faith, industry, and courage. When she spoke at the Durbin Entrepreneurship Speaker Series, there was not a heart that had not been warmed nor an eye that had not been moistened. Her story is quite amazing.”
The more than 200 graduates of 2013 will also hear from student speakers Thomas Davies ’13 and Priscilla Elendu ’13. Eribert Tan Cayaba, who is graduating from the Master of Science in Nursing program, will deliver the invocation.