Wired -- There was a time when Atetegeb Tesfaye Worku was content to be perhaps the best-looking network engineer on the Horn of Africa. But this May afternoon Miss Ethiopia is one of 81 beauty queens rehearsing in Bangkok for the 54th Miss Universe competition. The telecast, coproduced by NBC and Donald Trump, will later be viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Backstage, the contestants - or delegates, as they are officially known - chatter in dozens of languages. Worku, 24, is talking about her job installing computer networks. She's a willowy 5'9" with long black hair, a blinding smile, and excellent posture. She's dressed in what seems to be the unofficial casual uniform for contestants - blue jeans, midriff-baring T-shirt, and white pin-striped blazer. In 2001, she earned a diploma in computer science in Addis Ababa. "After college, I was accepted into a program organized by the United Nations Commission for Africa," she says in lilting English. "Part of that training was Cisco networking."
A nation of 73 million, Ethiopia has only 435,000 phone lines (plus 97,800 mobile phones). IT workers are few; budding supermodel IT workers fewer. That was one of the challenges Worku faced in the two years she spent as a manager for Nex-Wave Ethiopia, a startup in Addis Ababa launched by some friends. "When I'd go in for a job - like working on systems for pharmacies or for schools - they would ask me, 'Are you sure you can really do that?'" she says. "But then I could, and they were surprised. You just have to keep on breaking the boundaries."
Worku also helped with an effort to bring Internet access to 1 million Ethiopian women. That program turned out to be less than successful. The state-owned telephone company is the country's only Internet provider, and it has a reputation for inefficiency. This summer the US is planning to assist in the partial liberalization of the country's telecom market. Will that make a difference? Worku refuses to be drawn into debate. She says only that Internet access is increasing.
Like many Miss Universe delegates, she wants to improve the lives of others. (This year's winner, Miss Canada, is devoting herself to combatting HIV and AIDS.) "If we can produce more computer specialists in Ethiopia, then we can do what Singapore and India are doing," Worku says, moments before she is called away to rejoin the other contestants for a rehearsal of the swimsuit procession. "The more connectivity you have in a country, the more development you have."