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President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Africa’s First Elected Female President & Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

Biography

Known as “Africa’s Iron Lady,” Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won international acclaim for leading Liberia through the Ebola Crisis and through reconciliation and recovery following her nation’s decade-long civil war. As Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state and Liberia’s first female president, she is credited with achieving dramatic economic, social, and political change, culminating in Liberia’s first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in 73 years. Read More >

President Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 for her achievements as a global leader for women’s empowerment. She is also the recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom—the United States’ highest civilian award—for her personal courage and unwavering commitment to expanding freedom and improving the lives of Africans. On stepping down from the presidency in a peaceful and democratic transfer of power in 2018, she became the first woman honored with the Mo Ibrahim Prize, considered the most prestigious award for African leaders.

President Sirleaf has been ranked among the top 100 most powerful women in the world (Forbes, 2012), the most powerful woman in Africa (Forbes Africa, 2011), one of six “Women of the Year” (Glamour, 2010), among the 10 best leaders in the world (Newsweek, 2010) and top 10 female leaders (TIME, 2010). In 2010, The Economist called her “the best President the country has ever had.” She remains a leading promoter of freedom, peace, justice, women’s rights, and democratic rule within the international community.

President Sirleaf began her career in the Treasury Department in Liberia in 1965. In 1979, she rose to the position of Minister of Finance and introduced measures to curb the mismanagement of government finances. After the 1980 military coup d’état, she became president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, but fled Liberia that same year, escaping an increasingly suppressive military government. Johnson Sirleaf has also served as vice president of Citicorp’s Africa regional office in Nairobi, as senior loan officer at the World Bank, and as a vice president for Equator Bank.

Thereafter, Johnson Sirleaf served as assistant administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and as director of its Regional Bureau of Africa, with the rank of assistant secretary-general of the United Nations. She resigned this post to contest Liberia’s 1997 presidential elections. After coming in second, she went into self-imposed exile in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). While in exile, she established a venture capital vehicle for African entrepreneurs and founded Measuagoon, a Liberian community development NGO.

President Sirleaf was elected President of the Republic of Liberia in 2005, two years after the nation’s bloody civil war ended. During her two terms as president, she focused on rebuilding the country, attracting over $16 billion in foreign direct investment. She has also attracted more than $5 million in private resources to rebuild schools, clinics and markets, and fund scholarships for capacity building. She successfully negotiated $4.6 billion in external debt forgiveness and the lifting of UN trade sanctions, which allowed Liberia to access international markets once again. She increased the national budget from $80 million in 2006 to over $672 million in 2012, with an annual GDP growth rate of more than 7%.

In June 2016, President Sirleaf was elected the first female Chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for a twelve-month term. In May 2012, she was appointed co-chair of the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The panel was tasked with crafting a roadmap for global recovery and sustainable development. In 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) named Johnson Sirleaf a member on one of its external advisory groups on surveillance. The group consists of economic, financial, and public policy experts whose role is to work on the IMF’s 2020 Comprehensive Surveillance Review (CSR).

In January of 2018, President Sirleaf stepped down from the presidency of Liberia and into the annals of world history. Never before, in the previous 73 years of her country’s war-torn and tumultuous history, had there been a peaceful and democratic transfer of power. In recognition of her leadership of her country and on the world stage, and in addition to receiving the Mo Ibrahim Prize, she was invited to join The Elders, an organization founded by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. This group of former world leaders, including Ban Ki-moon, Mary Robinson, and Ernesto Zedillo, work together to advance peace, justice, and human rights. In 2019, President Sirleaf was also appointed as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Ambassador for the Health Workforce. In 2020, she became a member of The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation's (DFC) inaugural Development Advisory Council, which advises DFC on ways to increase development impact.

In addition to her Nobel Prize, President Sirleaf is the recipient of numerous honors, including: the Mo Ibrahim Prize (2018), considered the most prestigious award for African leaders, the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace Disarmament and Development (2012), the Grand Croix of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest public distinction (2012), the African Gender Award (2011), Friend of the Media Award (2010), FUECH Grand Cross Award (2009), FAO’s CERES Medal (2008), Golden Plate Award (2008), International Women’s Leadership Award (2008), International Crisis Group Fred Cuny Award for the Prevention of Deadly Crisis (2008); James and Eunice K. Matthews Bridge Building Award (2008), American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (2008), National Civil Rights Museum Annual Freedom Award (2007), National Democratic Institute Harriman Award (2007), Bishop T. Walker Humanitarian Award (2007), Gold Medal of the President of the Italian Republic (2006), Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger (2006), National Reconciliation Award (2006), International Woman of the Year (2006), and International Republican Institute Freedom Award (2006).

President Sirleaf has been awarded honorary doctorates by more than 15 institutions, including: Tilburg University (Netherlands), the Nigerian Defence Academy, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Harvard University, Rutgers University, Yale University, Georgetown University, the University of Abeokuta (Nigeria), the University of Minnesota, Furman University of South Carolina, Brown University, Indiana University, Dartmouth College, Concordia University, Langston University, Spelman College and Marquette University.

Born Ellen Eugenia Johnson, President Sirleaf is the granddaughter of a traditional chief of renown in western Liberia and a market woman from the southeast. U.S. educated; she holds a Master in Public Administration (MPA) from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She also earned a degree in accounting at Madison Business College in Wisconsin and received a diploma from the University of Colorado’s Economics Institute.

President Sirleaf has written widely on financial, development and human rights issues, and in 2008 she published her critically acclaimed memoir, This Child Will Be Great.

She is the proud mother of four sons and grandmother of 12. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

President Obama Meeting

Mo Ibrahim Prize Ceremony Address

Secretary Kerry Address

ECA Conference of African Ministers

World Bank

ATT Diplomatic Conference

President Sirleaf Farewell Address to United Nations

Speech Topics

Leadership Through Crisis: How it Reveals the Leaders We Truly Are

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, crisis is the ultimate test of leadership—shining a light on one’s values and ability to communicate, build relationships, and create a strong shared vision. No one knows this better than Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As president of Liberia throughout the 2014 Ebola Crisis, she has the distinction of leading a nation through and out of a devastating epidemic. Read More >

 In this timely and inspiring keynote, President Sirleaf shares her own crisis-proven and values-driven tenets of leadership: listening to the voices of others, being firm in decision-making, ensuring unity of command, changing course when something isn’t working, and most of all, taking responsibility for both successes and for failures. Noting that leadership never matters more than when it directly impacts lives and livelihoods, she emphasizes the importance of going beyond one’s own fears to lead by powerful example, empowering your team and inspiring your stakeholders. Read Less ^

The Triumph of Women Leaders: Crisis, COVID-19 and Beyond

A recent New York Times article noted that “countries led by women seem to be particularly successful in fighting the coronavirus.” Before Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and others captured the world’s attention for their COVID-19 responses, Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was praised for leading her country through the deadly Ebola crisis while it was still recovering from the devastating effects of civil war. Celebrated for her ability to make tough decisions with compassion and empathy, communicate with honesty, and create an effective call for unity not only in her country, but around the world; “Africa’s Iron Lady” placed a spotlight on female leadership that contrasted with an otherwise all-male-led continent. In this highly motivational speech, President Sirleaf, who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize as a champion of women’s rights, examines feminine leadership attributes that excel during crisis and can empower success in any role.

Bringing Women’s Voices to Healthcare Policy and Practice

In a world where only 7% of countries are led by women, 70% of the world’s frontline healthcare workers are female. In hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and as EMTs, women have been the predominant responders and caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic. As heads of state, women have also been credited with leading the world’s most successful and lifesaving COVID-19 responses. Both have revealed the importance of empowering women’s voices and perspectives to improve conditions, care, and outcomes. In this timely talk, Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose credits include current service as a WHO global ambassador, President of Liberia during the Ebola Crisis, and orchestrator of the rebuilding of her country’s healthcare system, emphasizes the importance of women in healthcare across the globe—and the imperative to get women into leadership roles at every level of the system.

COVID-19: Finding Hope After Devastation

COVID-19 has shown the world how fundamentally interconnected we are, as nations, communities, organizations and, on the most basic level, as human beings. It has shown the power of unity in taking on a common threat. Most of all, it has challenged all of us to maintain the positive change born of crisis once that danger has passed. Drawing upon her recent address to the UN Security Council, and her own country, Liberia’s, recovery from the Ebola epidemic, Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf provides a hopeful and inspiring perspective on the world after COVID-19: A chance for all of us to hit the reset button and work together for the common good in both our local communities and the larger world.

“Vote for Woman”: The Iron Lady and the Market Women

During 15 years of brutal civil war, the women of Liberia watched helplessly as children died of hunger. Others saw their children kidnapped, drugged, and forced to become child soldiers. Of the 1.5 million women who survived the war, more than 70% had been raped. Many witnessed acts of violence so heinous, they were traumatized for years to come. In 2005, two years after the conflict ended, they put their hopes into a unified rallying cry:” Vote for Woman!” Their woman was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, once an abused wife, who had risen to become a Harvard-trained economist, finance minister, imprisoned political dissident and influential World Bank economist and U.N. development expert. The story of how these legions of “market women,” who toiled in the fields and market stalls in order to send their children to school, organized to elect Africa’s first female president is a story of empowerment, hope and the power of the human spirit. It is also the story of one of the world’s most remarkable women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose inspirational leadership healed a shattered nation and earned the Nobel Prize for Peace.