Ethiopia Habtemariam has been working in the music industry since she was a 14-year-old intern at LaFace Records in Atlanta. After turning that job into a full-time position right out of high school, the wunderkind shot straight to the top. Now, at 39, as the executive vice president of Capitol Music Group and the president of Motown Records, she is one of the most powerful women in music. Habtemariam is respected for her ear (with an impressive roster of signed artists like Justin Bieber, Ciara, and J. Cole) and her resolve. “Anyone I’ve ever signed, I really believe in,” she says. “And either you get it or you catch on eventually.”
Most recently, she was responsible for bringing rap trio Migos to Motown, which helped lead to the label’s new awakening. For Motown’s 60th anniversary this year, she’s releasing a documentary on its soulful roots and building on innovative successes like Netflix’s animated series Motown Magic. “I’m bringing back f—ing Motown,” she says, smiling. “That’s badass. This is the most legendary label in music. When you think about what started in a small neighborhood in Detroit and all its superstars [e.g., the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes] who went on to touch the world with their music — I want to remind people of that.”
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Leading lady: “The reality is there aren’t many women or women of color who have ever been presidents of a company,” she says. “Having my family’s support from the beginning was dope because that’s not common for immigrant parents, especially in the music space.” Today, the first-generation Ethiopian-American is determined to link arms with like-minded ladies. “If you’re the only woman in the room, that’s a problem,” she says. “Once you have power and people are listening to your voice, you have to include other women.”
Music to her ears: Corporate meetings play a large part in Habtemariam’s day-to-day schedule, but she still carves out time for what she loves most: finding and developing young artists. “I have to stay close to the music and do the things that feed me,” she says.
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Power moves: “A lot of people can’t handle [the challenges of this job], but I just keep going,” she says, understating the success Motown has seen under her leadership since 2014. “People didn’t think we’d be able to sign fresh artists running the charts around the world and still discover raw talent,” she admits. “But we are. And that’s pretty awesome.”
Top advice: “Make your voice heard and add value to something. People pay attention to that,” she says, noting that her own success stems from good, old-fashioned hard work. “And continue to be passionate. Because it’s art at the end of the day, and if you value the art, you’ll get the opportunities.”
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.
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