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Her Life

Close up photo of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, wearing a black straw hat and sunglasses, sitting outdoors
Photo: James Garrison
"I think there’s too many years of being through too many kinds of experiences. After a while you get hardened, and you take it all in stride, the good and the bad."
—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Photo of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf facing a crowd of small children, their hands outstretched to her
Photo: Henry Ansbacher

Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938. She attended high school at the College of West Africa. After marrying James Sirleaf, she traveled to the U.S. to study. Johnson Sirleaf received a B.A. in accounting from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, a diploma at the University of Colorado in economics and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1971.

After Harvard, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and became the assistant minister of finance in William Tolbert’s administration. In 1979, she became the first female minister of finance. In 1980, Samuel Doe assumed power in the country following a military coup. Johnson Sirleaf went into exile to Kenya, where she worked in the Nairobi office of Citibank.

In 1985, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the Senate. She was briefly imprisoned for criticizing the Doe regime and initially supported rebel leader Charles Taylor. During 1989 to 1996, when Liberia was entrenched in a civil war, Johnson Sirleaf lived in Washington, D.C. and worked as an economist for the World Bank and as the director of the United Nations Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa.

Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1996 and ran against Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election under the Unity Party, coming in a distant second. Taylor charged her with treason. She campaigned for his removal from office, serving as the head of the Governance Reform Commission and assuming a leadership role in the transitional government after the second Liberian civil war ended in 2003.

In the private sector, Johnson Sirleaf has served on the advisory boards of the Modern Africa Growth and Investment Company (MAGIC), the Hong Kong Bank Group, the International Crisis Group, Songhai Financial Holdings, Women Waging Peace and the Center for Africa’s International Relations. She was an initial member of the World Bank Council of African Advisors and a founder of Kormah Development and Investment Corporation. She is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren.

Read about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's presidency >>

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