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Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu exports Ethiopian heart and sole
March 15, 2016

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu standing in a retail store (Courtesy of SoleRebels)
(Courtesy photo)

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu grew up in Zenabwork, an impoverished borough of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Its residents were skilled artisans who could make shoes from old car tires and inner tubes, but had no jobs that earned regular money.

She saw resources from elsewhere in Ethiopia — such as coffee and leather — used by international companies to make consumer goods for sale in foreign markets. Alemu looked for a way to bring jobs to Zenabwork and to keep profits close to home. What Zenabwork needed was trade, she believed, not charity and aid.

“My driving passions,” Alemu said, “are sharing Ethiopian cultures with the world and finding exciting ways to keep these cultures vibrant and fully relevant.”

Her passion built SoleRebels, a footwear company she founded in 2004 with five employees and seed money from her family. The company handcrafts footwear with materials local to Zenabwork: Abyssinian hemp and koba. The products include modern variations on the traditional selate shoe, the ones made from car tires and familiar to her since childhood.

While many manufacturers were discovering the benefits of “going green,” the people of Zenabwork had long experience in recycling to get the most use out of the fewest resources. Alemu refers to SoleRebels’ “traditional zero-carbon methods” as the way her countrymen have been making shoes for centuries.

At Alemu’s company in Zenabwork today, 150 artisans craft SoleRebels’ shoes. According to the company, it is the only footwear company on the planet to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization. It pays its workers up to four times the minimum wage and provides them medical coverage and transportation.

With annual revenue of about $15 million, SoleRebels is the first African consumer brand to open retail stores around the globe, with locations in 55 countries. One of its recently opened stores is in a high-end mall in the heart of Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurship thrives, in California.

What qualities has Alemu seen in successful entrepreneurs? “To me, very successful entrepreneurs have the ability not simply to come up with an idea,” she said, “but to exquisitely execute that idea over and over and make it into a living, breathing reality. The best entrepreneurs literally seem to live their companies.”

What about advice for those starting out in the entrepreneurial world? “I think the best companies and brands are built by entrepreneurs willing to self-fund their ideas,” she said. “My advice would be to build your idea piece by piece and get real and honest traction in the market with that idea while retaining as much equity as you can.”