If we began this story as a movie, we’d open with a pan across the impoverished village of Total/Zenabwork in Ethiopia, set in 1986. We’d zoom into a modest home where we’d find a five-year-old girl sitting happily next to her mother, spinning cotton using an inzert, a wooden hand drop spindle used for centuries in Ethiopia to spin colorful cotton. You’d see a glean in the young girls’ eye and a smile on her face.
Fast forward 30 years to today, and you’d find the same glean shining brightly in the eyes of Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder of the world-class company soleRebels, based near her hometown in Ethiopia.
Bethlehem turned her childhood fascination with hand-crafted textiles into a thriving business that has changed the fabric of the local and African economy. Since its inception 10 years ago, soleRebels has become the first global footwear brand to emerge from a developing nation and the only World Fair Trade Organization Fair Trade certified footwear company in the world, giving back to its local artisans and employees and creating vast opportunities for Ethiopians.
SoleRebels now boasts 18 branded retail stores around the world—including one in the Silicon Valley in California, with over 135 full-time employees, 200 part-time employees and the highest paid sewing jobs in the country of Ethiopia. She plans to add another 600 full-time and more than 1,000 part-time workers within a few years.
Bethlehem has created high paying managerial positions for women who never had the chance to complete high school and who were previously engaged in debilitating low-paying labor. “I wanted to provide jobs so that thousands of people do not have to leave Ethiopia to find rewarding work,” she says.
Growing up, Bethlehem was struck by the talent and skills of her community members and saddened by the extreme poverty. “I recognized that there were so many talented people there who could do great things if only given a chance. After I graduated from college, I was always questioning why somebody had to leave their country of birth and family just to survive or to be successful. I wanted to show that it is possible to be a local person, in Ethiopia and in Africa and be globally successful.”
With the help of five workers, she started soleRebels in a workshop on her grandmother’s plot of land inside her village of Zenabwork, a highly marginalized, impoverished community in Addis Ababa.
In keeping with her mission, many of her workers are Ethiopian artisans who apply the same traditional ancient hand spinning and hand looming methods that she grew up with. The colorful original sandals were inspired by the selate and barbasso sandals worn by Ethiopian soldiers who battled colonial occupation—appropriately enough as Bethlehem is heroically battling indigenous poverty.
Bethlehem’s efforts have not only spawned a worldwide phenomena, but she has earned a reputation as a creative entrepreneur and major force in the African economy. Her long list of rewards includes being listed on Forbes “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women—Woman to Watch” and Business Insider named her #1 on their list of Africa’s Top 5 Women Entrepreneurs. Fast Company magazine named her one of the most creative people in business in 2013, and CNN named Bethlehem one of the 12 greatest female entrepreneurs of the last century, calling her an entrepreneur who has redefined markets for her ground-breaking influence.
In August 2014, Bethlehem was nominated as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship. At the U.N. awards event, Ethiopia’s First Lady Roman Tesfaye said, “Empowering Ethiopians, especially women and girls, is an issue close to my heart. And there is no one who better to serve as a role model for them than Bethlehem.”
Making the Most of Natural Resources
Bethlehem’s business success could be attributed to the creative way she makes use of her local abundant natural resources, empowers her employees, and weaves sustainability practices throughout the company.
Early on, she was excited about the abundance of natural resources in Ethiopia available to craft the footwear—from free-range leathers to organic cottons, jute and Abyssinian hemp—which she saw as “a perfect platform just waiting for something big to happen.”
Her innovative production model makes 100 percent use of local inputs, even using recycled car and truck tires for the soles of the sandals. “In Ethiopia, recycling things is a way of life, since, when you have limited resources, everything is valued and valuable,” she says. “The fact that our business model leverages local heritages and materials makes it a big sustainability win.”
Rather than call her business “green” Bethlehem prefers to use terms like “historically eco-sensible” and “green by heritage” since they more aptly describe the local heritage of deeply sustainable and traditionally zero-carbon methods of production. She embraces these production methodologies, ideas, and ethos since they are integral to Ethiopia’s cultural fabric.
The Artisan Way
In today’s world of mass production in an heartless factory-like manner, soleRebels stands apart with its the emphasis on “artisans” hand-crafting each pair of shoes. “Our products are made in this manner because that’s the way it’s historically been done in Ethiopia,” says Bethlehem. “Working by hand is not only the truest expression of zero carbon production but a study in artisan empowerment. The quality and beauty of every shoe we make is literally in the hands, mind, eyes, and soul of our artisans — so working this way is the ultimate expression of our confidence in the skill and craftsmanship of every one of our artisans.”
Many of these talented hands are women who are masters in this craft but unable to find an outlet for these skills in modern business.
While the shoes may have historic roots, Bethlehem continually updates the designs to keep them attractive to people worldwide. “While having a unique Ethiopian flair to them, our products are universal in their appeal and design—people see them and say ‘cool shoes!’ without necessarily knowing they are Ethiopian.”
Immersive Shopping Experience
Every soleRebels store throughout the world radiates with what Bethlehem calls the “essential four C’s”—creativity, color, craftsmanship, and comfort. Stepping into one of the stores is like visiting an old-fashioned cobbler, while enjoying contemporary music from a top live disc-jockey. A “customSOLE” area allows customers to customize any style they see in their exact foot size, in the exact colors and accents of their choice. soleRebels artisans will loom and dye and make shoes according to a customer’s requests and deliver the custom shoes within 24 hours. A dedicated “b*knd” section of the store features footwear products crafted for vegans, veggies, and anyone who doesn’t want animal-related products making up their footwear.
Bethlehem is not stopping to rest on her laurels. She has her sights set on creating even more products and jobs, and more than 150 stores around the world, including more stores in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to the local jobs she is creating she expects to create over 1,000 global jobs by 2018 and generate $250 million USD in revenues by 2018; by 2022, she plans to open over 500 global stores and earn $1 billion in revenues. “I want to continuously re-imagine the soleRebels brand, finding ever more exciting ways to connect it with people worldwide.”
Most of all, she would like to see soleRebels emerge as the first African brand to become an international job creation powerhouse. “So what we are doing is a totally different endeavor than simply being a ‘shoe company’ or a Fair Trade company,” she says. “And we’re just getting warmed up! Our vision is based on creating long-term value over many decades to come, and to create customers for life!”
Learn more at solerebels.com.