Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, a Forbes 'World's 100 Most Powerful' Woman

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Recently named in Forbes' World's 100 Most Powerful Women list as a 'Woman to Watch', and the Winner of the 2012 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is the Founder & CEO of soleRebels footwear.

From the humblest of beginnings, Bethlehem has built soleRebels into the planet's fastest growing African footwear brand and the  very first global footwear brand to ever emerge from a developing nation.

She has created world class jobs, and empowered her community and country, whilst presenting a galvanized, dynamic face of African creativity to the global market.

Bethlehem was born and raised in the Zenabwork/Total area of Addis Ababa, one of the most impoverished and marginalized communities of Ethiopia. Growing up Bethlehem saw that Ethiopia had plenty of charity “brands” but not a single global brand of its own, so she set out to change all that. In early 2005, fresh out of college in Addis Ababa, Bethlehem founded the trailblazing footwear company soleRebels to provide solid community-based jobs. Tapping into her community’s and the nation's rich artisan wealth and heritages, Bethlehem started re-imagining what footwear could be.

Seven years, many shoes and hundreds of creative, dignified and well paying jobs later, soleRebels is the planet's fastest growing African footwear brand and the world’s first and only World Fair Trade Federation [WFTO] Fair Trade certified footwear company. Constantly elevating the idea of what her brand can achieve, Bethlehem has led soleRebels to become the first ever brand from a developing nation to open branded, stand-alone retail stores around the globe including in Asia and the EU. soleRebels is on track to be the first global branded retail chain from a developing nation to open 100 stores and achieve over $100 million USD in revenues by 2017.

Bethlehem's awards include: 

  • ARISE MAGAZINE DYNAMIC 100 WOMEN List of remarkable women shaping modern Africa alongside Oprah Winfrey, Dambisa Moyo , Angelina Jolie 
  • FORBES Magazine World's 100 Most Powerful Women 2012 Woman to Watch 
  • Winner 2012 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award
  • FORBES Magazine 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa List
  • FORBES Magazine - Africa's Most Successful Women: Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
  • New York City Venture Fellow (Mayor Michael Bloomberg)
  • 2011 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader [YGL]
  • Winner 2011 Legatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship 
  • Winner 2011 Most Valuable Entrepreneur Award Global Entrepreneurship Week 
  • Winner 2011 Outstanding African Business Woman, African Business Awards

We spoke to Bethlehem about the early days of her business; the challenges of building a global brand; and her commitment to providing life-changing opportunities for her workers.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for soleRebels and then arrive at the decision to quit your job as an accountant and turn your idea into a reality?

BTA: I began soleRebels for two essential reasons:

1.We had LOTS OF creatively talented people in my community, especially artisan talents, yet there were LITTLE TO NO job opportunities for these people. Added to that talent was  an abundance of natural resources here in Ethiopia from which to craft awesome footwear -  everything from free range leathers to organic  cotton, JUTE and Abyssinian hemp  -  a perfect platform just waiting for something big to happen.  So this all struck me as BOTH an immense tragedy AND also an immense opportunity. I knew if we could leverage these talents and resources in the correct format , the response from the market would be incredible.

2. Layered on top of this was that I kept hearing over and over the phrase “poverty alleviation” in the wider context of Ethiopia and specifically with regards to the community where I grew up. As I entered college and started working to support myself and my brothers, it had become clear to me that poverty alleviation is a myth.

It also became clear to me that prosperity creation is the sole route to the elimination of poverty. And to create prosperity you have to create something world class.

So that’s what started to really crystallize my thinking.

My premise from the beginning was that soleRebels would be an innovative company committed to creating world class footwear and apparel products, great community based jobs that create sustained prosperity by utilizing the immense, diverse, and sustainable materials and artisan arts of Ethiopia. There wasn’t a light bulb moment in the classic sense. It was more like an evolution. The seleate/barabasso, which is the traditional recycled tire sole shoe here in Ethiopia, was all around us and so too were the myriad of artisan crafts and natural inputs that I described previously. When the final push came to found the compan,y I knew at that point that footwear was the platform as it would allow us a broad palette on which to express our creativity and also employ a wide range of incredible artisan-crafted and artisan-engineered materials.

Not only have we re-imagined the selate/barabasso but soleRebels has re-imagined what artisan footwear and artisan craft can be. We never did, nor do we now, just simply employ artisans; we have refined and redefined their craft to help them and us reach entirely new levels of craftsmanship, so that the input or product they create for our shoes is something totally new. This ethos is innovation in action and has given us innovations like totally new thread types that our hand spinners have imagined; a new weave technique that gave birth to a new more breathable and absorbent fabric for lining our shoes and sandal straps with.

When people think of innovation they think of a new technology or some such thing but innovation is in fact substantively improving the state of what was before.

And so innovation can and must be applied to areas like artisan crafting. In fact it’s this approach that will keep them vital and relevant. This is one of the reasons soleRebels has found success - we have embraced the idea that tradition and innovation go hand in hand, so that yesterday's hand loomer of fabrics is tomorrow’s textile innovator; yesterdays cobbler is tomorrow’s added value shoe artisan,  pioneering style and comfort through the use of the  improved artisan inputs. So when we look at artisan crafting through this prism we can see a whole new future of possibilities. . .   that’s the ethos we employ and that’s one of the assets that  makes what soleRebels does totally unique, vibrant, dynamic and exciting; and its one of the key reasons people the world over love our products and our brand. It’s a totally new presentation of artisan craft, relevant and dynamic, one that simultaneously reaches back into the past and into the present and the future.

As for the name soleRebels, that was a piece of beautiful, magical serendipitous poetry that sprang from the whole idea of giving deeply talented yet thoroughly marginalized folks who once had no hope, the chance to become self sufficient, independent and prosperous  by crafting innovative footwear  from recycled tires, inner tubes, organic cottons and other great natural materials!

We were rebelling against the status quo in so many ways and doing it through footwear so we said: “we are sole Rebels!”  

It was a magical bonus to our whole idea but one that we still believe in passionately to this day.

TNW:  Tell us a little about the early days of your business. How did you raise the capital? Who were your first customers?  As you launched your business, did you ever imagine that soleRebels might become a global brand?

BTA: From a physical standpoint it was pretty basic.  We self financed, with only workers plus myself working inside a workshop situated on my grandmother’s plot of land inside our village of Zenabwork. But from an idea and vision stand point it was immense – we aimed right from day one to create, grow and control a world class footwear brand right from our community that would create ever more jobs and growing prosperity for the workers, by leveraging the artisan skills of the community and the natural resources of the nation. That created an intoxicating sense of motivation and ambition that 8 years later is stronger than ever inside the company, even as we have grown to hundreds of workers….

We had great success right out of the gate. The product was super fresh and the brand had a distinct point of view and so were able to score distribution with some iconic retailers like Amazon, Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods, and I am proud to say that we built this company from the ground up ourselves. Finance, product, everything!

In the process we never missed a payroll, and we’ve always been profitable. We’ve never surrendered a single bit of control, and own 100% of the company.

We compete globally by making footwear that people love, and delivering that footwear in an incrediblecustomer focused manner. We spend every day trying to win the loyalty of the people who buy and love soleRebels.  We win that loyalty by creating awesome footwear, a compelling brand, and an off the planet customer service experience. That’s our waking [and often sleeping] goal. It’s what pre-occupies me and drives  my team. Because if we do that then we will continue to grow this brand to ever higher heights.

TNW: What were the biggest challenges you faced as you scaled your business to 100 employees, with distribution to more than 30 countries worldwide? How did you overcome these challenges?

My challenges right now are:

1.  Ensuring that everyone at soleRebels is always focused on keeping our brand exciting, fresh and dynamic. That means  continually giving our customers the most awesome and amazing footwear; footwear that makes them say “WOW” when they put them on their feet and which makes other people ask them “where did you get those shoes?”  

2.  Maintaining the highest levels of customer service. I’m not interested in selling a customer a single pair of shoes  - I want our customers to be so blown away by our shoes and the exceptional level of service we give that they become soleRebels customers for life. soleRebels is an experience and part of that experience is the way we treat customers – which is the same way we want to be treated when we are customers of a company - like a valued friend! A key part of the equation is our happy soles guarantee which is the very best guarantee in the footwear business. That  is an awesome promise to customers that requires 24/7 dedication to realize, so ensuring that the entire company stays laser focused on customer happiness is critical.

3.   soleRebels is a global brand that is committed to serving our consumers and our workers equally well. I want to ensure that our workforce of super talented craftspeople come to work each and every day excited to work at soleRebels not simply because we pay high wages and have a great relaxed work environment, but because they get to maximize their potential and be a part of building an exciting global brand. This requires a constant dedication to worker happiness, which is always top of my list.

I am always challenging myself ‘how do I continue to make soleRebels not simply the best footwear brand but the best company to work at, a place of transformative opportunity for our staff ?’.

soleRebels is a place that takes a guy who came in as a shoe stitcher, sees his creativity and turns him into a shoe designer who makes a monthly salary higher than a doctor and owns 2 condominiums; a place that takes a young woman who never finished high school, and gives her the opportunity to become a section leader who makes more than a bank manger, while also giving her the flexible work schedule to complete her high school studies.

4.    Ensuring that our global network of soleRebels branded retail outlets – we have franchised and company-owned soleRebels stores opening in Austria, Switzerland, Taiwan and the US in the coming months - are ready to deliver the soleRebels experience to every person who comes in. I want everyone who walks into one of our stores to have their breath taken away.

5.   To keep up with surging global demand for soleRebels!

TNW: For many people, when they think of Ethiopia, they think of famine. What image would you like people to have of your country?

BTA: When you say that “For many people, when they think of Ethiopia, they think of famine”, I think the more interesting question to be asked is WHY that is ? 

Why do they have “these ideas” about Ethiopia or Africa?  Why has there been an insistence on presenting a singular and debased image of us for the most part?

You also need to ask who has been at the forefront on engineering those images of us?  I can tell you point blank it hasn’t been Ethiopians at the forefront of creating the images and narrative about Ethiopia. Instead it’s been people and entities with a vested interest in positioning Ethiopia as “needing help” and specifically needing the “help” they happen to be offering.  It’s been people and entities who have taken advantage of the natural goodwill of the people here to craft their own message to serve their purposes vis a vis Ethiopia, purposes that most often have zero to do with the wellbeing of the people here.

This same pattern of misdirection exists widely across the continent but has been particularly pernicious here in Ethiopia. While there are some organizations attempting to accomplish real and tangible things here and across the continent  that positively impact lives,  there are far more who are effectively scamming and  stealing  under the guise of doing “good things in Africa”.  I think it must be a huge turn off when people discover that a company or cause that they supported has literally been selling them a lie … no more is this true than in the case of “Africa”. There are companies who have made trillions off creating HUGE illusions about what they are doing in Africa!

A person or entity or nation who doesn’t control their name or image has nothing, so letting others market their version of “Africa” was always a tragic error on so many levels .

If you do not create your own narrative, others will create it for you. And in the case of Africa at large they have and it’s been a dreadful narrative as we all know…. full of cheap hucksters, all filled with ‘their’ new project which is going to save us, eternal in their assumption that WE have always been and will always be incapable of doing for and providing for ourselves… lies and half truths all aimed at keeping us poor and the $ flowing their  way.

So changing Africa’s image is simple:  Africans MUST dominate the space that tells + sells Africa. Period.  We must tell our own stories, market our own innovations, companies, cultures and products. To do that we need to STOP the relentless and ridiculous noise described above, made by people who have little if any connection with Africa, or who certainly do NOT have the interests of Africa at heart.

Thankfully if we look at Africa’s creative entrepreneurs – especially those working in industries like ours that are reliant on brand and brand image - they  have already seized the initiative and are taking full ownership of all our resources –- physical, mental, spiritual, cultural and creative – and are moving forward with huge ambitions.

As our entrepreneurs forge new markets, create global companies, award-winning brands, jobs, growth and unmatched prosperity, they are redrawing this picture of “needy Africans”.

And the most exciting element is that these entrepreneurs are also exposing the true brand of Africa, a brand that bubbles with creativity and industriousness. A brand that is buoyed by reservoirs of talented and cultured peoples, and one that is enriched by Africa’s soil and her untapped treasures

soleRebels has been leading this effort,  presenting a much needed counter to the shibboleth that Africa and Africans don’t know how to create their way to prosperity. soleRebels is living proof that in fact we do know. But it needs to happen on a much larger scale and that’s one of the reasons why I am taking the soleRebels brand global through our rollout of branded soleRebels retail stores. It will be near impossible for someone to create a negative portrait of Ethiopia, when there are awesome soleRebels stores on highstreets and malls in every major city around the world. That’s the power of having a truly global brand; in addition to delivering great products and services to people which enable you to be global, people in turn understand that the brand is an extension of the place of origin. That origin place then becomes imbued with the success of the brand. So this is a very powerful image changer.

As African entrepreneurs move forward in further shaping this transformation, we are letting it be known that the days when others project Africa’s image and damage our brand for their gain are finally over. We are determined to protect that image –- perhaps Africa’s most critical resource – as zealously and as righteously as the global brand giants who sell their brands across the continent. No less would be expected from Africa’s emerging brand stewards. Africans have endured and triumphed over tragedy and privation, to the extent that we are now poised to make this The African Century, an immense opportunity for all. This is our story, our transformation, created by the sweat of our brows, moulded by our unvanquished spirits and told by us in our own beautiful tones.

I believe that one of the KEYS for Ethiopia to properly create prosperity [and for Africa as a whole] we must be at the forefront of, and in full control of  the commercialization of our culture realizing all the gains from same.

soleRebels is at the forefront of an unstoppable movement that proves the creative agency and business acumen of the people of Africa; our desire to control the fruits of our resources, our heritages , our land and labour and the processing of these  and it will never be squelched. We will never let any usurpation of those resources and our rights to them happen again….

Ethiopia and our artisans have long been a hub of creativity, innovators of fashions long before fashion was a term. So It is long past time for us as Ethiopians and Africans to fully profit from these arts and to embed that profit and its annuity- the brand around these fine arts - here amongst those who will benefit most- the people of this country.

It is an abomination that brands can represent themselves as “African” yet are neither African owned, nor African situated, seek to reap the rewards that claiming  “African-ness” seems to bring.

Just as sure as Champagne that’s not, this piracy must be put to an end. And the best way to end piracy is to end its economic reason for being and the BEST WAY to do that is to out compete them and win!

soleRebels has been at the forefront of creating the change that is showing that Ethiopia and Africa can create, deliver and grow world class products and brands that can compete globally and win! We have stores opening around the planet - from Taiwan to Switzerland- these are being opened by us in conjunction with partners - experienced business folks who have staked their money on our ideas. Now that’s change and that’s the forefront of the possibilities that face Ethiopia. Not simply selling a product or some raw materials BUT rather getting people around the world to buy into our ideas and support, promote and grow those ideas!

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