The life of entrepreneur and footwear visionary Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is an illustration of creative genius in its truest form. Growing up in the poor, rural village of Zenabwork, Ethiopia, Bethlehem was no stranger to struggle and strife. The lack of employment opportunities led the people of Zenabwork to live in dire conditions, until Bethlehem’s insight and observations led her to an epiphany: Why not tap into the under-utilized artisan skills of the villagers to create a thriving enterprise? The result is soleRebels footwear company, which she founded in 2004.
soleRebels is an embodiment of cultural pride and resilience in nearly every way. The look and feel of Alemu’s footwear is inspired by the traditional selate and barabasso shoe worn by many generations, including the rebels who fought to ensure Ethiopia’s freedom from western colonization (hence the name soleRebels).
“I really love sharing Ethiopia’s artisan heritages with the world and combining our cultural products with modern design sensibilities,” the founder and managing director told Tadias. “For example, our sandals and shoes are lined with fabric produced from organic cotton, which we hand-spin and loom. So working in this manner not only preserves local assets, but also provides our customers with stylish and comfortable footwear. And we are constantly taking our idea further and pushing the boundaries.”
Driven by cultural pride and environmental respect, Alemu and her community have built a prosperous company in less than a decade. soleRebel shoes are available at locations world wide, as well as directly through their site. Hip, comfy and authentic, the Zenabwork based company was among the top 5 finalists of the 2011 Legatum Africa Awards For Entrepreneurship – which indicates their annual revenue that year was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-15 million bucks.
soleRebels takes their ethos “making the world a better place one step at a time” seriously. Alemu operates her company with the utmost reverence for the workers, including honorable wages that are on average 4 times the legal minimum wage & 3 times the industry average wage for similar work.* soleRebels also provides %100 medical insurance coverage and helps to fund the education of the artisans’ children. In addition to preserving their culture, the Ethiopian company aims to protect the planet too. Their use of local, recycled materials and hand craftsmanship makes soleRebels a bona fide fair trade, certified green company.
Forbes spotlight on the entrepreneur revealed that, Alemu was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011. In June of the same year, she was awarded ‘Most Outstanding Businesswoman’ at the annual African Business Awards organized by African Business Magazine, and in November, she was named ‘Most Valuable Entrepreneur’ at the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Week. Not to be overlooked, Bethlehem is also an NYC Venture Fellow, a program established by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that provides emerging entrepreneurs with mentors and investors from New York based companies.
By 2015 Alemu hopes to see soleRebels in 15 new locations outside of Ethiopia, with annual revenues topping $10 mill. She told Tadias, “We have already implemented franchise agreements in Taiwan and are currently finalizing retail proposals in China, US, UK, Australia, Italy, Canada, Spain and Japan. We have many more exciting initiatives in the pipeline so stay tuned!”