Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is founder and Managing Director of soleRebels, the world’s fastest-growing African footwear brand and the only Fair Trade-certified footwear company in the world. Growing up in a poor suburb of Addis Ababa, Bethlehem decided that there was only one way to defeat poverty – use local craftsmanship to make products that can compete in the global marketplace. She decided on footwear and today 70,000 pairs of shoes leave her factory every year.
soleRebels has been expanding rapidly and has 18 stores around the world, including in Silicon Valley (USA), Japan, Singapore, Austria, Greece, Spain and Switzerland, along with an aggressive e-commerce marketing strategy. It expects to open another 50 to 60 stores in next 18 to 36 months. In 2015, Bethlehem launched an new venture, Republic of Leather, offering bespoke, hand crafted Leather wear and accessories.
Bethlehem was the first female African entrepreneur to address the Clinton Global Initiative; was named Outstanding African Business Woman by African Business Awards in 2011; and was named one of the top 12 women entrepreneurs of the last century by CNN. Bethlehem is a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship also sits on the board of United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
Bethlehem’s Startup Story
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 in 2017.
“We like to say that soleRebels is handcrafted love for your feet. After all love is how we got started. We wanted to find a way to share our love for the amazing artisan heritages of Ethiopia with the world. So we embarked on a quest to hand-craft stunningly creative footwear by fusing Ethiopian artisan heritages with fantastic design. And the love flowed from there. We are really proud to have created passionate fans around the planet, empowering them and allowing them express their creativity, uniqueness and positivity through their footwear!
At soleRebels we love, embrace and encourage creativity. In fact we consider it our lifeblood – both as a company and for those who enjoy what we make. That is why soleRebels is so proud to have been able to channel the immense creative talents of our community in a way that allows the world be enriched by our products, while letting the folks who work at soleRebels enjoy world class jobs and prosperity.” She said.
SoleRebels began to bring jobs to their community, a place where there literally were none. This hurt them because where they work and are based is the community where they grew up, where their father grew and where their grandma settled when she migrated from the countryside in Gojjam to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in search of “a better life”. By the time they were growing up it was clear that a better life was nonexistent for this community. So they committed themselves to not only creating jobs for their fellow citizens but excellent paying ones, ones that were far and above what other local employers were paying for similar work! With wages that provided a decent standard of living for workers and their families and most importantly jobs that were right there in the middle of where they all lived “our wages on average are over 233% higher than the industry average. What that means is that our average workers earn a full 4-5 times the legal minimum wage and over 3 times the industry average many workers earn much more! That’s what we mean by a proud wage!” says Bethlehem.
On medical coverage, she says “Sadly, ours is a country with one of the lowest doctor: patient ratios on earth!!! Just getting to a doctor can be tough. Not to mention a competent doctor, not to mention getting one self transported to see the doctor, which for most government run hospitals can mean hours of commuting. All the doctors who do our site checks are board certified practitioners, and we have a no-hassle 100% medical coverage program covering workers and their families. And why do we do this? Because let’s face it: no one should be an illness away from destitution or have to choose between fighting an illness and feeding their kids! Right.”
Her view on cultural preservation says it all. “Everything we do is aimed at applying the unique cultural arts we have practiced here in Ethiopia for millennia. We do so in fresh, dynamic new fashions thereby both preserving important cultural assets and giving our customers (that’s you) incredibly cool and stylish things to wear! Combining the expertise of several traditional Ethiopian artisan areas – from hand spinning organic cotton to artisan looming fabrics and on to footwear hand crafting – we fuse these arts with unique and innovative design sensibilities, always delivering exciting creations.
The result is something we like to call FUSIONFASHION – the ultimate marriage between traditional cultural crafts and contemporary design. In doing this over the last few years, something deeply exciting has happened, something many thought impossible: we have leveraged our unique heritages and nurtured soleRebels into a market leading global eco-ethical brand , an important first for a developing world country like Ethiopia, and a feat which holds the seeds of greater shared prosperity here. The right to organise and bargain collectively – proudly our constitution here in Ethiopia protects the right of collective bargaining for most workers, and all our workers exercise this right freely.” Says Bethlehem.