WOMEN WHO LAUNCH

Women Who Launch: SoleRebels

HEART & SOLE OF BETHLEHEM

Bethlehem.
Birthplace of Jesus and David.
Birthname of one of Africa’s most successful and most influential woman entrepreneur.
The name is Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was born and raised in Zenebework, Addis-Ababa. One of the most improvised and marginalized communities of Ethiopia.  At a young age, she was surrounded by a community living in extreme poverty and abject filth. Many long years of civil war has plagued Addis-Ababa with massive long-term unemployment and a lackluster economy.

What is interesting about Bethlehem is that she does not view her community as one that seeks charity and the goodwill of others. Rather, she hopes to instill a sense of empowerment in her community. She wanted to build on its strength of superior craftsmanship and its members’ wealth of artistic talents. To develop a vision for an Ethiopian-owned, eco-friendly and branded footwear company.

In 2005, Bethlehem raised money from her family, and with the help of  five local artisans in the community, she started soleRebels. A shoe company that makes footwear by redesigning the famous Selate and Barabasso shoe – an old traditional recycled tire sole shoe worn by the Ethiopians – and blending it with modern and contemporary hip shoe designs. In fact, Ethiopian rebel fighters wore these shoes to fight western colonization. Hence, the name pays homage to its rebel fighters.

oldshoesolerebel

Handcrafted by the local community, the shoes are made from locally natural plant materials and recycled weather-beaten rubber tires stitched together by traditional Ethiopian techniques and practices. Hand-spun organic cotton and artisan hand-loomed fabrics are used to create a pair of soleRebels shoes that sells at US$20-US$100 a pair.

To date, soleRebel has created over 75 full-time jobs and over 120 part-time positions in the company. It is also the first footwear company in the world to be a certified WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization). In less than 8 years, soleRebels is sold in over 30 countries and gained significant publicity and recognition for its products as well as its brand/cause.

SoleRebels is hugely successful and is the top footwear exporter to the USA. As a world-class enterprise, the company earns an estimated revenue of between US$1million to US$15million (a figure that Bethlehem will not disclose). This is implied and deducted from their nomination as the top five nominees in the prestigious 2011 Legatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship, where finalists for this award must earn an annual revenue of US$1million to US$15million dollars.

solerebels-shoesall SoleRebelswork

In 2011 alone, Bethlehem Tilahum Alemu was awarded:

  • Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum
  • African Businesswoman of the Year at the annual African Business Awards, organized by African Business Magazine
  • Most Valuable Entrepreneur at the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW)
  • 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa, by Forbes Magazine
  • Bestowed with the highly sought-after NYC Venture Fellowship by Michael Bloomberg, Major of New York

An extraordinary feat by an extraordinary woman whose sole mission is to serve her community. The reverse context of Hilary Clinton’s famous words ‘it takes a village to raise a child‘ rings loud and clear.

For soleRebels, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu and Addis-Ababa, it took a woman to raise a village.

How She Did It?

On women in business. Personally I have never felt any limitations because of my gender. However, I am well aware that there have been many times, when people attempted to limit me because of my gender. My belief in never allowing those limitations to take hold always carried me through and let me transcend those obstacles placed in front of me. Such experiences have made me aware of the myriad of challenges faced by women, and has made me passionate about ensuring that women around me are given all the tools they need to not simply cope with these challenges, but to flourish in spite of them. Interview post on See Africa Diffferently, 5 March 2012, by Belinda Otas

On how her business gained success.  It requires an obsession with quality, attention to detail, and craftsmanship< Interview post on See Africa Differently, 5 March 2012, by Belinda Otas

Her advice to young entrepreneurs. First and foremost, I would say get a good education. That’s critical. And never be afraid of hard work. Believe me there is no such thing as “overnight success.” So get ready for reality. And never ever be afraid to dream big. Interview in Tadias Magazine, 19 March 2012, by Tseday Alehegn

On her role model. My mother is my role model. A simple hardworking woman who taught me the value of hard, honest work, encouraged me to get a good education and supported my desire to dream. Interview in Tadias Magazine, 19 March 2012, by Tseday Alehegn

Watch this video featuring Bethlehem as she talks about where she grew up, how she started soleRebel and its path to success.


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  • Women Who Launch interviews, click here.
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