Ethiopian-born Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is the founder and CEO of soleRebels, the world's fastest-growing African footwear brand. Since the start in 2004, soleRebels has been expanding rapidly and today exports to no fewer than 45 countries. When speaking to Club Africa, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu announces that she wants soleRebels to be the first global branded retail chain from a developing nation to open 100 stores by 2023.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was named Outstanding African Business Woman by African Business Awards. She was also the 2016 AABLA CNBC FORBES Business Woman of The Year. CNN recently named Bethlehem one of the 12 greatest female entrepreneurs of the last century.
Though the accolades and awards make her proud, Bethlehem is more focused on real business success and milestones, such as the recently opened soleRebels flagship store in Hamburg, Germany. “The store opening was a historic first, as soleRebels became the only African brand ever to open a stand-alone branded retail store in Germany. It was a great success with great interest from customers and excellent media coverage. The launch made me very happy and proud!”
Inspiration and hope
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu started soleRebels in her own community of Zenabwork, Ethiopia. “For me, it began as an idea: that the creation of shoes could be a platform for inspiration and hope. We create great employment opportunities right inside our own community. We offer the often ignored a chance to engage in creative endeavors.”
“From our inception we proudly employed and trained people that were thought unemployable. We aimed to create something that was authentically local but had a truly universal flavor to it and for the past few years we have that and more. All the while we never lose our focus on crafting our wares from the most eco-sensible materials available: a combination of recycled, organic and bio-based materials. Then we make shoes in the most energy efficient manner possible – with our talented hands.”
Global footwear brand
The businesswoman is proud of her achievements. “We are one of the planet’s fastest growing footwear brands and the very first global footwear brand to ever emerge from a developing nation. soleRebels is also first and only global branded retail chain from a developing country. This is a crucial set of achievements as it demonstrates that that grassroots African companies can build successful global powerhouses literally from the ground up. Homegrown entities that are globally positioned, globally present and globally successful.”
Today, Bethlehem has been given all kinds of great nicknames, such as ‘The Jimmy Choo of Africa’ and ‘the new Christian Louboutin’. What are her secrets to success?
“Our type of business model centers on eco-sensibility and community empowerment; product design and development involve a great deal of effort to achieve fashionable and appealing quality products that use local materiZls. Our model maximizes local development by creating a vibrant local supply chain while creating world class footwear that are loaded with style comfort and appeal.”
By hand, one pair at a time
“We do this by directly training and employing artisans who craft each and every one of our shoes by hand one pair at a time, making it a truly zero-carbon production process. Second: making our own inputs. As other footwear manufacturers buy mass produced materials to makes their shoes, we hand craft our Abyssinian pure leathers, re-purpose materials like car tires into soles and incorporate as many recycled and sustainable materials as possible, including Abyssinian HEMP PURE Abyssinian KOBA. We proudly hand spin and hand loom every single meter of our own fabrics in our own facilities right inside our community. this ensures we get the highest quality. Third: doing our own designing. As other footwear manufacturers outsource their shoe design to big design firms we conceive and develop everything we make by ourselves in-house in our workshop in Addis Ababa. The result is that we can conceive the coolest, comfiest and stylish footwear, while also elevating both our own creative capabilities and creating additional, higher level jobs for the designers that we groom and trained.”
Your advice to other aspiring African entrepreneurs?
“Love your customers. Passionately. Always. Without them you have nothing! Create truly awesome products that your customers will love; deliver these products with equally awesome customer focused service so your customers will love you in return! Another piece of advice: market honestly – no one likes being scammed. Stay agile. Never allow complacency. Always be eager to examine all your assumptions and, if need be, to react immediately if those assumptions come up short. Be open and transparent and above all: be responsive. Embrace Failure - no one created true awesomeness by being timid. Going big means you will fail. Often, it is what you LEARN and apply from that failure that will enable you to achieve greatness… And finally: repeat all of these points FOR EVER.”