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Life Story

Bethlehem Tilahun is the founder and Executive Director of soleRebels footwear, an internationally branded footwear company based in Addis Ababa that uses traditional fabrics, leathers and recycled materials in updated designs to create modern environmentally conscious footwear.  In addition to creating a worldwide brand that meets the global demand for ecologically sustainable products, soleRebels footwear aims to provide jobs at livable wages for artisans whose work had not previously been recognized by the global market.  Just 32 years old in 2012, Bethlehem has been named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders in 2011, one of Africa’s Most Successful Women and a Woman to Watch by Forbes Magazine in 2012, and a Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012; her company was the winner of the 2010 Eco-Bold Green Award.Born in the Zenabwork area of Addis Ababa in 1980 the eldest and the only daughter among four siblings, Bethlehem grew up watching and learning from the community around her.  Her parents both worked at the ALERT Hospital and she learned from them the value of hard work.  All around her, in what was a relatively poor community, people worked hard every day but didn’t seem to be able to improve their lives; even the many non-profit organizations working in the area weren’t able to effect much positive change or to reach people at the grassroots.  Growing up and talking about these issues with her friends at school, she decided then that, when she began to work, she would do things differently and find a way to make a real positive impact on people.

Bethlehem attended government primary and secondary schools in the Zenabwork area and then secured a diploma in Accounting from Unity University, graduating in 2004 at the age of 24. She sees formal education as important for basic skills and knowledge and the ability do research and stay up to date in one’s your chosen field.  But she says that the most important lessons she learned that have helped her achieve came from those around her, in her family, in her community and among her co-workers. The key question, says Bethlehem, is what you are going to do with the knowledge you gain in school and what your goal is.

Bethlehem’s goal was to create a company that would drive improved lives for the people in the community she grew up in.  She decided she wanted her company to be competitive in the market, not a charitable organization, because she didn’t want people to buy products out of pity.  And, having worked herself in both the leather and the cotton industries after she left school, she recognized that there was enormous talent in artisan crafts in her community and decided to draw on that talent to start her business.  Also conscious of the increasing concern about global warming, Bethlehem decided to pair the age-old Ethiopian tradition of making shoes from recycled tires with the hand-woven cotton cloth and hand-worked leather that were traditional products in the area; bringing modern design sensibilities to create a new look based on these old traditions, soleRebels was born.  The name soleRebels signifies that they are a shoe company using recycled materials for soles and doing things in a different way, in the spirit of creating a new world that is ecologically sustainable and that offers those who do the work a fair livable wage, the opportunity to learn and grow, and recognition for their work. They are also rebelling against the image of Ethiopia as a charity case and instead showing that an African company can become a global brand, creating employment not just in Ethiopia but across the world. soleRebels is the first footwear company in the world to be Fair Trade certified by the World Fair Trade Organization.

From the beginning, Bethlehem aimed to sell in the international market, believing that the brand would be stronger both in Ethiopia and abroad if it was aimed at the global market.  Bethlehem credits her husband, her family and her friends with helping her think through her business ideas and then pushing and encouraging her to go for her ambitious vision of a global company.  Her husband in particular supported her and encouraged her to think global.

Starting with a small crew of five people in her father’s house in Zenabwok, it took the team about a year to develop the initial designs and the manufacturing process (largely by hand) before they took their products to market.  Sending samples through DHL to three American retailers (Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods, and Amazon), they received an order for 2,500 pairs of shoes from Urban Outfitters; at first, the size of the order overwhelmed them.  But gradually, Bethlehem assembled a growing team of what she calls passionate workers.  Learning from this first experience, soleRebels started retailing their shoes primarily through Amazon for about four years, then expanding to other e-commerce retailers in North America, Europe, Japan and the Far East, and then store chains, building sales in more than thirty countries around the world.  In 2011, they opened their first branded retail store in Addis Ababa, the model for their global retail vision.  In 2013, they will take their next big step forward, aiming to have big branded stores in six major cities of the world.

Today soleRebels creates its shoes and growing product line in a factory located in the Zenabwok area.  The workforce has grown to 90 people, and draws its inputs from a network of more than 200 suppliers; the factory can produce up to 800 pairs of shoes a day, all still lovingly hand-crafted, though the usual daily production is between 250 and 500 pairs.  Bethlehem is proud that she and her team have been able to create the first branded finished footwear company in Africa, showing that global brands can be generated out of Africa and bring high-quality hip eco-sensitive products to market while creating high-quality jobs for women and men practicing traditional artisanal crafts.   Her greatest joy comes from being able to create meaningful jobs for herself and the people who work with her.

soleRebels began to attract the international spotlight in 2010 when the company was one of the first six recipients of the Green Award from Eco-Bold, a leading United States provider of online video reviews of various green and eco-friendly products.  Thereafter, awards for the company, honors for Bethlehem and invitations to speak at prestigious events started to roll in.  soleRebels received the prestigious Legatum Africa Award for Entrepreneurship in 2011.  Among many other honors, Bethlehem was named the first ever Global Fair Trade Ambassador by the World Fair Trade Organization in 2011, 2011 Outstanding African Business Woman by African Business Awards, Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and one of African’s Most Successful Women and a Forbes Woman to Watch in 2012 by Forbes Magazine.  She has addressed gatherings at the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the IMF, and the World Bank/UN LDC Trade Enhancement Policy Formulation Sessions, and has been featured in the Sony Pictures Entertainment/BBC series “Views from the Top” and in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine.  Bethlehem feels strongly that everything soleRebels and she herself have been able to achieve is really the work of many people.  Though she leads, the people who work with her are the ones who realize the vision and the dream that they all share.  She deeply appreciates them and makes sure she recognizes them and pays them well

Source : Ethiopian Women Unleashed

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