In 1970, Richard Branson and Nick Powell founded Virgin as a small music shop in London. By the year 2004, just 34 years later, Virgin Group had grown into an international conglomerate, with interests ranging from banking to film to airlines to mobile phones to commercial spaceflight. In 1976, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computer in a garage in California, building handmade computers in wooden boxes. By the year 2012, just 36 years later, Apple inc. had grown to become the most-valuable company in history.
Following in the footsteps of these companies is soleRebels, an eco-friendly footwear company based in Ethiopia. soleRebels is Africa’s success story, and behind this magnificent topiatry is an incomparably talented and determined woman: Ethiopian businesswoman Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu.
What is in a name? Does the identity of an entity flow from its name or does the name of an entity spring from its identity? In the case of soleRebels, with its immediately catchy motto, “walkNAKED,” and visionary founder, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, it is most certainly the latter.
soleRebels emerged in to the world fully-formed, Athena-like, from the mind of Ms. Alemu. Growing up in the Total/Zenabwork community — one of the poorest in Addis Ababa — Ms. Alemu learned from her parents an indefatigable work ethic, an unyielding honesty, and a worldview that valued and respected one’s family and larger community. She was also exposed to both the devastating effects of charity/aid culture and the amazing craftsmanship with which talented local artisans designed and built indigenous apparel and footwear with recycled and locally sourced materials. These ideals and experiences that Ms. Alemu developed in her youth would come to play an outsize role in the founding and success of soleRebels.
While working for various apparel and leather companies during college, Ms. Alemu developed a deep knowledge of the marketing, sales, design, and production aspects of the apparel business. She then returned to her community, intent on applying her business skills in order to bring prosperity to her community while utilizing the skills and knowledge already extant within the community.
That’s when Ms. Alemu founded soleRebels on the basis of two core tenets: to utilize the talents of artisans in her community and to focus on “prosperity creation” through a business-oriented approach, eschewing “poverty alleviation.”
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“I knew that there were so many talented people there who could do great things if only given a chance, Ms. Alemu states. “I repeatedly saw what a lot of these people could do in terms of various craft and creative skills…I also saw the devastating effect that aid and charity had, had on the wider community in terms of making people in the community complacent and dependent.
“So I knew that anything that I did for the community had to be truly business-oriented in order to negate the effects that the aid and charity mentality had instilled in many people. I wanted to show people that if we all worked hard we could have jobs that pay decently and we could all have regular work and we could all start to feel the pride that comes with financing ourselves and not waiting for handouts.”
Named one of Africa’s top 5 business women, Ms. Alemu built soleRebels from the ground up as a self-funded world-class footwear brand using local talent and resources to create well-paying, sustainable jobs and “the most awesome looking, feeling, [and] wearing footwear on the planet.”
Following the examples of her role models Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple inc., and Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, she focused on customer satisfaction and engagement and the continual re-imagining of the soleRebels brand in order to build an iconic brand that did not simply sell shoes but created soleRebel customers for life.
Handmade from locally sourced cotton and leather and based on the designs of traditional Ethiopian tire-soled shoes, seleate and barabasso, soleRebels footwear combines creativity, color, craftsmanship, and comfort becoming the favorite of discerning shoppers the world over.
soleRebels has been nothing short of a revolution and, true to its name, rebels against the world’s preconceived notions about the ability, or lack thereof, of Africans producing world-class African-based-owned-and-directed companies and fashion brands.
In a few short years, soleRebels has gone from five employees on a plot of land in the village of Zenabwork owned by Ms. Alemu’s grandmother to a global company with hundreds of employees and self-branded stores all over the world, with millions of dollars of revenue a year and hundreds of thousands of passionate customers. soleRebels is poised to grow into one of the most-recognizable names in footwear and apparel fashion.
In regards to her future vision for Africa and African businesses, Ms. Alemu states, “I am passionate that this model will not simply forever end aid dependency, but also allow Africa the ability to compete in the global marketplace of IDEAS ON OUR OWN TERMS, and at full value for those ideas.
“And once we do that, then the images associated with Africa will be forever changed in a way that is real and meaningful and tangible. After all Africa’s image IS OUR brand, and if that overall brand has value and worth, than all our endeavors — whatever the sector we are in — become enhanced by that brands value…soleRebels is at the forefront of an unstoppable movement that proves the creative agency and business acumen of the people of Africa; our desire to control the fruits of our resources, our heritages, our land and labor and the processing of these and it will never be squelched. We will never let any usurpation of those resources and our rights to them happen again.”
It is therefore with great honor and pleasure that — for her bold and iconoclastic ideas, her incredible entrepreneurial spirit, and her extraordinary vision for African business — we ask you to join us in honoring and feting Ms. Alemu at the 2014 Face2Face Africa F.A.C.E. List Award on July 26, 2014. Click here to purchase tickets.
Face2face Africa invites you to join us for our annual Pan-African Weekend July 25-27 in NYC, honoring Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Alek Wek, Femi Kuti, Masai Ujiri, Bethlehem Alemu, and Dr. Oheneba Bochie-Adjei. Click here for more details and register to attend.