Making recycled tires from Africa into fashionable footwear that sells around the world? That’s the amazing success story of soleRebels, which just opened a second store in Taiwan. The Ethiopian shoe brand sells in over 50 countries and counts Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods and Amazon.com among its retailers. Offering generous benefits to its employees and using only environmentally friendly materials, it is the first company certified by the World Fair Trade Organization for its practices. Stating its ambition, soleRebels hails itself as “Africa’s Nike.”
Just eight years ago, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu started soleRebels with her first five employees on her grandmother’s plot of land in Ethiopia. She has since seen her business grow, and has received a number of accolades. Forbes recently listed her as one of the most powerful women to watch, along with Kate Middleton and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. She was recently featured on a BBC series with business leaders around the world.
Alemu aims to pay “proud” wages, offers her employees on-site medical checkups and free transportation for her disabled employees. She explains that having grown up in Ethiopia, the real solution to poverty is to give people jobs that they are proud and happy to do. “The best way to create prosperity is the tried and true method,” she tells Arabic Knowledge@Wharton. “Create amazing products with service to match, pay your workers very well, and operate in a highly ethical and transparent manner.”
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You started soleRebels in 2004. What was it like at the beginning?
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu: From a physical standpoint, it was pretty basic: Five workers plus myself working inside a workshop situated on my grandmother’s plot of land inside our village of Zenabework [in Addis Ababa]. But from an idea and vision standpoint it was immense. We aimed from day one to create, grow and control a world-class footwear brand right from our community that would create ever more jobs and growing prosperity for the workers, and to do this by leveraging the artisan skills of the community and the natural resources of the nation. That created an intoxicating sense of motivation and ambition that, eight years later, is stronger than ever inside the company, even as we have grown to hundreds of workers.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What made you decide to start it in your own community?
Alemu: We had lots of talented people in my community, especially artisan talent, and there were little to no job opportunities for these people. That struck me as both an immense tragedy but also an immense opportunity. I knew if we could leverage these talents in the correct format, the response from the market would be incredible. We selected footwear as the platform and away we went.
Layered on top of this was that I kept hearing over and over the phrase “poverty alleviation” in the wider context of Ethiopia and specifically with regard to the community where I grew up. As I entered college and started working to support my brothers and myself it had become clear to me that poverty alleviation is a myth. It also became clear to me that prosperity creation is the sole route to the elimination of poverty. And to create prosperity, you have to create something world class. So that’s what started to really crystallize my thinking.
Poverty alleviation sounds great. After all, who could not be for alleviating poverty, right? But poverty alleviation is, in my experience, persons unaffiliated or unaffected by poverty arbitrarily establishing a line that says to the poor: “Hey, guess what? By my calculations, you’re not poor anymore. You make ‘x’ per day.”
That’s the reason we said soleRebels would never be about poverty alleviation. I saw first-hand what the alleviators of poverty were doing from the time I was a little girl. Without getting into too many details, let’s just say poverty was at best a sideline to their main pursuits. So I vowed that I would impact my community in a way that all those who said they were impacting it never had and never could.
We have always said this company is about maximizing local talent and local resources to create good-paying jobs. In turn, let’s us pursue our core mission, which is to create awesome and extraordinary footwear and apparel products that make us into a hyper successful global brand that creates prosperity for its workforce, its suppliers and its stakeholders. We have proudly done just that, all while being the planet’s only World Fair Trade Organization [WFTO] fair trade-certified footwear company. WFTO is the sole accreditation that certifies companies’ practices and not simply the product as fair trade. That’s a big difference, especially in an era when gigantic mega corporations claim to make fair-trade goods or people who claim they are fair trade with no certification to back up that claim.
Setting our goals this way is totally different from setting a low-bar goal like poverty alleviation. Those who say they run their companies on that as their aim have set the bar so low they are missing the point: people don’t want to be “not poor.” They want some form of prosperity. That doesn’t mean [they want] to be millionaires or billionaires but prosperous. And the best way to create prosperity is the tried and true method: create amazing products with service to match, pay your workers very well, and operate in a highly ethical and transparent manner — all of which in turn creates a hyper successful company.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What made you start your own company?
Alemu: I was born and raised in the same community where I funded and continue to run my business. I had to make this company happen for myself and for all those who came to depend on it for their livelihoods. From day one, I realized that’s the deal, and that’s what drives me every single day. That’s what allows me to create world-class footwear and world-class retail stores, which in turn allow us to achieve sales targets, which in turn allow us to pay great salaries, hire more people and continue to grow organically with no outside control. If my skin was not in this game from day one, I never could have created soleRebels and fashioned it into what it is today. I would have simply seen it as a nice pastime that, win or lose, the outcome for me personally would be the same.
It’s pretty motivating to see talented people you have grown up with, who possess immense potential and talent and yet have zero opportunity to properly leverage that talent. Add to that an abundance of natural resources here in Ethiopia from which to craft footwear — everything from free-range leathers to organic cotton, jute and Abyssinian hemp. You’ve got a perfect platform for something big to happen.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What were some particular challenges and benefits to start your business in the small community you came from?
Alemu: The challenges have been immense, as have the benefits. In the benefits box, the idea of a global company being community grown and based is a deeply competitive advantage. Our roots are here. Our past, present and future is here. Not a lot of companies can say that with a straight face these days.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: The foundation of the shoe is the traditional “selate” and “barabasso” shoe, where the sole is made out of recycled car tires. Was there a light-bulb moment or was the fashion concept something you had been thinking about even from when you were a child?
Alemu: There wasn’t a light-bulb moment in the classic sense. It was more like an evolution. The selate/barabasso was all around us and so were the myriad of artisan crafts and natural inputs that I described previously. When the final push came down to found the company, I knew at that point that footwear was the platform as it would allow us a broad palate on which to express our creativity and also employ a wide range of incredible artisan-crafted and artisan-engineered materials.
And not only have we re-imagined the selate/barabasso but soleRebels has re-imagined what artisan footwear and artisan craft can be. We never did, nor do we now, just simply employ artisans. We have refined and redefined their craft to help them and us reach entirely new levels of craftsmanship, so that the product they create for our shoes is something totally new. This ethos is innovation in action and has given us innovations like totally new thread types that our hand spinners have imagined and a new weave technique that gave birth to a new, more breathable and absorbent fabric for lining our shoes and sandal straps. When people think of innovation, they think of a new technology, but innovation is in fact substantively improving the state of what was before. And so innovation can and must be applied to areas like artisan crafting. In fact it’s this approach that will keep them vital and relevant. This is one of the reasons soleRebels has found success. We have embraced the idea that tradition and innovation go hand in hand, so that yesterday’s hand-loomer of fabrics is tomorrow’s textile innovator, yesterday’s cobbler is tomorrow’s added-value shoe artisan, pioneering style and comfort through the use of the improved artisan inputs. When we look at artisan crafting through this prism, we can see a whole new future of possibilities. That’s the ethos we employ and that’s one of the assets that makes what soleRebels does totally unique, vibrant, dynamic and exciting. And it’s one of the key reasons people the world over love our products and our brand. It’s a totally new presentation of artisan craft, relevant and dynamic, one that simultaneously reaches back into the past and into the present and the future.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Ethiopia was one of the only African countries to successfully fight off colonialists, which was one of the reasons why the company is called soleRebels. What made you decide to pay homage to the proud history of Ethiopia remaining independent?
Alemu: Rather than looking at Ethiopia’s pedigree and heritage of independence as something that is backward looking, I chose my “homage” to Ethiopian independence to be something forward looking and active as it’s related to soleRebels. I believe that for Ethiopia to properly create prosperity — and for Africa as a whole — we must be at the forefront of, and in full control of the commercialization of our culture, realizing all the gains from the same. 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 land and labor and the processing of these will never be squelched. We will never let any usurpation of those resources and our rights to them happen again.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: soleRebels pays wages on average over 233% higher than industry standards and four to five times the legal minimum wage with opportunities to earn more. Why do you think more companies are hesitant about offering such wages?
Alemu: I am proud that soleRebels has been at the forefront of creating the change that is showing that Ethiopia and Africa can create, deliver and grow world-class products and brands that can compete globally and win! We have stores opening around the planet — from Taiwan to Switzerland. We are opening these in conjunction with partners — experienced business folks who have staked their money on our ideas. Now that’s change and that’s the forefront of the possibilities that face Ethiopia, not simply selling a product or some raw materials but rather getting people around the world to buy into our ideas and support, promote and grow those ideas.
Originally published on Arabic Knowledge@Wharton December 11, 2012.