There is a reason why Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is described as a serial entrepreneur; she is renowned for launching several successful start-ups. A woman who takes pride in her heritage, Bethlehem believes that the expansion of Africa can only be made possible by Africans themselves. In our interview with her, she talks about her business success and her plans for the future.
Can you briefly tell us about yourself and what you so?
My name is Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu and I am described as a globally acclaimed serial entrepreneur. I am the founder and CEO of soleRebels, the world’s fastest-growing African footwear brand and Republic of Leather, a super cool new company that is changing the way people around the world buy and love luxury leatherwear. I am also the founder of perimeter consulting which provides strategic consulting services. My latest venture is my coffee brand, Garden of Coffee, which launched in July 2016.
Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit and values from?
I was born and raised in the Total/Zenabwork community in Addis Ababa. My mom was a cook and my dad was an electrician. My family has been a huge influence on me, especially my parents. They are loving, caring, thoughtful people. They taught me the value of respect for one’s family and larger community. My parents encouraged me to get higher education and to embrace learning, and they taught me the value of hard honest-to-goodness work. Both my folks have always set a great example in terms of being committed to what they do. They instilled in me a pride about working honestly that informs so many of the things that I do.
What inspired you to start soleRebels?
Before I began soleRebels, while I was in college, I worked with various companies in the leather and apparel sector in a variety of capacities including marketing and sales, design, and production. This gave me good industry knowledge that was extremely useful in terms of setting up the company and growing it. After working in the private sector for a while I had a strong desire to start to focus my business skills on my community, which is one the most impoverished areas in Addis. I knew that there were so many talented people there who could do great things if only given a chance. I repeatedly saw what a lot of these people could do in terms of various craft and creative skills. However, owing to extreme poverty, stigma, marginalization and a whole load of other factors, many of them could not even get simple jobs. Added to this artisan talent was an abundance of natural resources here in Ethiopia from which to craft awesome footwear – everything from free range leathers to organic cotton, jute and Abyssinian hemp – a perfect platform just waiting for something big to happen. So 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.
Can you tell us why you chose the name soleRebels for your footwear brand?
The name soleRebels was a piece of beautiful, magical serendipitous poetry that sprang from the whole idea of giving deeply talented yet thoroughly marginalized folks who once had no hope, the chance to become self sufficient, independent and prosperous by crafting incredible innovative footwear from recycled tires, inner tubes, organic cottons and other great natural materials. We were rebelling against the status quo in so many ways and doing it through footwear. So we said; “We are soleRebels.” It was a magical bonus to our whole idea but one that we still believe in passionately to this day.
What differentiates the soleRebels brand from other footwear brands out there?
soleRebels is a vehicle to share our talents, our resources, our ambitions, our passions and our visions with the world. Footwear is the platform today. It is an exceptional one as we have shown. We have brought, and continue to bring the full extent of our artisan talents and unique inputs to bear on every single shoe we make. The result – the most awesome looking+feeling+wearing footwear on the planet!
Since you launched the brand, it had gained much recognition both locally and internationally. What will you say is responsible for this success?
One of the reasons soleRebels has found success is because we have embraced the idea that tradition and innovation go hand in hand, so that yesterdays hand loomer of fabrics is tomorrow’s TEXTILE innovator; yesterdays 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 is the ethos we employ and that’s one of the assets that makes what soleRebels does totally unique, vibrant, dynamic and exciting; and its one of the key reasons people all over the world love our products and our brand. From the birth of soleRebels we have always said, “Our goal at soleRebels is NOT to sell you a pair of shoes…it’s to make YOU a soleRebels’ customer for life” and that is what drives us each and every day.
The soleRebels brand is the first WFTO fair trade certified footwear company in the world. Can you tell us more about the impact this has had on your brand?
I believe that fair trade is something you do as a sustainable business practice, not something to be certified by outsiders whose concern for workers is not something lived, and whose commitment to the viability of the enterprises in question is tangential. Fair trade is simply a floor not a ceiling and we are aiming for the ceiling, not the floor. The only way to do that is by doing what we have been doing: creating world class products, a world class brand and a world class company built around those values. As far as Fair Trade, from day one of the founding of this company our number one goal was to create a global world class company producing market leading footwear while create sustainable, prosperity creating jobs.
Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced when you first started your business?
They are too many to list but as I always say if you are not experiencing ongoing challenges and obstacles then you are not really in a dynamic meaningful business. An entrepreneur’s efforts by definition often involve shattering the old, and literally creating the new, often from scratch. Therefore, an entrepreneur will always encounter deep currents of resistance from quarters who feel their economic and social interests threatened by these new products and methods. My experience has been no different but at the end of the day it’s the consumer who decides whether or not something is valuable. And so once you connect directly and meaningfully with the consumer then they become the arbiter of success as opposed to other factors.
From fashion you branched out into coffee production. What was responsible for this transition?
It literally began in my Mom’s house. One fine day a few years back, we were sitting enjoying an exquisite traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in my family home here in Addis. It began with a loving tradition that we grew up with – my mother hand washing fine yirgechaffe beans that she had self-selected at the market, skillfully preparing these exquisite beans for their journey into immortality. The process then progressed to us being enveloped by the deepest magical coffee aromas imaginable as she began hand roasting the beans on a hand crafted ceramic roaster, skillfully rotating each bean. Soon the aroma was all around us driving our senses into a frenzy of enjoyment. It all ended with us partaking in deep sips of a brew that called be only be called heavenly and us asking ourselves how we could give a more unique and dynamic coffee experience to coffee lovers worldwide. It was a vital question, one that excited and daunted us. The answer, however, soon became clear; we would leverage technology to allow coffee lovers to immediately experience the magic of personal batch artisan roasts that were selected, prepared and roasted in the exact and varied traditions where those beans originate from in the different regions of Ethiopia! And so Garden of Coffee was officially born.
Can you tell us what the Garden of Coffee is all about?
I began Garden of Coffee so that people everywhere can experience that magic in the process of creating Ethiopian coffee. The roasting process AS every coffee aficionado knows, is the most important factor that contributes to a coffee’s taste. The balance of flavors can really change depending on the roasting process. Garden of Coffee is the antithesis of factory roasting. We source the finest beans. These are then re-selected by the world’s finest artisan hand roasters who then prepare and roast them with the greatest of care in the same manner that’s been perfected here in Ethiopia; by hand, watching, smelling and hearing every single bean roast. It’s a magical process that allows us to bring out the absolute finest qualities from each bean. The result – The finest coffee that you have ever sipped.
If you could lend a help to aspiring female entrepreneurs in your country through your words, what would they be?
Embrace failure. No one created true awesomeness by being timid. Going big means you will fail. Often. It’s what you LEARN and apply from that failure that will enable you to achieve greatness.