By Meron Tekleberhan
January 30, 2012 – Bethlehem Tilahun is the visionary founder of soleRebels a brand of handmade footwear which aims to combine traditional artisan crafts with the latest trends in fashion and design.
Bethlehem founded SoleRebels in 2004 with capital raised from immediate family; eight years later the company is said to earn more than 1 million US dollars annually. Sold for anything from 20 US dollars to 100 US dollars, soleRebels shoes are being sold in over thirty countries across the world as well as online.
The success of the company is matched by its unique identity as an environmentally friendly community based operation.
SoleRebels employs more than 100 craftspeople ingeniously restyling the traditional Ethiopian rubber shoes Barabasso made from recycled car tires. The style known in Ethiopia for being worn by liberation fighters during the Italian occupation inspired the name soleRebels.
The success of soleRebels is due to its awareness of current styles and its commitment to traditional ethos and crafts according to the company website.
“Combining the expertise of several traditional Ethiopian artisan areas – from hand spinning organic cotton to artisan looming fabrics and on to footwear hand crafting – we fuse these arts with unique and innovative design sensibilities, always delivering exciting creations. The result is something we like to call FUSIONFASHION – the ultimate marriage between traditional cultural crafts and contemporary design.”
The company’s commitment to the craftspeople that make its success possible is another is an inspiring feature that is unique to SoleRebels.
The company is dedicated to its artisans because it was founded with community empowerment as one of its primary aims. The community where Bethlehem was raised offered little or no employment opportunities for its impoverished members although most were skilled as traditional artisans.
“We began soleRebels to bring jobs to our community, a place where there literally were NONE. This hurt us because where we work + are based is the community where we grew up, where our father grew and where our grandma settled when she migrated from the countryside in Gojjam to Addis Ababa here in Ethiopia in search of ‘a better life’” explains the company site.
The company proudly states that it offers ‘Proud Wages’ to its workers four times that of the national minimum wage and 3 times more than similar jobs.
The company offers 100% medical coverage for employees and their family as well as onsite medical checkups because “NO ONE SHOULD BE AN ILLNESS AWAY FROM DESTITUTION or have to choose between fighting an illness and feeding their kids.”
Unlike many other enterprises employing skilled craftspeople soleRebels does not work on a quota system but offers its employees straight wages and trusts their commitment to the company ethos for the quality and quantity of their output.
The commitment to community integral to the identity of soleRebels is also seen in the education opportunities for the children of craftspeople sponsored by the company on a needs basis.
The unique success achieved by soleRebels has been recognized by many local and international bodies.
In 2011 Bethlehem was awarded many international honors beginning with her selection as a ‘Young Global Leader’ by the World Economic Forum and ‘Most Outstanding Businesswoman’ at the annual African Business Awards organized by African Business Magazine .
SoleRebels won 50,000 US dollars as one of the finalists at the Legatum Africa Award for Entrepreneurship as one of five companies selected as finalists out of more than 3000 competitors from across the African continent.
“I am elated by this award. It is recognition that soleRebels is at the forefront of a new business paradigm on the continent, one where African driven businesses and brands are elevating Africa’s global competitiveness by winning in the global marketplace” said Bethlehem on receiving the award.
Bethlehem was also recognized by The Mayor of New York City as a New York City Venture Fellow, late last year, in recognition of her achievements as an international entrepreneur.
“This is really exciting. New York is a global business hub and I am really excited to be receiving this distinguished fellowship from Mayor Bloomberg,” said Bethlehem at the time.
Early this year Bethlehem’s achievement was noted by a profile by Forbes magazine which selected her as one of Africa’s Most Successful Women.
“Every now and then, I profile outstanding African women who’re making giant strides in business, politics, technology, entrepreneurship and leadership on the continent and elsewhere around the world. This week, I profile the spectacular Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, an Ethiopian entrepreneur and the founder of SoleRebels” said Forbes contributor Mfonobong Nsehe.
In a nation where we lament the poverty that keeps people down and regret the unfortunate position of women in our women, Bethlehem Tilahun is truly an inspiration. In spite of the many challenges that face women in our society and the many heartbreaking tales we have shared Bethlehem can serve as a beacon of hope to a generation of women in Ethiopia.
Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.