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Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Begun as a way to channel the artisan skills of her small Ethiopian village into sustainable jobs, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu created a global footwear brand SoleRebels, the first footwear company in her country to receive World Fair Trade (WFTO)’s seal of approval based on ethical labor, wage, and environmental practices.

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Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
“​We’re really just getting started as a company. We are looking to become one of the world’s dominant footwear brands in the next five years.”

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu says she “knew from day one that stylish, comfortable footwear that’s well crafted, full of flavor and that had a unique point of view both aesthetically and brand-wise would always be in demand.” She believed “we had the talent and resources locally to pull this off.” To fulfill her vision of a footwear company, she secured capital from immediate family and tapped her village’s pool of artisans to create the products.

Feeling confident that they could “create something truly fresh in the footwear market,” she launched SoleRebel in 2005 to great success. Already available in 30 markets, the shoes are on track to achieve US $15 million in sales by 2015. Bethlehem has also received numerous accolades including being named “Most Valuable Entrepreneur” at the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Week and the 2012 Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. Nonetheless, Bethlehem believes SoleRebels faces “the same limitations and possibilities as any company.” And while she is “proud that soleRebels is the fastest growing footwear brand from Africa and the very first [global] footwear brand that’s wholly African-owned and produced,” her aspirations reach much higher. She states, “We are looking to become one of the world’s dominant footwear brands in the next five years.”

Scaling the organization will not change soleRebel's core ethos, however, of remaining true to "ProudWages" for the artisan workers and respecting Ethiopian cultural practices. Shoes come in a variety of contemporary styles based on traditional manufacturing processes that take advantage of the materials locally available, whether recycled discarded tires or natural fibers like Koba, the thousands years old fibrous plant native to Ethiopia. The production process is zero carbon and sensitive to the environment, while the company is artisan-owned, creating hundreds of high-paying jobs for those in her community.