Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is a powerhouse whose ability to expand an idea to help curb poverty in her local community into a global enterprise makes her our Winning Woman pick this week.
Born and raised in Ethiopia, Bethlehem is the founder and executive director of soleRebels which has been named Africa’s “fastest growing footwear company.”
Bethlehem grew up in one of the most marginalized communities of Addis Ababa and saw just how challenging it was for those around her to make a decent living.
Shortly after completing her studies at Unity University, Bethlehem felt compelled to create eco-friendly sustainable jobs for the people in her community. There had to be a way to create well-paying jobs utilizing the natural resources of Ethiopia.
Her idea? Manufacture shoes from recycled tires! She founded soleRebels in 2005 and began working out of a workshop on a piece of land owned by her grandmother in Zenebework.
Since then, her company has exploded and has 18 stores around the world, including in the USA Japan, Austria, Spain, and Switzerland and many others.
In speaking of her global success, Bethlehem told Nandi TV that it didn’t start out as an international idea.
“People are traveling a long ways to bring in different ideas into their continent and country to start a business. But my idea is, look at who you are as a person. How you grew up. Everything around you is a business idea. When you see a problem, find the solution. That will be a business idea.”
Bethlehem said there is no blueprint when it comes to being an entrepreneur. She has made many business mistakes over the years, but her mistakes have been her teacher.
In 2016, soleRebels sold 125,000 pairs of shoes and had created 1,200 jobs.
Bethlehem has been recognized globally for her impact not just in her community, city and country, but Africa as a whole.
She was the first female African entrepreneur to address the Clinton Global Initiative, and CNN named her one of the top 12 women entrepreneurs in the last century.
Other achievements include:
- Selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader (2011)
- Included on Forbes ‘100 Most Powerful’ and profiled as a “Woman to Watch (2012)
- Named by Business Insider as one of “Africa’s Top 5 Female Entrepreneurs (2012)
- Chosen as NYC Venture Fellow by Mayor Bloomberg (2012)
- Named one of Arise Magazine’s “100 Dynamic Women,” who are shaping modern Africa (2012)
- Listed as #62 in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business 2013
- Counsellor at One Young World Summit 2013
- One of Madame Figaro’s “15 Most Powerful African Women (2013)
- Chosen to join the advisory board of the Green Industry Platform, convened by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the UN Environment Program (2013)
- Chosen by readers of The Guardian as one of “Africa’s Top Women Achievers (2013)
In addition to soleRebels, Bethlehem launched “The Republic of Leather” in 2014, a company that designs luxury leather products, and “Garden of Coffee” in 2017, retail outlets that sell Ethiopian coffees in Addis Ababa.
In another quote to Nandi TV, Bethlehem said:
“We’re selling an experience. We’re not selling a product. We’re not trying to fit in somewhere…the need is for you. It’s not massively produced.”
Bethlehem said that one of the important lessons her parents instilled in her as a child was that there was no difference between her and her three brothers. While they did different kinds of work, she said there was no preference between girls’ work and boys’ work. Bethlehem says that helped give her confidence in her contributions to society as a woman, and ultimately, what she is doing today.
“For me, I never thought because I’m a woman I’m not going to do something, I’m not going to try it this or that. The way I see myself is… I’m a person. I am capable of doing whatever I want and I’m going to succeed because I’m going to be working really hard to be there each and every day. So, for African girls and women to say ‘I’m not going to be able to do this, I’m not capable of doing this,’ you’re killing yourself. If we are brave enough to go out to sell ideas to people, I think we can succeed.”
What I love about Bethlehem’s story is:
- She started small – the Bible says never despise the day of small beginnings. You don’t need to have major funding or established companies backing you to begin. Start with what’s in your hand. God will never ask you to use what you do not have. Great tasks are accomplished with what God has already provided you.
- Seek to be a solution – don’t set out to make a load of money. Look around you, what needs are in your community? When you approach business as a service to people in need of something, the money will follow.
- Believe in your dreams – she founded her company straight out of university. Many people feel the need to work for a company first, gain experience and then branch out on their own. While this has many advantages, I love the fact that Bethlehem had enough confidence in herself to strike out on her own without experience.
Bethlehem is a perfect example of how we can use our personal experiences as a catalyst for our own success and the enrichment of those around us.
Each Monday we acknowledge a woman who is making a difference in the lives of countless others. Know a Winning Woman in your community? Submit your pick to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to highlight her story!
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.