Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu: Walking Hope

‘A dream is not what you see in sleep: it’s the thing which doesn’t let you sleep.’

— A. P. J. Abdul Kalam

The room was on fire, with loud claps and an avalanche of questions asked to this phenomenal woman.

Needless to say how on fire the room was, that Thursday 7th March 2013, with Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and Managing Director of soleRebels (Bostex PLC), and the active conversations that took place with an audience of 200 people. This evening, filled with laughter, deep listening, spontaneous claps, and gasps of amazement, ended on a high note for us all, as we celebrated a lady who has inspired many.

Here are Bethlehem’s quotable quotes from the evening:

‘I don’t want people to buy my product because they wish to help me. I would like them to buy it because they can’t resist it.’

‘Whatever you are wishing to do, do it now. I know some of you have a company – you have it all to work on it. You don’t need extra help!’

‘If you have a crazy idea, go for it! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.’

‘When visitors come, let they come and see soleRebels the way they visit Axum and Lalibela!’

‘When you start a business through the sponsorship of a donor, you carry that flag with you, and it doesn’t feel good. Make sure you penetrate markets just like everyone else. Just work hard and prove yourself.’

‘It’s your dream, and you need to keep it alive. If you give excuses, you are not going to get anywhere. If you stop what you are doing, nobody is going to make your dream come true.’

‘Have I ever felt I want to give up on my dreams? Every day. And then I know I’m accountable to them.’

Forbes magazine describes Bethlehem as one of “Africa’s most successful business women and in 2011 listed her as the magazine’s 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa. A 2011 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, she is now also the Founding Curator of the World Economic Forum’s newest and most critical venture, the Global Shapers Community. Bethlehem is known for her Fair Trade Company, committed to the triple bottom-line of benefitting the people in her company, securing Profits, and benefiting her community (People, Profits and Planet).

What is it about Bethlehem, her life, her stand and commitment that now has her be such a role model for so many? What was her life trajectory? What were the challenges she faced and what are her dreams for the future? What is the winning business model she has been adopting? These were surely some of the questions that were in the minds of many of those present, transfixed in their seats.

The Story behind the Woman

Bethlehem started sharing her story through a powerful voice. As we explored her worldview, which she revealed through her account and answers to questions, we sensed her strength, self-confidence, realism, and practical way of responding to challenges and events. Her face was lit by a contagious smile all evening.

Bethlehem was born in a small town called Zenebework in Ethiopia, where she was present to the economic challenges many of her neighbours faced. Having graduated as an accountant and worked within the textile sector, nine years ago, she set to live her dream, of setting up her own business and seeing the possibility of having her town mates’ lives improve.

She saw the potential of leveraging the tradition of embroidery in Ethiopia, and recycling the insides of tyres, that have clothed the shoes of so many in Ethiopia for years. Five embroiderers were hired to prepare the other important component of her shoes, the woven cloth. Her strategy included seeking markets outside the country and working on building a strong, global brand and being the first Ethiopian company to establish a global brand. Her persistence enabled her to penetrate such a global market, in the midst of the negative perceptions of Ethiopia as a country and its products. A winning strategy seemed to be appealing to the Corporate Social Responsibility of buyers.

Five People – Starting from Square One

‘I had five employees,’ she Bethlehem continues, ‘and a dream. We didn’t know how to make shoes, but had the ambition to make great shoes. ‘The first pair of shoes we made weighed 3 kilos,’ she smiles, ‘and I couldn’t walk when I tried them on.’ Laughter burst out in the room.

Bethlehem recounted how in her first exposition at the Addis Ababa Exhibition Centre, passers-by would just laugh at her products which used recycled material.  Now it seems to be a different story, with Addis Ababa dwellers valuing the same product, and being willing to pay ETB 2,000 (ETB 110.00) for it.

Also the rest is history: professionals got hired and the models improved, one of the first orders was of 5,000 pairs, and today, it is of 500,000, and the number of people hired is 120! Her staff is empowered by being given higher salaries: ‘Their dignity is restored this way,’ she adds.

‘It was important that I was confident in myself,’ explains Bethlehem, as she faced questions such as: ‘How is it that you are producing shoes when as a country you don’t have enough to eat? We don’t know your company, and can’t pay for your products.’ Bethlehem sent a great number of samples of her products all over the world.

How does she know the lives of her employees are improving? Simple: ‘Many of them used to come to work dressed only in black or brown. Now they turn up wearing pink and purple!’ This struck many as being a great way to describe how choices show up in one’s life. Bethlehem also explained that many of her employees, who risked being on the verge of begging prior to employment, now had the capacity to support others.

Special care is taken for mothers, who are enabled to work in morning or afternoon shifts, so that they can look after their babies. They can also be brought to work, and have a special place to stay in the compound.

Investing in people, for Bethlehem has also meant that new friendships at work have developed, creating the sense of a big family in the workplace.

Bethlehem’s plan for the next ten years is to build a strong brand and make her company grow (‘Like Apple!’ Her role model, by the way, is Steve Jobs.) Indeed, till date, soleRebels is the world’s fastest-growing African footwear brand, and first to emerge from a developing nation.

Till date, three stores have been opened in franchise flagship stores in Taiwan and Zurich, and one is about to open in Singapore and New York.

This business, which started with an investment of under USD 5,000, now makes over USD 2,000,000 in a year. And for her, ‘she’s not there yet’. She considers that her work has just started, and the rest will happen in the next ten years.

A mother of three, Bethlehem says she feels blessed by the support she has from her family (specifically, her husband and mother), and from the team that has been built at soleRebels.

Her role model is Steve Jobs.

It’s not just about selling a Product

When sharing why she wishes to share this story and her passion, Bethlehem’s face appeared to light up even more: she is committed to leave a legacy for young people, she wishes to leave soleRebels as a gift for future generations. Bethlehem wishes to leave a strong brand with a message that can enable people to change their mentality.

The dream behind soleRebels is to also to show what’s possible, when one believes in that possibility: ‘When I see young people, I see that all they need is to be given an opportunity.’ She then adds: ‘We live in a modern world and have access to technology, and therefore anybody. There are no more boundaries’.

Go for it! Make a Difference!

In an emphatic manner, Bethlehem then invited all of us present to stay true to our dreams and passion. She called us into action and said: ‘Whatever you are wishing to do, do it now. I know some of you have a company – you have it all to work on it. You don’t need extra help!’

She reminded us how challenging it was for her to build her brand locally: ‘If you have a crazy idea, go for it!’, she asserted: ‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.’

A Tsunami of Great Questions!

What followed was an unstoppable dialogue between Bethlehem and the audience. Genuine words of appreciation were shared for her by many members of the audience. At least 30 questions were entertained, and below are some answers.

i. On the name ‘soleRebels’

The name ‘soleRebels’ was inspired by a song from singer Bob Marley. The term ‘rebels’ also refers to Ethiopians who fought for the country’s freedom. Bethelehem explains: ‘We are the modern rebellious fighting poverty’

ii. On Bethlehem’s Sense of Focus

Why doesn’t soleRebels operate in other villages too? To that question, Bethlehem said: ‘Let me see how far we can support our village of Zenebework of 5,000 people first.

iii. On penetrating the Ethiopian Market

When asked how she planned to penetrate the Ethiopian Market, Bethlehem shared she feels soleRebels already has started. She shared the story of meeting some 7 female civil servants who had visited her shop on a Saturday afternoon and had purchased some bags. To do so, they had gone back to their ‘Ikubs’ (social groups in Ethiopia in which there is a scheme to save money) to secure the money to buy the bags. Bethlehem shared these were signs that people appreciate her products, and this gives her hope.

Bethlehem also shared her philosophy on self-sufficiency: ‘When you start a business through the sponsorship of a donor, you carry that flag with you, and it doesn’t feel good. Make sure you penetrate markets just like everyone else. Just work hard and prove yourself.’

Bethlehem was asked several questions on the pricing of her products. As a Fair Trade registered company, she explained, her products are competing with the global market, and with other local Ethiopian businesses. Purchasing her products means purchasing from a business that invests in its people. Bethlehem recognized that her major market for now may be the Asian one, because of the purchasing power of consumers there. African markets for now does not have ‘easy’ markets.

iv. Bethlehem and Fear

Does Bethlehem ever feel insecure? And she reminded everyone: ‘All the ‘big’ people out there are human: it is common to feel insecure. I remember how in the past, when having to present someone, I used to shake and sweat, and was dying to finish. When you feel people are superior to you, remember that you’re not smaller than them.  Remember who you are, why you are living and what you want to be.’

v. Resilience

Does Bethlehem not feel discouraged by the different regulations and the business environment? She feels she faced many challenges when she started, and faces many every day, but: ‘It’s your dream, and you need to keep it alive. If you give excuses, you are not going to get anywhere. If you stop what you are doing, nobody is going to make your dream come true.’

vi. Time Management

When Bethlehem wakes up in the morning, she pays attention to all the roles she plays in the life. She believes in delegating and training others. ‘Leadership is going to happen when you are not there,’ she shares.

vii. Optimism

Her advice is: have a positive attitude and think outside the box. Learn from others by listening to them, since 80% of what we learn is from experience.

viii. Social Life?

Bethlehem feels she has no time for that, and that it’s time to work now. She gets up early even during holidays. She recognizes that this may a challenging thing to do within the Ethiopian context. She will have time to socialize when she retires, she says.

Needless to say that people left feeling inspired by Bethlehem’s vision, spirit of innovation and tenacity.

AWiB is grateful for Bethlehem, who took time from her busy schedule to share her passion and radiance. So, let’s all continue buying her great products, and share her story because, as the saying goes: ‘she who leaves a trail of glitter is never forgotten.’

?In the photo: Bethlehem Tilahun with some enthusiastic participants of 7th March.

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