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Individuals of all economic strata are shedding their jobs, hometowns, and lifestyle to embrace a wider experience and a more meaningful existence.

Mélanie Laurent

Bethlehem Tilahun AlemuBethlehem Tilahun Alemu, born 1980 in the Zenebework area of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is a businesswoman, founder and the executive director of SoleRebels - the fastest growing footwear company in Ethiopia.

Only thirty-six years of age, Alemu has received numerous honors, accolades and recognition for her business savvy.

Combined with her efforts to shift the focus in Africa away from merely eliminating poverty by external factors and instead by directing attention at the entrepreneurial spirit, social capitol, and vast economic potential of the continent, and especially Ethiopia in particular.

On April 9th in 2014, Alemu announced the creation of a new business venture named The Republic of Leather, focusing on custom-designed sustainable luxury leather goods and is now working on a coffee company as well.

The defining features of her new company, aside from espousing the same ideals of ecological and economic sustainability as was the model for SoleRebels, The Republic of Leather is centered on principles of customer choice.

These are customer choice of the design of the product, customer choice of the artisan-producer, and customer choice of the recipient of the charitable donation - 5% of the product's purchase price being donated to charity.

Bethlehem Tilahun AlemuHer latest plan to do more for Ethiopia's recovery is a new business she's about to launch called Garden of Coffee.

Even though SoleRebels and Garden of Coffee may seem worlds apart, she believes they both show how resourceful Ethiopia can be.

"I began Garden of Coffee so that people everywhere can experience the magic of hand-roasted Ethiopian coffees, roasted at their source by Ethiopia's finest coffee artisans," she said.

Alemu is hoping to open three cafes in Abbis Abada, before expanding to the U.S. and Europe.

She was born the eldest of four siblings to parents who worked at a local hospital. Alemu attended public primary and secondary schools, and then went on to study accounting at Unity University, where she graduated in 2004.

As a child growing up in a small, impoverished rural community in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia, she discovered that people of her community were living in abject squalor because there were very few jobs available.

While the most of the locals were unemployed, she discovered that many of them possessed valuable artisan skills which remained largely unexploited.

Seeing this drove her to brainstorm on ways through which she could transform the skills of her community members into a sustainable enterprise that could generate viable livelihoods for them, and create wealth for herself over the long run.

Bethlehem Tilahun AlemuAfter graduating from college in the beginning of 2005, Alemu founded SoleRebels to provide ecologically and economically sustainable jobs for her local community. The company started in a workshop on a plot of land owned by her grandmother in Zenebework.

SoleRebels has been highly successful, employing over a hundred employees, with distribution into over thirty countries around the world, selling to market giants like Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters and Amazon.

SoleRebels produces footwear locally that often features a strong infusion of ancient Ethiopian culture with subtle undertones of modern, western design influences.

Practically, all SoleRebels shoes are redesigns and reimaginations of the famous Selate and Barabasso shoe, the traditional recycled tire sole shoe which has been worn by Ethiopians for many, many decades.

The Selate and Barabasso shoe was noteably worn by Ethiopian rebel fighters who vehemently opposed western forces from colonizing the country - which is where the name 'SoleRebels' came from.

SoleRebels has opened up retail outlets in Taiwan, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Singapore, and has franchise proposals for Canada, Italy, Australia, Israel, Spain, Japan and the United States and the UK among other countries.

In a recent interview with Tadias Magazine, Bethlehem estimated that revenues from Sole Rebels retail operations will hit the $10 million mark by 2016.

Bethlehem Tilahun AlemuHer strategy was to create well-paid jobs which could create sustained prosperity by utilizing the artistic talents and natural resources native to Ethiopia.

The selection of footwear as the ideal product for the her company when she found herself inspired by the seleate or barabasso's, a traditional footwear made from recycled tire soles crafted in Ethiopia.

With every business venture, her philosophy is to challenge the traditional narrative about Africa and especially Ethiopia. "that Africa and Africans don't know how to create their way to prosperity."

Alemu believes Ethiopians must take control of their own destriny from the "people and elites with a vested interest in positioning Ethiopia as 'needing help' and specifically needing the 'help' they happen to be offering,"

The global success of companies like SoleRebels helps to dispel these old myths and allows this generation of Ethiopians to shape their own international image.

SoleRebels manufactures comfy sandals, slip-ons and lace-up shoes hand-crafted from recycled, weather-beaten tires and an assortment of locally-sourced natural fiber ingredients such as the ancient Koba plant (an indigenous plant which has been cultivated in Ethiopia for over several thousand years and organic Abyssinian jute fiber which is used mainly in creating the mid-soles of SoleRebels shoes.

Bethlehem Tilahun AlemuBy blending this ancient recycling tradition with contemporary, western-influenced, hip shoe designs, SoleRebels has built a successful footwear brand utilizing a production process that is zero carbon production and very eco-sensitive.

All of SoleRebels shoes are hand-crafted by Alemu's staff of over 100 people strictly using Ethiopian craft practices such as hand-spun organic cotton and artisan hand-loomed fabric - all raw materials sourced locally.

"I was born here in Ethiopia and I grew up here so I saw the state of our people - the way they lived and the way they worked, and I felt that if I had a company, it should pay a certain amount of money so the employees could take care of themselves and their families," she said.

She was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She also won an award for 'Most Outstanding Businesswoman' at the annual African Business Awards organized by African Business Magazine, and was named the 'Most Valuable Entrepreneur' at the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). Other awards include:

In 2012 - included on Forbes '100 Most Powerful' and profiled as a "Woman to Watch."
In 2012 - named by Business Insider as one of "Africa's Top 5 Female Entrepreneurs."
In 2012 - chosen as NYC Venture Fellow by Mayor Bloomberg.
In 2012 - chosen as one of Arise Magazine's "100 Dynamic Women," who are shaping modern Africa.
In 2013 - listed as #62 in Fast Company's "100 Most Creative People in Business 2013."
In 2013 - became a Counsellor at that year's One Young World Summit.
In 2013 - listed as one of Madame Figaro's "15 Most Powerful African Women."
In 2013 - chosen to join the advisory board of the Green Industry Platform.
In 2013 - chosen by readers of The Guardian as one of "Africa's Top Women Achievers."
In 2014 - named as one of CNN's "12 Female Entrepreneurs Who Changed the Way We Do Business."

Check out the soleRebel line of shoes and order online with free shipping anywhere in the world from their website at: www.solerebels.com

WALK NAKED: The soleRebels Story


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