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Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was born in the impoverished Zenebework area near Ethiopia’s capital city in 1980. She is the oldest of four siblings. Ms. Alemu graduated from Unity University in Addis Ababa in 2004, where she studied accounting. In 2005, using a plot of land owned by her grandmother, Ms. Alemu started a workshop in her neighborhood. Her idea was to use local talent and to create ecologically and economically sustainable jobs. Ms. Alemu paid workers four to five times the minimum wage and hired leprosy survivors and others that might find it difficult to secure employment.
Ms. Alemu’s workshop rapidly morphed into a footwear company named soleRebels, so named because Ethiopia was one of the first African countries to successfully fight off colonialists. SoleRebels uses recycled tires for the soles of sandals and shoes, which benefits the environment. In nine years soleRebels grew from a company that employed five people to one that employs over 120. SoleRebels currently distributes to over 30 countries. Amazon, Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods all sell soleRebels products and franchised and company-owned stores recently opened in Spain, Austria, Taiwan, and Japan.
Part of Ms. Alemu’s rationale for creating her company was to challenge mass media depictions of Africa and Ethiopia as in need of outsider assistance. She has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (2011), as a “Woman to Watch” by Forbes (2012), as one of Africa’s Top 5 Female Entrepreneurs by Business Insider (2012), a New York City Venture Fellow by Mayor Bloomberg (2012), and among “100 Dynamic Women” shaping modern Africa by Arise Magazine (2012).
In 2013 Ms. Alemu was a Counselor at the One Young World Summit and she was invited to join the Advisory Board of the Green Industry Platform by the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. In 2014 she was named one of CNN’s “12 Female Entrepreneurs Who Changed the Way We Do Business.”
February 21, 2015 · by Heidi Frontani