Alemu was born in the Zenebework area of Addis Ababa in 1980, the eldest of four siblings. Her parents worked at a local hospital. Alemu attended public primary and secondary schools, and then went on to study accounting at Unity University, graduating in 2004. She saw resources from elsewhere in Ethiopia such as coffee and leather used by international companies to make consumer goods for sale in foreign markets. Alemu looked for a way to bring jobs to Zenabwork and to keep profits close to home. What Zenabwork needed was trade, she believed, not charity and aid.
In early 2005, fresh out of college in Addis Ababa, Bethlehem founded the trailblazing footwear company soleRebels to provide solid community-based jobs. Flash forward five years, many shoes and HUNDREDS of creative, dignified and well paying jobs later, soleRebels is the planets fastest growing African footwear brand, the world’s first and only World Fair Trade Federation [WFTO] FAIR TRADE certified footwear company AND the very 1st global footwear brand to ever emerge from a developing nation From the humblest of beginnings, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu has built soleRebels into the planet’s fastest growing African footwear brand. growing to over one hundred employees, with distribution to over thirty countries worldwide, selling to market kingmakers Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters and Amazon. Franchised and company-owned stores are slated to open in Austria, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK. Alemu wanted to create well-paid jobs which could create sustained prosperity by utilizing the artisan talents and natural resources of Ethiopia, first and foremost. The selection of footwear as the ideal product for the company came later. Alemu found herself particularly inspired by the seleate or barabasso, the traditional recycled tire sole shoe crafted in Ethiopia, and footwear became the locus around which she chose to build the company.
She has created world class jobs, empowered her community and country while presenting a galvanized, dynamic face of African creativity to the global market.
A trailblazer in every respect, Bethlehem has shifted the discourse on African development from one of poverty alleviation orchestrated by external actors, to one about prosperity creation driven by local Africans maximizing their talents and resources.
Growing up Bethlehem saw that Ethiopia had plenty of charity “brands” but not a single global brand of its own. So she set out to change all that. Tapping into her community’s and the nations rich artisan wealth and heritages, Bethlehem set about reimagining what footwear could be.
Known as the Ecommerce pioneers of the African continent, Bethlehem took soleRebels ecommerce engagement to the next level. Moving beyond the groundbreaking online retail partnerships she forged years back with the planets ecommerce giants Amazon, Endless, Javari, Amazon UK and the EU’s #1 online footwear retailer spartoo.com, Bethlehem led the launch of soleRebels state of the art, fully ecommerce enabled global website www.solerebelsfootwear.co.
Now hailed as the Nike of Africa, Bethlehem is proud that soleRebels stands as living proof that creating innovative world-class brands is the best road to greater shared prosperity for developing nations like Ethiopia.
soleRebels emerges as the first African brand to become an international job creation powerhouse with its international stores forecasted to create over 600 jobs in the countries where they are located by end 2015 , proof that growth in Africa equals real global economic and jobs growth around the planet!
Bethlehem represents the leading edge of a new generation of homegrown African leaders, talented entrepreneurs who are taking on the global market and winning on an unprecedented level. She gives face and voice to what grassroots African-driven female economic leadership looks like , as she continues to elevate her nation, her continent and her company, all KEYS to creating more prosperity across Africa and beyond!
She has received a slew of honors and accolades for her business acumen, as well as her efforts to shift the discourse on Africa away from poverty alleviation by external actors and instead highlight the entrepreneurial spirit, social capitol, and vast economic potential of the continent, and Ethiopia in particular. Alemu recently launched a second company, The Republic of Leather, focusing on custom-designed sustainable luxury leather goods.
In early 2005, fresh out of college, Alemu founded soleRebels to provide ecologically and economically sustainable jobs for her local community. The company began out of a workshop on a plot of land owned by Alemu’s grandmother in Zenebework. SoleRebels has since flourished,
On April 9, 2014, Alemu announced the creation of a new business venture, The Republic of Leather, via a blog post on the soleRebels website. In the post, Alemu identified the luxury leather goods industry as being “ripe for a total re-imagining,” along similar lines to what she had accomplished with soleRebels and the footwear industry. Alemu went on to outline defining features of new company. Besides espousing the same ideals of ecological and economic sustainability as soleRebels, The Republic of Leather is centered on principles of customer choice—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.
With every business venture, Alemu seeks to challenge the traditional narrative about Africa and in particular, Ethiopia, “countering the shibboleth that Africa and Africans don’t know how to create their way to prosperity.” Alemu believes Ethiopians must wrest control of their own narrative 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,” as Alemu explained in an interview with The Next Woman. The global success of companies like soleRebels helps to dispel these old narratives and allows for Ethiopians to shape their own international image.
“My driving passions,” Alemu said, “are sharing Ethiopian cultures with the world and finding exciting ways to keep these cultures vibrant and fully relevant.”
Her passion built SoleRebels, a footwear company she founded in 2004 with five employees and seed money from her family. The company handcrafts footwear with materials local to Zenabwork: Abyssinian hemp and koba. The products include modern variations on the traditional selate shoe, the ones made from car tires and familiar to her since childhood.
While many manufacturers were discovering the benefits of “going green,” the people of Zenabwork had long experience in recycling to get the most use out of the fewest resources. Alemu refers to SoleRebels’ “traditional zero-carbon methods” as the way her countrymen have been making shoes for centuries.Bethlehem TilahunAlemu, co-founder of SoleRebels, in 2011 At Alemu’s company in Zenabwork today, 150 artisans craft SoleRebels’ shoes. According to the company, it is the only footwear company on the planet to be certified by the World Fair Trade Organization. It pays its workers up to four times the minimum wage and provides them medical coverage and transportation.