People laughed at my business idea. Now I run a global brand.

When they laugh, turn away, and do that big thing they laughed about.

By Bethlehem Alemu - soleRebels / Garden of Coffee | Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women

When I started soleRebels many people laughed and said I was crazy. “Your plan is to remake the barabasso* into a global footwear brand leveraging the artisan talents in THAT community? What kind of business idea is that?”

To tell you the truth, sometimes I felt like we were crazy.

You see, I grew up in two worlds. The world that I knew of - one of rich culture, creativity and skill, and the world that society told me I was part of - one of poverty, incompetence and hopelessness.

I was born and raised in the Zenabwork/Total suburb of Addis Ababa, one of the most impoverished and marginalized communities of Ethiopia. Nonetheless, I grew up steeped inside Ethiopia’s rich artisan heritages. I saw my mom hand spinning raw cotton into fine threads that were then used by our talented family members to hand-weave into amazing textiles like Gabbis** and Netallas***. I saw her hand-picking coffee beans for our ancient coffee ceremony and roasting them into the most amazing elixirs I have ever sipped. I saw my family and neighbors constantly creating and improvising inside these cultures. And yet, Ethiopia had plenty of charity “brands”, but not a single global brand of our own.

With all the incredible culture, history and talent around me, how was it that we were receiving charity instead of benefitting from our own talent and resources?

So I set out to change that. I knew that my project had to be truly business-oriented to overcome the complacency and dependency charity had created. I wanted to give our community the opportunity to feel the pride that comes with financing ourselves instead of waiting for handouts. In early 2005, fresh out of college in Addis Ababa, I founded my footwear company soleRebels to provide solid community-based jobs. Tapping into our community’s and the nation's rich artisan wealth and heritages, I started re-imagining what footwear could be.

People kept telling me that I must be crazy. Nothing world-class had ever emerged from our community. What did I know about shoes anyway? I was scared. I didn’t have anything backing me up if I failed. I was from this community and I needed to make this work as much as the people I was working with.

And so, I set up a workshop on my grandmother’s plot in the village of Zenabework with five other workers. Despite the humble surroundings, we had a grand idea and vision.

We aimed from day one to create, grow and control a world-class footwear brand that would craft creative and comfortable footwear while generating more jobs and growing prosperity for our workers; and all this from our own community by leveraging its artisan skills and the natural resources of the nation. We wanted to show people that it is possible to be local and at the same time globally successful. Our vision created an intoxicating sense of motivation and ambition among our team who stayed rack focused on creating something world class. I am proud to say that since 2005, we have been building strong, vibrant, creative communities by delivering world-class footwear.

But why is our story so important? I believe that the best road to true and lasting prosperity lies in communities that produce world class products that leverage local talents and resources. Ethiopia, and Africa in general, desperately needs more trade and not aid or charity. Only then, with sufficient financial resources evenly spread, can we begin to bask in the self-satisfaction that comes from financing the solutions to our own problems and not having them financed from outside.

So here we are. They laughed and we scaled our brand. Pair by pair we became the first ever direct to consumer brand to emerge from a developing nation – selling our brand via ecommerce before ecommerce was huge, and opening branded retail stores around the world.

So when they laugh, pull that knot out of your stomach and let it be your strength.
When they laugh, let that tingling sensation, that one that might tip you over into tears, turn into a torrent of power that courses through your mind and body and soul.
When they laugh, TURN away and DO THAT BIG THING they laughed about.

When people tell you to stop dreaming big, stop and remember that girl from a small neighborhood no one ever heard or cared about. Then smile, turn around and dream EVEN BIGGER than before. Then go and make that dream real.

* the traditional used tire sandal
** Ethiopian Blankets
*** Ethiopian Shawls




Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is a globally acclaimed serial entrepreneur. She is the founder and CEO of soleRebels, the world's fastest-growing African footwear brand. She is also the founder of Garden of Coffee which launched in July 2016. Bethlehem recently launched #MADEFROMSCRATCH, a movement and platform that shines a spotlight on other emerging entrepreneurs who are blazing trails, creating new markets and uplifting the world. Follow Bethlehem on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.