Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’s sustainable shoes are lifting up her Addis Ababa community

The World
soleRebels tooTOOS royale

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu's soleRebels shoes are more than a fashionable addition to your wardrobe. They're a vote of confidence in a kinder kind of company.

SoleRebels is an Ethiopian business that touts its eco- and animal-friendliness, its community-minded approach to manufacturing and unique status as the only WFTO Fair Trade footwear company on Earth as its four pillars. 

Founded by Alemu in 2004, soleRebels employees make four times the legal minimum wage and three times the industry average wage for similar work in Ethiopia. They also provide every single employee and family member with full medical insurance, and offer free rides to and from work to all. And people seem to love their shoes.

If this all sounds impressive, you're not alone. Alemu has been picked for countless accolades, with Forbes alone placing her on two top-100 lists over the past three years: "Africa's Most Successful Women" and "World's 100 Most Powerful Women."

We spoke to Bethlehem about her work, her favorite products and her advice for young women as part of our #SheMadeIt project.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu | CEO, soleRebels | 35 |  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Across Women's Lives: What do you make?

BTA: We hand-craft the most amazing shoes, but we like to say that soleRebels is handcrafted love for your feet.

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AWL: Why do you make them?

BTA: I wanted to find a way to share my LOVE for the amazing artisan heritage of Ethiopia with the world while creating well-paid meaningful work for the people in my local community, while leveraging their immense creative skills.

So, together, we embarked on a quest to hand-craft stunningly creative footwear by fusing Ethiopian artisan heritages with fantastic design. And the love has flowed from there.

AWL: What is the toughest challenge you've faced as an entrepreneur?

BTA: Too many to list. By definition being an entrepreneur is solving problems and challenges. 

AWL: What's the product you're currently selling that you're most proud of and why?

BTAFirst off, I have to say, that I love every single style we make. Me and my team only make styles that we absolutely love and that we know our customers will also love. 

For women I love our tooTOOS series, our unique riff on the ballet style shoe. I especially love the tooTOO royale.

For men I absolutely love the urbanRUNNER wrapp gruuv. With the body made from hand-spun cotton and the rim and bumpers of the shoe made with recycled inner tubes. It really demonstrates what soleRebels is all about — artisan crafting and recycling.

AWL: Can you share a piece of advice for fellow women who would like to start their own businesses one day?

BTA: The most crucial lesson I have learned as an entrepreneur is that you must have a never-say-die attitude.

There will be many times every single day while you are creating or running your business where it will be easy to stop rather than continue. But do just that — continue.

And as you continue, focus on making your product or service the absolute best and then delivering that product or service inside the most amazing experience for your customers. Do that and repeat relentlessly, but always with a smile.

If you know a female maker selling her wares online, let us know! Just message us on TwitterInstagram or Facebook using the hashtag #SheMadeIt — or leave a comment below—and we'll amplify your pick. By the end of the week, we hope to create a crowdsourced database of women worth giving your business to. 

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