Bringing Ethiopian Entrepreneurship To The World

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu (credit:
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu (credit:

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is a tireless foot soldier taking Ethiopian entrepreneurship to the world. She is building a $20-million shoe factory in Addis Ababa and is also soon launching a coffee brand.

The Adams Pavilion, a dusty shopping center selling aromatic oils, kitschy cushions and costumes in the noisy Sar Bet area of Addis Ababa, is hardly the setting for a flagship shop selling high-value branded shoes to 16 stores around the world, from Singapore to Switzerland to Silicon Valley.

Yet, that is where it all started – from a single outlet in Ethiopia.

Above the din of traffic outside, the diminutive Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, in jeans, a white T-shirt and blue blazer, her hair coiffed into a careless bun, is retelling the genesis of her hugely successful business, soleRebels, 10 years ago.

To her customers across the world – ranging from techies in San Jose to gym nuts in Taiwan – she has broken every popular perception of Ethiopia. Instead of handouts going into the country, here was handcrafted footwear – with soles made of recycled tires – going out of it to stores across the globe.

We are sipping espressos – from the local Starbucks-inspired café below her shop – and Alemu mentions that her humble middle class background taught her to be industrious. Her mother helped as a cook in the kitchen of a local hospital, while her father worked hard as an electrician in the same hospital to raise his daughter and two sons.

This article appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Forbes Woman Africa