Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is the founder and MD of soleRebels (among other companies), a footwear entity established in 2004, which set out to reimagine the traditional Ethiopian “selate” and “barabasso” shoes. The soles of the shoes are made from recycled car tyres. Today, the company has stores all over the world, including in Ethiopia, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
This question comes up quite a bit and I always reflect and think [about] the same thing: business is about solving problems. Trying to identify the singular most difficult situation would be doing a disservice to this simple fact: if you are not continuously encountering tough situations as an entrepreneur, and solving them, then you are not really in business. Encountering obstacles and overcoming them is my day-to-day existence.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
I am deeply proud of having been able to create global brands like soleRebels and Garden of Coffee. These brands have leveraged Ethiopian cultures and exposed the world to them, while being both vibrant and relevant in their products and offerings. That is the needle I am constantly attempting to thread: building exciting brands around our unique cultures, brands that become ubiquitous and impactful.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I have developed a fine sense of my weaknesses, and I address those by building my team with people who have that strength I may lack. So I flip any weakness I may have and make it a strength. That is something that I had to work on – it didn’t come automatically.
It came through a lot of experience and synthesising those experiences. But once I realised that this ability to know my weaknesses was a strength if I deployed it right, it allowed me to hit new levels of performance.
This also sets us up as an organisation for targeted hiring, as we know the gaps we are looking to fill. It empowers those who come on our team to perform because that’s why we brought them.
It also sets the pace for excellent teamwork, as we have a team where each member knows how to pull as needed. Weakness recognition, and a full embrace of that, is a powerful tool.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
I think conventional wisdom is, by definition, the antithesis of entrepreneurialism, so I am probably on the other side of a lot of it.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
Yes. That it is the minute-to-minute battle – it’s not for the faint-hearted. Your disappointments may be equal to – or even greater than – your highs.
6. Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.
I am pursuing a very exciting new initiative called GIZA, a payment and e-commerce platform that aims to transform Ethiopia by creating digital entrepreneurs.