Alemu, top left, and her employees hand-making shoes in soleRebels’s Ethiopian headquarters.

A worker weaves a fabric to be used for shoe making at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker weaves a fabric to be used for shoe making at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker hammers a sole made of used tire to a shoe at the workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker puts a final touch to a shoe at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Bethlehem Alemu, a founder and manager of Sole Rebels, at her workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Jiro Ose

A worker stitches fabrics together at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker hammers fabrics together after glue was applied at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker hammers a sole made of used tire to a shoe at the workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker weaves a fabric to be used for shoe making at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Bethlehem Alemu, a founder and manager of Sole Rebels, at her store in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Colorful shoes on display at a retail shop of Sole Rebels in Ethiopia.

Colorful shoes on display at a retail shop of Sole Rebels in Ethiopia.

A worker puts a final touch to a shoe at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A worker puts a final touch to a shoe at a workshop of Sole Rebels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

62. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Founder, CEO, soleRebels

The Fair-Minded Cobbler

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu's childhood village in Ethiopia taught her a sobering economic lesson: "We had lots of artisan talent, but no job opportunities," she says. So, on a plot of her grand-mother's land in Addis Ababa, she created a small-scale solution: soleRebels, a shoe company that pays fair wages and uses locally sourced materials such as organic, hand-spun cotton.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu

Materials cost less here--"Most cotton farmers never use anything more than animal dung as fertilizer," she says--and the soles are constructed from recycled tires. The shoes have been carried in Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods, and this year, Alemu will open stand-alone boutiques in Germany and Sweden--with eyes on the U.S. In the new stores, customers will be able to select shoe colors, accents (such as local Abyssinian leather), and trims; Ethiopian artisans will make and ship the creation within 24 hours.

"We don't want to make a pity product; we want people to buy our shoes because they look good," Alemu says.

[Ed. note: A claim that soleRebels is the world's only Fair Trade-certified footwear company was removed from an earlier version of this story; rather, soleRebels is the world's only WTFO-compliant footwear company. The current version also clarifies that soleRebels has been but is not currently carried by Urban Outfitters.]

[Photos by Jiro Ose]

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