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Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu: A Rebel with a Cause
Ethiopia is all about craftsmanship. Ethiopian craftspeople will spin indigenous plants, – cotton, hemp, or koba – or sew leather, or, famously, re-purpose used car tires to create useful products, particularly shoes and clothing. Traditionally, these innovative products remained in Ethiopia.
That is, until Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu entered the scene.
Alemu set out to transform Ethiopian regional craft traditions into an international phenomenon. She hoped to expand and modernize the Ethiopian creative industry for the benefit of both craftsperson and consumer.
With a bank loan of 580,000 Ethiopian Birr – or $33,000 – Alemu, with the help of local craftspeople, began making shoes.
Her shoes are spun on traditional manual eucalyptus looms, and their soles are hand-cut and stitched. All materials are recycled or locally sourced. Each pair is authentically local, just reimagined with an eye to contemporary fashion.
As Alemu prepared to enter the global market, she asked, “Can you name a single globally known consumer brand from Ethiopia?” The answer was a disheartening no. Still, Alemu dreamed of “becoming possibly the next Timberland or Adidas or Nike or Puma.”
So, she focused intensely on her brand.
She called her company soleRebels, the name inspired by Ethiopian rebel soldiers famous for wearing handcrafted rubber tire sandals. The name honors the country’s long history of independence and its unique, proud culture.
The company’s image, the Ethiopian koba tree, reinforces a brand that is ancient yet youthful and rebellious. The tree – like soleRebels itself – nurtures enduring roots to produce its fruits.
It’s slogan – roots; culture; tires – is simple, emphasizing a certain strength in self-generation and self-renewal.
The name, image, and slogan culminated to personify soleRebels perfectly. Consumers would take notice.
With her brand strategy set, Alemu shifted her focus to an IP strategy.
In 2010, Alemu registered a trademark for Sole Rebels at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In fact, soleRebels became the first privately owned company in Ethiopia to register a mark in the U.S.
Alemu also registered a trademark application for the company name in the EU market at the Office of Harmonization in the Internal Market.
She registered a host of internet domain names, protecting her existing IP assets while keeping future avenues for expansion open and protected.
These IP investments ensured a smooth, lucrative entry into a competitive marketplace.
Today, soleRebels is the fastest growing consumer brand from Africa.
soleRebels shoes are available around the world, in Canada, France, Japan, Denmark, the UK, the US. You can find them at a variety of outlets, including Amazon and Urban Outfitters, or visit one of 18 soleRebels standalone retail stores.
This International Women’s Month, let’s celebrate soleRebels and mighty Bethlehem Alemu. She reminds us that, even in the face of adversity, we can always tread a new path forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Anderson is the senior manager of international intellectual property for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center.