When Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu sat down to make her first pair of shoes, in 2004, the Ethiopian native knew she wanted to update traditional tire-sole sandals. What she didn't know, really, was how to make shoes. "It's one thing to have an idea," says Alemu, the cofounder of SoleRebels. "It's quite another to implement it." Clumsily built and uncomfortable to wear, that first pair weighed nearly five pounds. "They looked more like mini beds than shoes!"
Happily for the thousands of people who shop for SoleRebels shoes online and in markets and boutiques across Asia, Europe, and Africa, Alemu's designs have since become sleek and stylish, from rubber-soled sandals to understated flats to plush daytime slippers called TooToos.
A less visible but still impressive draw for conscientious shoppers: SoleRebels is the world's first Fair Trade–certified footwear company. Its 300-plus factory workers, many of whom had been unemployed for years before being hired, earn around three times the average industry wage in Ethiopia and receive comprehensive medical coverage for their families. They showcase their textile craftsmanship using good-for-the-planet materials like organic cotton, local fibers, and rubber repurposed from worn-out tires. "Everything about our shoes is Ethiopian: making things by hand, using recycled materials and traditional designs," says Alemu. With her outsize ambition, she's bringing local culture to people around the world—foot by foot.