There’s an odd sense of vertigo when you see a face you recognize in a glossy magazine. Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Abai Schulze confidently gazing at me from the magazine rack. In an economics class full of the standard George Washington University overachievers, she stood out. Even then she spoke about her twin passions of fashion and improving life in Ethiopia, the country of her birth.
That struck me as an odd pairing at the time. But not long after graduation, Schulze founded ZAAF, a premium leather goods and accessories collection handcrafted by artisans in Ethiopia. She's one of a rising tide of African designers, such as Maki Oh from Nigeria, aAks from Ghana, among others.
Schultze recently turned 28 but started the business when she was 25. ZAAF brought in revenue of $160k last year and has 15 full-time employees and an additional 5-7 part-time employees depending on the season. They are based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, I wanted to know more about Schulze's company. How did the company work? What was it like for a young woman born in Ethiopia but raised in the U.S. to start a company that would help people in her home country as well as make a profit? And, was it all too good to be true? Here's what she had to say:
Leah Wald: What have you learned from building a company at the young age of 25?
Abai Schulze [Founder and Creative Director at ZAAF]:It’s been an amazing rough and tumble adventure full of challenges. I’m lucky enough to have made mistakes that will serve me well for the future (where the stake will be greater) but in a context where missteps are not fatal for the endeavor. It’s also made it very clear that each and every entrepreneurial project I take on is very binary – I either go 120% or not at all. You shouldn’t be half-hearted about blazing a personal trail or endeavor.
Wald: Economically, how do people view Ethiopia? What do find people typically associate with the country?
Schulze: Unfortunately, the “Ethiopia” brand is stuck in the stereotypes of hunger and instability reaching back to events of the past. This brand needs to be updated to reflect the reality of the nation’s remarkable growth and its human and cultural capital. Ethiopia is now one of the strongest economic movers on the continent, applauded for significant development advances — particularly in its rural areas — and a very aggressive industrial policy around textiles and light manufacturing. A country of nearly 100 million with near consistent double-digit GDP growth can only reasonably perceived as a bold global contender.
Wald: Are you using the natural resources in Ethiopia for your collection or are you having to outsource?
Schulze: All the core inputs are sourced locally, meaning the leather and the cloth are 100% Ethiopia-sourced. Some of our accessories, like zippers, require importation to complete certain items.
Wald: Tell me about your supply chain, is everything made in Ethiopia?
Schulze: ZAAF was conceived with the goal of creating new economic opportunities by leveraging local resources. Thus, we source our leather and textiles from Ethiopia. We have our own facility in the country that allows us to experiment with different techniques and designs as well as invest in our team so we could establish a strong foundation to create a sustainable company.
Wald: What has been the most difficult aspect of running your company in Ethiopia?
Schulze: The challenges of running any high-end firm in a frontier market are plentiful as one would expect. Of course, there are difficulties around infrastructure, red tape and elements like logistics – those go without saying. These challenges should be “priced into” any decision to open and operate in any frontier market. I think a particular challenge — which is also a wonderful opportunity — for my sector, is the need to invest continually in human capital. I’m highly reliant on qualified and specifically skilled labor who retain unique hard and soft skills. Filtering through, selecting and further investing into this human capital is probably my most unique challenge.
Wald: How are you providing better quality jobs?
Schulze: I believe we are having an incremental but certainly positive impact to the job sector. I also hope we are having a “knock on” effect and inspiring other young entrepreneurs and designers to enter the space and invest in people.
Wald: How do you retain top talent in Ethiopia?
Schulze: Of course one must be competitive with the urban labor market in terms of wages and benefits. And I believe we offer a good set of benefits and comp. Beyond this, however, it is more about building a unique and positive team environment where people are enthused with energy each day as they head to work. We try to keep things goal-oriented and team focused, almost a family type vibe with the pride of knowing that each member of the team is contributing something very positive and visible to the reputation of the country.
Wald: How do you keep your team motivated?
Schulze: It’s a matter of keeping the right mixture of soft and hard benefits. As I explained above, I believe in making each worker know he or she is engaged in a venture bigger than the sum of the parts.
Wald: What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs who want to leverage the resources of their native countries?
Schulze: First I would tell them to get smart about the sectors or areas of interests where they hope to invest their talent and energy. There are plenty concepts that fall flat when put in the actual context, and it’s always better to have done your due diligence early, if for nothing else to be properly confident about the opportunity at hand. Secondly, I would tell them that for the first two to three years they have to be ready to have an equal measure of pain and joy with a strong tilt towards pain for most of the first 18 months. Thirdly, I would advise them to double-down on execution. Move with good data but, by all means, move and move quickly. Execution is the stuff of success – passion is just one of the ingredients.