Fearless Female Ethiopian Entrepreneurs & Disrupters

Posted by Jolie Peters
(@Jolie Peters)

In the horn of Africa lies Ethiopia — an epicenter for art, culture and social innovation. The country not only has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but it has also gone through a variety of advancements thanks to thoughtful pioneers that have spearheaded revolutionary change in both the digital and art sectors. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be profiling the fearless female leaders that are transforming the country.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Abai Schulze, luxury handbag designer and founder of ZAAF, as this jet-setting explorer was cruising the U.S.A. on a cross-country road trip. ZAAF is a collection of premium leather handbags and accessories crafted by the finest artisans in Ethiopia. Schulze maintains her social innovation mission by using her home country to inspire her designs and giving back to her community by creating work opportunities in surrounding cities. In combination with her social good initiative, this trend-setter is disrupting the fashion world with her tantalizing, eye-catching designs that set her apart from her competitors. She is proof that giving back, is in fact chic.

Schulze discovered her passion for fashion after getting her BA in Economics from George Washington University. It was time for her to transition from working on the sidelines, to running her own project.

Jolie: Was it always your dream to design handbags specifically? Tell us more about the birth of ZAAF.

Abai: My natural connection to Ethiopia — the place of my birth and early childhood — and my passion for design and art led me towards an endeavor that overlapped both of these in the form of ZAAF.

It is clear when looking at a ZAAF bag that the creative eye behind it has deep roots within African culture, and a keen sense of design. Each bag features a tasteful yet eye-popping panel of African-centric cloth that is beautifully paired with buttery leather.

Jolie: Who is your customer?

Abai: Both men and women who appreciate and value good craftsmanship, are well-traveled, and in search of something which is bold, but not exaggerated.

Pairing these two materials is not only aesthetically pleasing. It was important for Schulze that her consumers got a clear sense of where their goods are made. It is a company goal to support and advance traditional artisan industries, while catering to a global market.

Jolie: How has Ethiopia influenced your designs and process?

Abai: Starting with our first collection, we integrated ageless geometric patterns created on traditional looms with leather. Talented weavers meticulously count knots to produce intricate combinations of colors and styles. Their stunning skills and the actual looms they use are handed down through countless generations. We carefully select beautifully produced local leathers. Ethiopia is home to the largest population of livestock in Africa, with over 40 million people owning livestock. It produces some of the finest leather in the world.

The original ZAAF team was very small. It’s continual growth has allowed Schulze to expand her team from six to seventeen, including artisans and administrators. Every single material is hand-picked, hand-woven, hand-cut and hand-stitched.

Jolie: What struggles have you faced in running a company in Ethiopia?

Abai: I think a particular challenge for my sector, which is also a wonderful opportunity, is the need to invest continually in human capital. I’m highly reliant on qualified and specifically skilled labor that requires unique hard and soft skills. Filtering through, selecting and further investing into this human capital is probably my most unique challenge.  It’s not just a matter of technical skills — those are essential to grow — it is also changing workplace paradigms so that everyone involved has a strong sense of personal pride and ownership of the product, and a strong sense of being a part of a team.

Despite these challenges, Schulze has persevered and still remains inspired by her job. This is due, in part, to her ability to create economic opportunities in her country of birth.

Jolie: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Abai: My driving passion and vision for many years were centered around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth. So ZAAF really is a convergence of both opportunity and passion. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions using tangible elements had always been a driver for me, even though I had spent my university years focused on the hard facts of economics. 

Not only does she create these tangible opportunities for adults, but she also invites students to the ZAAF workshop, and actively tries to inspire these young professionals by sponsoring programs that support her vision.

Jolie: What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

Abai: Quantify your risks. Build up an appropriate tolerance for risk and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you accountable for your actions and progress on your goals.

Schulze strives to be a role model for young people, both in Ethiopia and abroad, just like the role models that inspired her unwavering perseverance and career.

Jolie: Who are your role models?

Abai: I’m fortunate to be surrounded with some of the most brilliant people who challenge and inspire me including my own family which is full of natural entrepreneurs. Marta Gabre-Tsadick serves as a particular inspiration to me. She started an amazing NGO, Project Mercy, which is a brilliantly holistic community development program that empowers individuals to be self-sufficient and creates thriving, and economically independent communities. She is over 90 years, but still very much involved in the community.

The release date for ZAAF’s 2018 collection is soon approaching. The collection was also inspired by Schulze’s travels within Ethiopia, and Africa at large.

Jolie: What can we look forward to seeing in your 2018 collection?

Abai: The experience of traveling inside Ethiopia and in greater Africa allows me to absorb shapes, patterns and colors that are unique, and in some cases quite distinct. This all accrues to the inspiration and general look of my collection. It keeps the design themes dynamic and builds a broad range of styles and aesthetic feels to relate to.

We can’t wait to see what this social innovator, disrupter, and amazing designer brings to the market next. 

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Stay tuned for our next fearless, female Ethiopian disrupter spotlight! Who will be next?

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