Ask any marketer or advertising professional – changing the perception of a brand is an extraordinarily difficult endeavor. Millions of dollars are spent each year to alter the consumer’s viewpoint of a brand, product, or service. Advertising and pop culture can have a huge effect on our buying habits, daily behavior, and general belief systems. One IVY member is looking to use the power of entrepreneurship to change the worldwide perception of an entire country.
Abai Schulze was born in Ethiopia and lived there until she was adopted by an American family at the age of 11. She recently started ZAAF, a luxury brand that produces premium leather goods and accessories, in order to give back to her home country while helping transform its perceived image in the world. On account of its tumultuous history, Ethiopia is often associated with hunger and instability. That impression, however, is an anachronism that reaches back to the 1980s. In reality, Ethiopia’s economy has experienced tremendously strong growth over the past decade, positioning it as one of the most successful countries in the region.
While the manufacturing sector is still quite young, the expansion of services and agricultural has been a catalyst for development. Ethiopia has the largest population of livestock in Africa, with over 40 million people owning livestock. As a result, the country has the ability to produce some of the finest leather in the world.
ZAAF’s products are sourced with local materials and assembled by skilled artisans. The company strives to not only produce high quality goods and stimulate economic growth in the region, but also to modernize the world’s view of Ethiopia.
Abai Schulze sat down with IVY Magazine to share her thoughts on entrepreneurship and the opportunity to create social change.
Entrepreneurial inspiration begins at home
AS: As long as I can remember, I always had the urge to go back to my country of birth and make a difference. When I was in high school and college in the United States, I spent many of my summer breaks in Ethiopia, where I had the opportunity to work as an intern for private companies and to volunteer for various NGOs. These unique experiences gave me an insider’s glimpse of different Ethiopian work environments and allowed me to reconnect culturally and emotionally, as well as gain an understanding of current challenges. I also collected cold facts and research, delivering my university economics thesis on Ethiopia’s manufacturing sector. I decided to move to Ethiopia to start ZAAF, a brand focused on producing and marketing innovatively designed premium leather goods and accessories made by skilled artisans.
Unfortunately, the “Ethiopia” brand is stuck in stereotypes of starving children and chronic need rooted in events of the past. The brand needs to be updated to reflect the reality of the nation’s meteoric growth and remarkable human and cultural capital. Positioning a luxury brand as synonymous with Ethiopia in the global marketplace is a great way of displacing these stereotypes. ZAAF’s exposure at New York Fashion Week was just one small step in this process. We have a vision of growing exponentially in the next two years, providing dozens more jobs, and advancing highly skilled artisans who understand what is required in a global marketplace, particularly women.
ZAAF is a company with the ability to create community
AS: My driving passion and vision for many years were centered on using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth. I believe the best way to change the dynamics and perception of Ethiopia as an aid-dependent country is to solve our own problems with our own abundant resources and materials. This, of course, begins with our own talented people, who are hardworking and looking for an opportunity to advance.
Our leather artisans have learned their craft in a rigorous trade school experience lasting a couple of years. We recruit many of them from there and endeavor to continue to build and advance their skills and capacity. Of course, we must be competitive in the urban labor market, and I believe we offer a good set of benefits and compensation. 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 not only to the brand, but also to the reputation of the country. It is a very different workplace paradigm that most are used to. It can even be disorienting for those coming out of a rigid hierarchical and authoritarian workplace model. From the skilled output of the most qualified artisan to our guard who shared corn he had planted, we affirm and appreciate everyone’s skills and accomplishments.
Bringing traditional styles to a new generation
AS: For our first collection, we focused on weekender bags, laptop bags, and tablet sleeves. It will always be essential that our consumers feel the sense of where the products are made. In our collections, we integrate ageless geometric patterns created on traditional looms with leather. our weavers weavers meticulously count knots to produce patterns with terrific combinations of colors and styles. Both their skills and the actual looms they use are handed down through countless generations. We take this treasure and leverage it by adding innovative approaches and process improvements. In this way we can support and advance traditional handicraft industries to cater to the global market without compromising either cultural identity or artisanal tradition.
Our target audience ranges in age from early 20’s to late 30’s. They are jet-setters, fashion-forward, global-minded, emerging in the professional world or already in it. These customers are tech-savvy, so we engage them through our social media platforms – including Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The people who enjoy our products appreciate beautiful and functional design. They value good craftsmanship and are in search of something that is unique and bold, but not exaggerated. From young professionals in various major urban venues across the world to the heart of Addis, we are building a customer base that appreciate the tangible and intangible attributes of our brand.
The future is bright for both the company and the country
In the next five years, we plan to increase the number of high-end boutique stores we distribute to in Europe and US. In due course, we plan to selectively open brick-and-motor stores in major cities. As we expand our production volume we will move to a larger facility to house more people and machines. We want to grow in creativity, in quality, in workplace excellence, in influencing and advancing our entire sector, and in being at the leading edge of a bright future for Ethiopia.
Please check out our website, zaafcollection.com, and share our beautiful creations with your community. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Also – we would love to hear your feedback on our products and what kind of designs you would like to see on our next collection.
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