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.
Read the full interview here