Upon the recommendation by one of our very own Columnists, Elizabeth Makumbi, The Corporate Canvas is pleased to introduce you to Abai Schulze. Aged 26, the Ethiopian-based, Abynesh ‘Abai’ Schulze, decided to move to Addis Ababa to start ZAAF, a company focused on producing and marketing high quality leather goods crafted by Ethiopian artisans. Having left her homeland of Ethiopia for the United States at the age of 11, Abai embarked on a journey to rediscovering her heritage, and coupled her background in Economic Development, entrepreneurial streak and passion, to become one of the youngest CEOs in Africa! Take the time to meet Abai below, and find out the challenges she encountered in forming her luxury apparel start-up…
Full name: Abynesh ‘Abai’ Schulze
Occupation: Founder & Creative Director at ZAAF
Educational Background: Economics, The George Washington University
Abai, your journey is fascinating! Could you give us more insight into your history growing up in Ethiopia, moving to the United States, and finally making the return to your home country?
I was adopted by an American family at around eleven years old. In Ethiopia, I lived in an orphanage for seven years. Because I had no documented family or relatives, I was considered an orphan and subsequently adopted. (Years later, through a remarkable series of events, I discovered that I indeed had living birth parents.) I grew up in Texas with a nurturing family who placed a high value on faith, education, and travel. I was one of the few people of colour in my school. Generally, I had as easy transition from Ethiopia to the States. When I first came to the US, I didn’t speak English but with the help of my family, I was quickly able to catch up. After a few years of living in the States, I had the opportunity to go back to Addis with my father for a visit. I was a bit lost culturally at the beginning because most of my young life in Ethiopia had been lived in an orphanage where we formed our own unique culture. We followed different rules and valued different things. I made many return trips to Ethiopia to volunteer and intern over time. I am blessed to be so bi-cultural and fortunate to have travelled extensively around the world.
Tell us more about your company, ZAAF – how did it start, what does the name mean or symbolise and what motivated you to start this venture? What is your role in the business?
ZAAF is a brand that produces and markets high quality leather handbags and accessories from Ethiopia. My brand name means, “tree” in Amharic. I say that we draw from ancient roots and rich national resources to produce one-of-a-kind products that celebrate the country’s beauty. Real economic development is about producing top quality products using unique cultural, natural, and human resources that can compete anywhere in the global marketplace.
Being adopted at the age of almost 11 years old meant that I had a certain amount of attachment to Ethiopia. It had naturally shaped me. That said, my driving passion and vision for many years was centred around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth. So it really is a convergence of both opportunity and passion. I understood the value of my education and strong family support in the US, and could capture and capitalize on the potential and trends of my home country. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions of “physical creation” had always been a driver for me, even though I had spent my university years focused on the hard facts of economics.
What is a typical work day like for you?
My workdays vary. When I am in Addis, my production manager and I meet at our workshop in the morning and plan out the day. It might be perfecting samples, working on patterns, or planning out the next production timeline. Then I may be following up on phone calls, emails, meetings or going to tanneries and government offices. Usually, after 7pm, I am at hotel lobbies (since they have wifi) on the computer designing, leading conference calls, and reading and catching-up on emails.
You have done a number of showcases at various shows. Tell us about your most memorable one so far?
It would have to be New York Fashion Show this past February when I had the opportunity to collaborate with an extraordinaire designer, Korto Momolu.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs out there who are afraid to take the risk of starting their own business?
Quantify your risks. Build up a tolerance for it and surround yourself with people who inspire you and hold you accountable for your actions and progress on your goals.
What have been some of your most beloved/inspirational/happiest moments in the fashion industry? And what have been some of the worst/difficult obstacles you have had to overcome?
I get to create something from nothing. I love the process of solving problems and being able to see something tangible and meaningful as a result of one’s own hard work. And of course, it is a privilege to work with gifted artisans, and to create world-class products that are well received around the globe, while impacting the economy of Ethiopia in a growing way. Seeing “Brand Ethiopia” assume its proper, unique and positive place throughout the fashion world is very exciting.
While there are always practical challenges in starting and operating a business, the biggest challenges can come through lack of alignment of vision with those we may set out to collaborate with. Strong consistent communication is key.
Any advice for aspiring designers?
If you love what you do, there are always ways to overcome and push through any challenges that you would inevitably face.
What has been your greatest accomplishment or acknowledgement of your work so far?
Successfully running a leather manufacturing company in Ethiopia and navigating through the whole business procedures in an emerging market is for sure one of my major accomplishments this year.
Are your designs currently available in South Africa? If so, how do we get a hold of the products?
We currently export to US and Europe, but we are keen on exploring the African market for our brand, ZAAF. We also have an online store at http://www.zaafcollection.com/ if one wishes to purchase any of our beautiful products.
African women… who are in the private sector represent a vital fuel for the economic growth and opportunity for the continent!
Motivation in 3 words…Made in Africa
Favourite food: Thai Food
Instagram – zaafcollection
Facebook – ZAAF
Twitter – ZAAF_COLLECTION
Interview Conducted and Compiled by Elizabeth Makumbi