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SNEWS Qs: For Tal Dehtiar, making shoes is about building community

SNEWS chats with Oliberté founder about sustainability.

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It’s a challenge for business school graduates to find ways to do good for their communities — Tal Dehtiar, founder and CEO of Oliberté, saw that shortly after he got his MBA.


“There was no real route for MBA grads to do good work for their communities, just for corporations,” Dehtiar said. So he started a nonprofit called MBAs Without Borders.

“Through my nonprofit, I found inspiration to create a company that pairs respectful for-profit means, with vertical integration, with the incredibly diverse and promising continent of Africa,” Dehtiar added.

He zeroed in on the continent as a place to make a home for manufacturing and sourcing natural materials for Oliberté shoes.

“I wanted to use the great materials and skilled workers already available to make lasting, high-quality product that could tell our story and fulfill a common need, and settled on shoes as that product.”

Oliberté is one of the few companies offering Fair Trade certified products at the 2014 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. Dehtiar talks to SNEWS about his thoughts on supply chain management, or sustainability.

What are some ways Oliberté addresses supply chain management?
We proudly source the leathers used in our footwear and bags from naturally raised livestock from Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and Liberia, and that has been processed by a tannery that conserves water as much as possible, since leather tanning uses a lot of water, a scarce resource in Africa. All of our footwear is manufactured in our own factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which was recently named Fair Trade Certified by passing an intense auditing process with Fair Trade U.S.A.

Tell us about your philosophy on creating sustainable jobs.
By focusing on job creation and respecting local cultures and skill sets while making a quality product, we’ve been able to create a company that takes care of its people, place and product as well as its profits. As a result of that commitment, we’re proud to now officially be the world’s first Fair Trade Certified footwear.

We treat our suppliers, workers, retailers and designers with the understanding that they have knowledge to share with us that will help us all grow and succeed. We trust local Ethiopians to manage our operations in Africa, rather than bring in foreigners like many international companies and organizations. This trust gives us a very strong positioning for the future, since our team knows best what is happening in Ethiopia and Africa, where the best resources are, and how to overcome issues.

I believe in make the tools available and entrusting your team to make things happen. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but they will also learn, improve, build, dream, facilitate, manage and make history.

What have been some of the challenges in focusing on these issues?
Africa and the countries within it are new territory for small foreign business and it’s expensive — in costs, mistakes and patience — but over time, we have been extremely patient, used our capital wisely, and when the time required, brought on key investors and lenders to support our growth.

Why is it important to focus on these issues?
Developed countries have given $1 trillion in aid to African countries since 1960, and many of the international aid strategies supposed to help emerging economies have proven ineffective. As a result, many African nations are worse off now then they were 50 years ago. I believe that the only way to reduce Africa’s dependence on foreign aid is for more companies to invest in sustainable manufacturing jobs as a way to support Africa’s emerging economies.

What are some nuggets of wisdom you’d like to pass on to the outdoor industry?
Rather than corporate social responsibility being a business add-on for the sake of feel-good marketing, being socially responsible should be baked in to business operations from day one. The last thing I want is for someone to buy our African-made shoes out of pity. Rather, they should buy them because they’re stylish and well made. By prioritizing job creation and integrating local cultures and skillsets into our manufacturing process, we’ve developed a successful business model that has positive social implications.