How Abai Schulze Went From An Ethiopian Orphanage to Owner of a High-End Handbags Company

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Abai SchulzeAbai Schulze has had a fascinating life. Schulze was born in a remote village in the Ethiopian province of Wollo and placed in an orphanage in Addis Ababa. She was adopted at age 11 by an American family and moved to the United States. During her school years, she?d return to Ethiopia to volunteer in hospitals and orphanages. She graduated with a degree in economics and fine arts and went on to work with a government agency and then Ashoka, an NGO that promotes social entrepreneurship.

Eventually, she returned to Ethiopia to start her own company, ZAAF, in 2013 at the age of 24.? ZAAF is a collection of handcrafted luxury leather handbags and accessories.

ZAAF bags are sold online and in select stores in Austria, the UK, the US–and of course in Ethiopia.

Abai Schulze tells TNJ.com more about ZAAF.

TNJ.com: Why did decide to go into handbags?

Abai Schulze: ZAAF was conceived with the goal of creating new economic opportunities by leveraging local resources. Ethiopia has several competitive advantages in the leather sector, but there are two factors that standout. The country is endowed with the largest livestock population in the whole of Africa and 10th in the world. It produces some of the finest leather in the world.? However, Ethiopia was mostly exporting raw hides and skins until such export was banned a few years ago. Since then, it has enhanced domestic leather tanning and stimulated manufacturing (like ours). As a result, new jobs are created, higher income is generated, and economic development is boosted.

TNJ.com: ZAAF means tree, correct? Why ?tree??

AS: ZAAF has literal meaning. Amharic is the word for tree, and at the same time it is a simple word with symbolic meaning across all cultures. I was inspired by the notion of deep roots reaching into abundantly rich Ethiopian culture and heritage, while bringing out beautiful new branches of creativity and functionality. It is a theme that works well -? most of our products are named after Ethiopian trees.

TNJ.com: How does being from Ethiopia influence your designs?

AS: It is important to us 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. Talented weavers meticulously count knots to produce patterns of fantastic combinations of colors and styles. Their stunning skills and the actual looms they use are handed down through countless generations. ZAAF leverages these types of deep resources and applies innovative approaches and process improvements. In this way, we can support and advance traditional handicrafts industries to cater to the global market without compromising their national and cultural identity. We merge traditional techniques with modern designs. All our raw materials (e.g. leather and handwoven textiles) are sourced from Ethiopia and handcrafted by local talented artisans.

TNJ.com: Why did you decide to expand?

AS: Our products and designs have been very well received and we have always planned to be on a growth tangent. We have big goals and the vision to become a leading global brand.

TNJ.com: How did you first get interested in fashion?

AS: It all came down to a convergence of both opportunity and passion. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions of ?physical creation? had always been a driver for me, even as I spent my university years focused on the hard facts of economics at George Washington University.

TNJ.com: How did you start your career?

AS: I had interned and volunteered in numerous settings in Ethiopia during high school and college, which allowed me to understand the shortcomings and the potential my country of birth had. After I graduated college, I worked at Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), as well as for Ashoka in Washington DC before I moved to Ethiopia to start my company.

TNJ.com: How did you fund your startup?

AS: My seed capital came primarily from personal loans as well as some award grants.

TNJ.com: What have been some business challenges?

AS: Doing business in Ethiopia is not always easy. For my industry, we aim to produce high quality products, but it?s quite difficult finding highly skilled people. We are trying to be a part of the solution by making skills and capacity building integral to our operating model.

TNJ.com: What do you love the most about what you do?

AS: I love the process of creating all the pieces that go into a collection and then seeing the first samples bring the design to life. I am able to try new creative concepts and elements while also incorporating feedback from our customers.