Semhal Guesh grew up in Ethiopia hearing a phrase many young girls her age did not: “You can do whatever you want.”
Now 27 years old, it’s no coincidence that Semhal has become a designer, architect, and entrepreneur. She now runs Kabana, a leather production company in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, and through her company, she helps other women realise their full potential.
“Most of my life, my father told me I could accomplish any ideas that I had; that I had no limits,” said Semhal. “In Ethiopia, every family is male-dominated and sons are given more chances than daughters. But with my dad, that was not the case.”
Semhal recognizes that if she had grown up in rural Ethiopia or with parents less encouraging than her own, she might have been expected to stop her education at 12 years old and get married. Instead, Semhal dreamed of becoming an astronaut or an astrophysicist because she hadn’t seen a lot of women in those professions. But it was architecture that won over Semhal for the ability to create something both beautiful and functional.
While studying for her Bachelors in Architecture, she picked up a few leather samples at a local market and began designing with it. Suddenly, her dormitory transformed into a small workshop with a handful of women hand stitching products to sell at bazaars.
“By day, we’d go to lectures and we’d make leather products at night,” said Semhal. “It was more about the joy of designing and turning our work into an actual reality. It wasn’t to earn money. It was something we could do together.”
After graduation, Semhal began working in architecture full-time while still managing to grow her leather business. Her supervisor at the architecture firm saw her passion and encouraged her to spend more time focused on her growing leather company until she eventually made the decision to devote all her time to Kabana.
“It was a hectic time, but my motivation was seeing how the job and income were changing the life of my first employee,” said Semhal. “She came to me with minimum knowledge or experience, but I taught her how to cut and stitch leather and design development. In time, I saw her changing, knowing what to do, and unafraid to share her ideas because she had the freedom to speak out. I thought ‘I’m paying somebody who supports their family. I’m part of the generation that’s creating opportunities and income for her.’”
Today, Semhal and her staff of 31 are in high demand, thanks in part to her background in architecture, which gives her an eye for design and an understanding of technical specifications. Kababa creates handmade leather bags, wallets, folders, and custom products for clients in Ethiopia, the U.S., and Sweden.
On a mission to give other women the same support she has received, Semhal is focused on motivating the women she hires to expect more for themselves. She enrolls her employees in different training programs to help them realize their value and potential, invests in their new business ideas through loans, offers paid time away from work, mentorship, and coaching.
“Everyone is shy in Ethiopia, especially girls,” said Semhal. “I tell my employees about myself, how I got to where I am, and that not everything is easy. Then I push them to have a conversation with other women. I want them to know they don’t have to be closed off.”
Thankfully, Semhal believes her country’s view of women is changing, evidenced by recent changes such as the government’s decision to back women’s education and the creation of various leadership and professional associations.
As more doors open for women in Ethiopia, Semhal continues to raise the bar on women’s equality, safety, wages and benefits in the workplace. Through her company’s partnership with ABLE, Kabana has undergone the ACCOUNTABLE social impact audit and found opportunities to improve her wages, maternity leave policy, medical coverage, and employment practices.
“Ethiopia doesn’t have a set minimum wage policy,” said Semhal. “When ABLE introduced liveable wages to KABANA, it gave us a new benchmark.”
“I want to show that you can be an entrepreneur and be young and a woman,” said Semhal. “It takes a lot of convincing, but I’m not one to back away from a challenge. Breaking the tradition starts with hearing the stories about other women and their success.”
ABLE is publishing its lowest wages to protect and empower the fashion industry’s most vulnerable workers, most of whom are women. To provide consumers with complete transparency, all their partners must go through the rigorous and exhaustive ACCOUNTABLE assessment, evaluating their workplace’s equality, safety, wages and benefits, with a particular emphasis on women. To learn more about ABLE’s #PUBLISHYOURWAGES movement that inspires consumers to demand greater transparency of their favourite brands, visit www.livefashionable.com/publishyourwages.
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