The world’s fashion conscious buyers are increasingly interested in knowing where the luxury goods they purchase are made, and by whom. For entrepreneur Abai Schulze, founder of growing brand ZAAF, her company’s strong backstory and ethos is resonating with these buyers, who are rapidly becoming fans and brand ambassadors with each purchase they make.
LoA chatted to the inspirational Abai Schulze this month to find out more.
What does your company do?
ZAAF is a collection of premium leather goods and accessories handcrafted by artisans in Ethiopia. ZAAF is a word that means “tree” in the ancient and noble Amharic language. We offer a broad range of fashion accessories for women and men including handbags, weekend and travel accessories, scarves, leather jackets and more.
"Our consumers care how the product is made, where it’s made, and who makes it."
What inspired you to start your company?
My driving passion and vision for many years were centered around using my education and experiences to create economic opportunities in my country of birth. So ZAAF really is a convergence of both opportunity and passion. My passion derives from the reality that design and creative expressions using tangible elements had always been a driver for me, even though I had spent my university years focused on the hard facts of economics.
Why should anyone use your service or product?
Our consumers care how the product is made, where it’s made, and who makes it. Our product makes it very clear and people who come to our shop in Addis actually get to see the process of the way the bags and scarves are produced. Our raw materials are hand picked, hand-woven, hand-cut, and hand-stitched. There is a lot of personal interaction in making one bag from the start to the finish. Our brand has a strong heritage attached to it. ZAAF leverages on Ethiopia's existing deep resources and applies innovative approaches and process improvements. In this way we can support and advance traditional artisanal industries to cater to the global market without compromising their national culture identity.
"Our raw materials are hand picked, hand-woven, hand-cut, and hand-stitched. There is a lot of personal interaction in making one bag from the start to the finish."
Tell us a little about your team
Initially we started out with a small team of six, and now we are up to seventeen including artisans and administrative staff. Our artisans work hard and we are always focused on quality control and continuous improvement in all we do. We have our own facility in the country that allows us to experiment with different techniques and designs, as well as invest in our team so we could establish a strong foundation to create a sustainable company. We offer a good set of benefits and compensation and we focus on building a unique and positive team environment where people are enthused with energy each day as they head to work. We try to keep things goal oriented and team focused, almost a family type vibe with the pride of knowing that each member of the team is contributing something very positive and visible to the reputation of the country.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I was born in the Ethiopian province of Wollo and my work at ZAAF reflects deep influences that span from the countryside to the capitals of the world where I have lived and studied. My life journey has taken me from an orphanage in Addis Ababa to the United States and the rest of the world. I am committed to using my academic background in economics and fine arts to create unique and practical expressions of beauty. I’m fortunate to be surrounded with some of the most brilliant people who challenge and inspire me, including my own family which is full of natural entrepreneurs.
"Our brand has a strong heritage attached to it. ZAAF leverages on Ethiopia's existing deep resources and applies innovative approaches and process improvements. In this way we can support and advance traditional artisanal industries to cater to the global market without compromising their national culture identity."
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
ZAAF will soon open a first of its kind experiential design-and-shop boutique in Washington DC.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
Seeing strangers at airports or hotels carrying ZAAF bags and it’s an amazing feeling to be associated with gifted artisans, and to create products that are so well received around the globe.
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
First I would tell them to get smart about the sectors or areas of interests where they hope to invest their talent and energy. There are plenty of concepts which fall flat when put in the actual context and it’s always better to have done your due diligence early, if for nothing else than to be properly confident about the opportunity at hand. Secondly, I would tell them that for the first two to three years they have to be ready to have an equal measure of pain and joy with a strong tilt towards pain for most of the first 18 months (depends on the field). Thirdly, I would advise them to double-down on execution. Move with good data but by all means move and move quickly. Execution is the stuff of success – passion is just one of the ingredients.
Contact or follow ZAAF
Why LoA loves it….
In the highly competitive world of luxury leather fashion accessories, standing out in the marketplace can be tough. But Abai Schulze is demonstrating that it’s possible to build a globally appealing, luxury brand with a strong and proud African heritage, that more than makes itself seen and heard in the world of retail. ZAAF is a brand on the move, and definitely one to watch as it moves into some of the world’s most brand savvy retail capitals. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and ceo of Lionesses of Africa