Abai Schulze is the founder and creative director of ZAAF, a handcrafted luxury leather handbag line . ZAAF handbags are handcrafted by artisans in Ethiopia. ZAAF was inspired by Abai’s upbringing in Ethiopia. Abai earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Fine Arts from the George Washington University. ZAAF has been recognized by UNESCO, Elle, Lucky; and made an appearance at the New York Fashion Week.
( photography: Joey L)
Abai uses some of the proceeds from ZAAF to give back to local orphanages in Ethiopia. She shared her career story with LFE!
What inspired you to start ZAAF after studying economics at George Washington University? I kicked off the effort shortly after finishing my bachelors in Economics. I had spent a year working in the development and entrepreneurship sector in Washington DC and decided that I wanted to drive a project directly and not remain on the sidelines. I wanted to learn from the challenges and propel something concrete forward with tangible impact and upside. My natural connection to Ethiopia – the place of my birth and early childhood — and my passion for design and art led me towards an endeavor that overlapped both of these in the form of ZAAF.
How do you empower women of color though ZAAF? Despite all the talk about equality these days, women are still facing challenges in advancing in their career, especially in developing countries like Ethiopia. ZAAF has made it a priority to create roles in our company where women build their communication skills, decision-making roles and provide leadership roles. Many women of color are talented, but lack the resources or network to get into certain fields so we give them opportunities and support their growth in different ways, which include mentoring. We have paid for MBA programs and helped with loans to buy a first home. I also hope ZAAF’s success will have a “knock on” effect and inspiring other women of color entrepreneurs to enter the space.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a young female entrepreneur? It’s been an amazing rough and tumble adventure full of challenges. As a young female entrepreneur, I have many odds stacked against me. The work dynamic between female and male is particularly challenging in Ethiopia given my age. I find it much easier to collaborate and hire women. But I believe these challenges has build us up as women with an instinct to face them and create more value in any space we decide to venture into.
ZAAF handbags are handcrafted with quality leather – which can be expensive. How did you raise capital for your brand? And, what advice do you have for young women who want to start a brand with little or no capital? My seed capital came primarily from personal loans as well as some award grants. I did a lot of the grunt work at the beginning since I didn’t have a lot of capital to start with. In terms of advice with limited capital – I would tell others 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 into actual play. 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. Also, I would advise them to double-down on execution. Move with good data but by all means move and move quickly. As I always say – execution is the stuff of success – passion is just one of the ingredients.