ZAAF founder Abai Schulze is a woman with a vision. Despite leaving her homeland of Ethiopia as a child for the United States, Schulze never lost sight of her heritage. Combining her background in economic development and love of fine arts, Schulze recently launched ZAAF – a collection of luxury apparel and leather accessories produced by highly skilled artisans in Ethiopia. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to the budding entrepreneur about her passion for Ethiopia, her creative drive, and challenges she encountered in making the jump to the risky start-up world.

Akinyi: Can you tell me the story of how you came to move to the United States? 

Abai: In short, I was adopted by an American family at around eleven years old, so I’ve been in the United States for about fifteen years. In Ethiopia, I lived in an orphanage for seven years. I was adopted mainly because there weren’t any documents on my relatives, so I was considered an orphan. However, later on, I did discover that I had parents.

Akinyi: How much do you remember of your childhood in Ethiopia?

Abai: I remember it very well. When you’re eleven, you have developed your worldview. It was definitely a dramatic change coming into this country. I remember Ethiopia so well because it was a big contrast in lifestyle, background, environment, and language.

Akinyi: When you came to the US, did your adopted family make efforts to maintain your connection to your culture?

Abai: They definitely encouraged it very much. They pushed me to read in Amharic and when I was on the phone with different friends, they made efforts to make sure I continued to speak in Amharic. Otherwise, I wasn’t allowed to talk to my friends. [Laughs] Sometimes you get into the language that’s most comfortable and you just want to get to the juicy point and talk, but when my dad came into the room I would definitely switch into Amharic. He made me keep journals as well, which are funny to read now. They also bought me different Amharic books. At some point I did lose the language, but when we adopted more kids, I was forced to try to translate which helped me. During high school I also went back to Ethiopia during almost every summer break to do volunteer work. Naturally I was drawn to helping orphanages because of my background. In college, I volunteered for USAID’s trade and investment sector which allowed me to see how Ethiopian business is run because USAID’s focus is to encourage small designers to make their products attractive to international markets. I was able to observe and come up with ideas for websites and stuff like that. That allowed me to do my homework on what I wanted to do in the near future, which is ZAAF at this point.

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Akinyi: What sparked the decision to start ZAAF? I took a look at your website and all the bags are so beautifully made with such wonderful attention to detail. 

Abai: I studied economics because I was very focused on economic development in Africa. When I was in college it was a very tangible subject for me because I grew up in Ethiopia. I also minored in fine arts because throughout high school I was very involved in the art department. Doing ZAAF is definitely a combination of both—creating jobs while allowing me to be creative as an individual.

Akinyi: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a creative industry like fashion?

Abai: Definitely in high school. I used to design and draw stuff and then my dad would encourage me to pursue it more. I was very interested in designing ties. I’m still eager to do it somehow, so maybe you’ll see it eventually!

I originally planned to start ZAAF five years down the line. I wanted to gain some work experience in the States then go back to business school before starting the company. But after working for OPEC and Ashoka, the timing was just right for me to start it now. My Ethiopian company was officially established last June, but I did research on the side as I worked for various organizations.


Akinyi: When you were thinking about going into fashion, did you always know that you wanted the company to incorporate Ethiopia?

Abai: Yes, definitely. I wanted to give back something to my country. The place that you’re born always influences you. I was always drawn to go back. In the near future, though, I’d like to look at expanding to other emerging markets.


Akinyi: Did you face any initial hurdles starting a business in Ethiopia?

Abai: Of course. It’s an interesting country to work in. I’m so glad I did an internship during my college years in Ethiopia and visited during summer breaks in high school because it allowed me to know the environment, the work ethic of the people, and the system. When you’re actually doing it by yourself for your own company, it’s a whole other level. Things that you think will take a month might take nine months easily. Sometimes it’s complicated to deal with different variables like problems with steady electricity or water which can complicate our work schedule.

I enjoy what I’m doing and my team is awesome. If you work with great people, it definitely helps. Otherwise, it can be a little bit of a challenge.

Akinyi: What is the creative process in designing your products?

Abai: First, I come up with the design. There are limitations in what we have in terms of accessories in Ethiopia, so I have to present that to my production manager who will tell me whether or not it might be feasible. When I design something, my main focus is ensuring that it’s functional then I can work on the creative side and attractiveness. One design, my Weekender bag, probably went through about fifteen different samples. The initial investment is huge, but you get so much better at it. I’m also learning more about patterns and manufacturing as time goes on.

Akinyi: Do you have any plans at the moment to expand from handbags?

Abai: I love working with textiles, so I’d love to explore different materials and use other things besides leather for other products.

Akinyi: What is the number one lesson you’ve learned from starting your own business?

Abai: Probably the way you work with people. You need to understand how people operate. You can’t always assume that because you did x, that this person will do y. You have to go with it, but realize that you won’t always necessarily get what you want.

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