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IWD Female Founders: Supermodel and Lemlem Founder Liya Kebede

This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating seven amazing female founders who’ve started companies based on the idea of helping out other women. Whether it’s a business for women, or to help support women (or both!), each one has a mission Team SN stands behind.

One of the most inspirational things about Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede is that her life is a balance of glamour and purpose: she has gone from walking the runways at Paris Fashion Week and appearing on the cover of at least five Vogues, to building a business that helps women across Africa who don’t have access to the kind of maternal healthcare that she herself had when delivering her two children in the U.S. And she’s served as the World Health Organization’s Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health since 2005.

Liya’s brand Lemlem makes perfect-for-vacation dresses and bikinis, and every piece is made by artisans across Africa and a percentage of sales goes to helping women in six African countries find healthcare (in partnership with Amref Health Africa), education, and pathways to jobs. Liya and Lemlem have basically created the perfect two-for-one: beautiful stuff that screams tropical vacation, and lets you give back in a meaningful way.

We’ve been able to help create hundreds of artisan jobs and help break the cycle of poverty for this community.

Something Navy: How did you come up with the idea for your business? What was the journey like?

Liya Kebede: I decided to launch Lemlem following a trip to my hometown, Addis Ababa. While visiting the central artisan market I began to see the impact the fast fashion trend was having in Ethiopia. Traditional weavers, who had a long history making the formal and everyday clothes Ethiopians wear, were losing their livelihood.  My goal with Lemlem is to bring the weaver’s beautiful craftsmanship to the global market, keeping weaving jobs and the cultural traditions behind this art form alive and well. It’s my proudest achievement that we’ve been able to help create hundreds of artisan jobs and help break the cycle of poverty for this community.  It is my hope that our example inspires others across the fashion industry to look to Africa as a true source of outstanding creative talent and high-quality craftsmanship.

SN: What were some of the roadblocks and how did you overcome them?

LK: In terms of getting established and growing, the biggest challenges we encounter spring from our commitment to working in emerging and developing markets where there can be difficult limitations in infrastructure, customs, shipping and other functions of doing business.  That said, this has pushed us to become nimbler and more creative too.

SN: Did you find being a leader and running a business came naturally to you, or was it a skill you had to learn?

LK: Creativity, and working through a creative process, is what comes most naturally to me, and I take that way of thinking and problem-solving into discussions with my team about our business, philanthropic efforts and priorities. 

SN: What have been the most validating moments or milestones along the way?

LK: When we celebrated Lemlem’s 10th anniversary in 2017, we took the step to merge [The Liya Kebede Foundation and Lemlem] together, and to target our philanthropic efforts to help women artisans through job training and readiness programs. Over 40 female artisans in Ethiopia and Kenya have been trained and certified in sewing and weaving skills through the programs we support, and the majority are now employed in good job opportunities, earning a stable income, supporting and saving toward their families’ needs and goals.  I’m so proud of this and I love that we can show Lemlem customers what their purchases and support can truly accomplish. 

SN: How do you balance your work and personal life? How do you self-care?

LK: I’m always working on finding that balance.  It can be easy to get consumed in a fast life, so I look for moments and ways to slow down. I get outside, do some yoga or take a run. I love to read so taking some time every day to sit with a book keeps me in balance too.

SN: Who are your female role models?

LK: I’ve looked up to so many women in the fashion industry over the years.  When I was growing up I had a poster of Naomi Campbell on my wall, and even today I am grateful for the support and guidance of amazing entrepreneurs and friends like Tory Burch and Donna Karan. 

SN: What do you wear when you need to feel powerful?

LK: I keep it simple and stick to my personal style—casual, and modern but also very comfortable.

SN: What’s the best advice you ever received? What advice would you give to women who have a great idea, but don’t know how to turn it into a business?

LK: Life will keep surprising you, but you’ll learn from it. There are always going to be obstacles and people telling you no. It’s important to just keep going and push through the challenges. 

Check out Lemlem here.

PS: *These are editorially selected, but if you purchase, Something Navy may get something in return. Thanks.

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