Tal Dehtiar’s Unlikely African Shoe Empire

The founder of Oliberte is an unabashed fan of outsourcing. So are his employees.

Tal Dehtiar, founder of the leather brand Oliberte, owes his start in business to a banking crisis. He was another hippie with a backpack wandering around South America, when he arrived in Argentina at the outset of the country’s financial crisis. He remembers watching women and children knock on the doors of closed banks with forks and knives, demanding enough devalued pesos to pay for a meal.

“I went out and said, ‘Who needs dollars?’” he remembers. “I could exploit people and I did. That was both a positive and negative thing.”

Dehtiar made some money in Argentina, but – more valuably – he learned a lesson: Inequality provides an opportunity to profit and do good. Unlike other CEOs, Dehtiar is an unabashed fan of outsourcing. His company aggressively advertises the fact that it is based in Ethiopia, where Dehtiar has gone from employing 15 artisans to just short of 150 in two years. Does Oliberte pay workers American wages? Absolutely not. The company, the only one of its kind with a Fair Trade Certification, pays African workers solid African wages to make high-end African shoes and bags.

The point is not to disguise the process or the results, which fit in stateside but definitely aren’t from around here.

“Today, a clean and polished look is still a leading trend, where a rugged aesthetic is on the outside circle of demand,” says Dehtiar. “I never mind being on the outside.”

Oliberte’s shoes and bags may look different than most of what’s on the market – a bit less structured, a bit more irregular – but that’s precisely the point. Dehtiar wants his goods, some of which feature African maps or otherwise trumpet their origins, to reflect where they came from. He’s keenly aware that Oliberte owes its early success – he’s selling out of shoes, but not quite ready to sell to the major companies that have come calling – to its unique approach. “So many people get fucked,” he says. “You buy a pair of shoes and then you’re at the local place getting them fixed because the factory that made them screwed up.” Dehtiar offers a lifetime warranty and knows who made his clients shoes.

If that sounds great – it does – it also sounds like a story about a small business. It isn’t. Ask Dehtiar what he’s going to do now that he has a foothold in the US market and here’s the response you get: “Now we grow and we grow really big.”

What’s most impressive about Dehtiar is that, underneath the t-shirts and the do-goodermentality, is a Harvard MBA with a big-time business plan. Oliberte is based in a stable country with a nearly endless supply of leather and labor. Expansion is affordable and good news for everyone. “It frustrates me when I see a company leave one country for the next due to labor costs,” Dehtiar says, explaining the advantages of his model, which will never force him to make that jump. He plans to continue, as he puts it, “benefittingfrom other peoples’ fear” by operating in a place other companies avoid.

“We’re moving down the supply chain so we can have our own tanneries and maybe – let’s get crazy – think about making couches,” says Dehtiar. “I’m trying to build a $100 million company and we’re already at a place where we have the infrastructure and capital.”