by: Megan McPherson
This summer, the Dingman Center will be conducting interviews with the eight student startups who are participating in the Terp Startup summer incubator phase of our Fearless Founders accelerator program. Participating student entrepreneurs received $3,500 stipends that would enable them to work exclusively on their startups over six weeks in the summer.
Washington D.C. contains the second largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, with a community of over 250,000 people. Little Ethiopia is peppered with restaurants and shops that sell imported goods, but clothes are few and far between. Saron Asfaw, an Ethiopian-American and rising junior at University of Maryland, discovered the niche for her online Ethiopian clothing store East Habesha while on the hunt for a dress to wear to a party that required traditional Ethiopian attire. In the end, she missed the party but gained valuable insight into the market potential for what would eventually become East Habesha.
Inspired by her promising business idea, Saron enlisted the help of her mother, Etsegenet
Gebre, who owns several stores in Ethiopia that sell imported goods from Dubai and America. Since her mother often travels back to Ethiopia to manage her businesses, it was easy for her to bring back some traditional dresses to help her daughter test the market. Word of mouth began to spread, and before too long they started looking into forming direct connections with manufacturers in Ethiopia who could produce customized dresses in whatever style, fabric or size they needed. With an infrastructure in place, Saron built their website and orders started coming in.
Customers who place orders on the East Habesha website receive more than a dress—they get a specially tailored customer service experience. To ensure accuracy of measurements and overall customer satisfaction, Saron and her mother contact each customer individually and invite them into their home for a consultation. Upon entering, customers are welcomed with a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in a room filled with photographs of their home country. According to Saron, this authentic Ethiopian experience is created so their clientele “can feel respected and welcomed.” While enjoying Saron and her mother’s hospitality, customers are able to browse fabric and style options and receive a custom fitting. If a client can’t make the trip, the East Habesha mother-daughter team will go directly to them. In one instance, Saron hand-delivered an order to a family in New York City.
Literally going the extra mile for customers can be a daunting task, but to Saron, it’s worth it. “Once we get a customer, we make sure our relationship with them is really solid,” Saron told me with pride. She knows the best way to reach the Ethiopian community is to establish East Habesha as a brand that is synonymous with quality and customer service. Most of their initial sales were through word of mouth alone, but with funding from friends and family as well as the Dingman Center, East Habesha has been able to reach out to a broader section of the Ethiopian community in DC and beyond through fashion shows and social media, reaching as far as Dallas and Los Angeles.
During Terp Startup, Saron has been focusing on forming partnerships with local influencers in the Ethiopian community such as NEB FOTO, a popular wedding photographer. Saron also recently supplied dresses to the Miss Ethiopia USA beauty pageant, who then in turn prominently displayed East Habesha’s logo during the event. The boost in exposure has only made Saron more mindful of the kind of company she wants East Habesha to be. In addition to selling dresses, her website now also offers Ethiopian accessories, coffee and spices, giving East Habesha the appeal of an Ethiopian marketplace in an online setting.
East Habesha’s wares are for all occasions and all people. The site offers clothing that can be worn casually or at weddings, presenting a multitude of options worn by African as well as Caucasian-American models. The East Habesha brand thus caters to Ethiopians as well as a broader international community that is interested in engaging with Ethiopian culture. Saron is very responsible in her approach to maintaining East Habesha’s level of cultural sensitivity, saying, “Different clothing comes from different ethnic groups…we’re trying to have different designs from different tribes to say we welcome everyone and we love everyone.” For example, one dress on her site invokes the Eritrean flag, a country that was previously part of Ethiopia until they won their independence in 1993. East Habesha as a brand strives to celebrate the complex fabric of individual tribal culture that makes Ethiopia unique.
The close community environment that Saron has labored to create with East Habesha has enriched her relationships with not only Ethiopians in the Washington D.C. area, but also with her own family. According to Saron, working on the business as a family has brought her closer with her parents: “I don’t see them as just parents anymore, I see them as business partners and really good friends and consultants.” Familial love, love for Ethiopian culture and love for the Ethiopian community are the heart and soul of East Habesha. And that’s a brand identity anyone can get behind.