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Tal Dehtiar, founder of Oliberte' Footwear and MBAs Without Borders, has built a career around finding a way to bring
together his business education with his values system. He recently shared his experiences
and insights with students and other audience members at the annual Ethics in Business
lecture, sponsored by the Southeastern Louisiana University College of Business.
The latest venture for Dehtiar, 32, is Oliberte' Footwear, the first premium shoe company to manufacture its products in sub-Saharan Africa using local workers and materials. Although he is not against aid to developing nations, Dehtiar believes that providing employment opportunities and building a lasting economy is far more effective.
He told the story of a man he spoke with in Liberia who was selling shoes and sandals in the marketplace. Dehtiar asked how his business was going.
"The man shook his head and said to me, 'How do I compete with free?''' he said. "Shoes were being given to people in the area by various aid organizations, so he didn't have any customers. This approach dries up local business so the people no longer have the opportunity to make a living for themselves."
So Dehtiar decided to develop a company that would approach manufacturing in a responsible way, employing local workers, using locally sourced materials and using environmentally sound practices. Oliberte', started in 2009, has its factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and sources materials and components from Kenya South Africa, Mauritius and Liberia. Oliberte's goal is to help develop a thriving African middle class.
"I knew there had to be a way that you can do business and do good," he said.
"Business is what changes things, doesn't it? At Oliberte', we are about creating opportunities for people. Our shoes are made by people and for people who care about what they are doing and its impact in the world."
Dehtiar readily admits that, at the outset, he knew nothing about manufacturing shoes or any other product. Why shoes? Because, he explained, "Shoes have always been around and will always be around." He noted that sometimes entrepreneurs are too occupied with finding the next new product or technology, but success can come from finding a new "hook" for products people already need.
Dehtiar also stressed the importance of being sensitive and respectful of the local customs and culture of a country in which a company wants to do business, having learned to meld a number of different cultures within his own life. A Canadian, he is the son of a father born in Uzbekistan, who grew up in Ukraine, and a mother born in Siberia, where her father was expelled from the former Soviet Union, and who grew up in Latvia. His parents also provided his model for hard work and business savvy.
"I believe there are three things in business that you should always treat well and they will treat you well: your people, your product and your place," he said. "Our workers have never been under a system where people were offered fair pay, free speech and employee rights, so they don't trust us. The only way we've been able to build that trust is through time and action, showing them that we do what we say we will do."
Prior to starting Oliberte', Dehtiar was co-founder of MBAs Without Borders, an international charity that has engaged hundreds of experienced MBAs from around the world to volunteer and help build small and social businesses in more than 25 developing countries. He has received numerous awards for his creativity, entrepreneurship and social consciousness efforts.