Bright Side of Business: Building an Ethiopian business from Ottawa

bright side of business
“I was introduced to entrepreneurship based on a life skill, not a theory (taught) in school."

Owner of men’s fashion brand Barcon Getta, Russom Haile Woldemichael, has always had an eye for style — and now, he’s determined to combine it with social impact, creating employment opportunities in Ethiopia. 

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Russom and his family left the country following the 1998 war. He and his brother, Seare, went to Kenya before travelling to South Africa, where they began to sell clothing and accessories. After just three years of working as street vendors, they opened their own clothing store. 

“I was introduced to entrepreneurship based on a life skill, not a theory (taught) in school,” Russom says. 

In 2004, Russom moved to Canada, bringing three years of experience as a store owner. Despite this, he struggled to find employment, before eventually joining a parking company. Although he quickly moved up the rungs to management, Russom missed the freedom of making his own schedule — so he switched to driving taxis.

Russom drove cabs full-time for nine years, constantly meeting new people and learning about Ottawa’s fashion landscape – as well as the gaps in the market. “If I want to buy fashion for myself, I have to go to Montreal, and find an independent store importing clothing from Italy, from Spain,” Russom says.  

By 2017, Russom had launched Barcon Getta, completely self-funding the creation and selling of premium-leather men’s shoes and accessories. Still working part-time as a taxi-driver, Russom would create the designs himself, as well as hiring recently-graduated freelance designers in Ethiopia. “I am a new beginner, they are new beginners — I'm giving them a chance,” Russom says. 

Russom sources raw materials in Ethiopia, and ships them to China and Turkey for manufacturing Barcon Getta products. Before the pandemic, Russom would sell the finished items to independent stores in Toronto and Montreal. 

“The problem is COVID happened — so now those businesses have closed,” Russom says. He was left with a choice: give up, or become a retailer himself. Choosing the latter, Russom quit his job as a taxi-driver in 2021 to become a full-time entrepreneur. “The reason I am an online business is because I don't take 'no' as an answer, and I don't accept failure,” Russom says.

As his business grows, Russom will keep social impact at the heart of his brand. “The benefit has to be not only for me — it has to be beyond me. It has to go to my family, it has to go to my community,” he says.

He explains that Africa is known for its resources. “We have gold, we have diamonds — but we don't have a company which sells a finished product of diamonds or gold,” he says, using Tiffany & Co. – an American company using African resources — as an example. “I'm trying to bring both worlds together in a fair way.”

Barcon Getta’s laptop bags are the only item fully-made in Ethiopia — but bit by bit, Russom and his other brother Fikre are buying new machinery to create a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant. “By the end of five years, my goal is to have all products made 100% in Africa,” Russom says.