032, Liz Forkin Bohannon, Sseko Designs | Fashion that Educates Young Women
Liz Forkin Bohannon grew up in the Midwest. She attended the University of Missouri and studied journalism. There, she began to develop a passion for supporting women and girls living in extreme poverty, especially those living in conflict and post-conflict zones. After graduation, she worked for a couple of months in a large communications firm. One day, while working in a cubicle, she made a decision that would change the course of her life. She purchased a one-way ticket to Uganda.
Once in Uganda, here’s what she found. There is a 9 month gap between high school and university. Because Uganda is a cash-based economy, it is expected that the student will go to their village, find meaningful employment, and save the money for college. Unfortunately, there are not always jobs to be found. This is especially true for young women. So, many women do not advance beyond high school.
After trying a few other ideas (even a chicken farm!), Liz remembered a pair of funky sandals she had cobbled together as a college student. Though, at the time she was not a fan of fashion, Liz tried an experiment. She started a company that made sandals in Uganda.
Until now, Uganda has not been known for footwear, so Liz had to invent everything from the ground up, literally. Her first factory was a patch of grass with foot-pumped sewing machines. She also had to build the market to buy the sandals.
Today, Sseko Designs is an ethical fashion brand that is based in east Africa making much more than sandals. They use fashion and design to provide economic and educational opportunities to women and girls.
Key quotes from the interview:
“I realized, growing up in middle class, Midwestern America, I didn’t have a ton of experience of working with women living in extreme poverty or in conflict zones. So I bought a one-way plane ticket to Uganda.”
“When I went to school, ‘social enterprise’ was not a thing.”
“I knew that I was a mission-driven kind of person and if I was going to give my life to something, it needed to be something that I could stand back and say that I am actively participating in building the world that I want to live in.”
“You can imagine, there were people in my life who did not think that was the most prudent decision.”
“My first thought, being a white, pretty well resourced American, in Africa for the first time, was, like, no-brainer! We’re going to start a charity.”
“One of the biggest benefits I had was, I didn’t go to Uganda to start anything. I went to Uganda to be a journalist.”
“When I was in college, I had no interest in fashion.”
“I thought that if you were into fashion, that very distinctly meant in my college brain that you were either shallow or materialistic and so I was not interested in you or what you cared about…which makes me a huge brat. Now my whole life is eating humble pie.”
“We recognized really quickly that I can sell a certain number of sandals based on the story..but if I really want Sseko to be scalable and sustainable, and more than a glorified charity that happens to have a product attached to it, that I had to start thinking about this as I would if there were no story attached.”
“I see way too many social entrepreneurs rely far too heavily on their impact, instead of their product and instead of their brand.”
“Last year, the president of Uganda showed up at our workshop.”
“Poverty is complex…and sometimes that does not translate into a great marketing message.”
“I’ve become increasingly aware of how toxic the concept of the silver bullet is.”
“We’re looking for 3,000 women who want to be the CEO of Sseko in their community.”
- Sseko Designs: http://ssekodesigns.com
- Sseko Fellow Program: http://ssekodesigns.com/sseko-fellows
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- Book: Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World: http://amzn.to/1JKCotf