Highlighting green businesses around the nation
Sseko Designs has a mission to educate and empower women and share the importance of buying better, not more. With a for-profit business model, the Uganda-based company provides its female employees with fair opportunities to follow their dreams, get an education and become community and global leaders.
Sseko Designs founder and CEO Liz Forkin Bohannon believes "we all have to be fearless, be creative and be humble to succeed. I am inspired by brave women every day; inspired by the brave women that dream big and pursue those dreams. I believe that we must move as a brave network of women around the world, coming together to encourage quiet listening, to foster understanding and learning from one another, and to act boldly."
In pursuit of this mission, Sseko Designs employs Ugandan women with different backgrounds and life experiences. The company also creates high-quality products – such as sandals, handbags and accessories – made from locally sourced materials. Its products are classic, versatile and made to last for years. "You shouldn't have to choose between buying beautiful products and making a positive impact with your purchase," says Liz. She also explains how the company doesn't make any sacrifices in its production process. "We’ve seen over the last decade that people want to know where and how their stuff was made."
Sseko Designs is working to change consumer behavior by asking, “How do we build a brand and movement and company that drives a narrative around slow fashion – fashion that has people behind it whose story you know is affected by your decision?”
A green tip from Liz
As an environmentally conscious fashionista, Liz encourages others to "start (or continue to!) practicing responsible consumption in their closets. You’d be surprised by the number of ethical options available now – and they’re growing quickly! We believe in fewer, higher-quality items – in owning beautifully made goods that will last for years to come (and that’s why every Sseko product is built to last!). We encourage you to look for items that are timeless, items that will transition easily from season to season and aren’t as likely to go out of style. By investing in quality pieces, you’re reducing your overall impact on the environment."
In addition to making wiser clothing purchases, she also recommends shopping in thrift stores. "So many of our favorite pieces are from consignment shops, which is a great way to reduce your footprint and give some old styles new love," says Liz.
We asked the Sseko Designs leader a few more questions to learn more about what she's learning and what the future looks like for the company.
Sseko Designs employs a team of 50 women in Uganda. Does one of their stories in particular stand out or inspire you? How do you support their future goals and aspirations?
So many of their stories inspire me! It is hard to narrow them down. We usually talk a lot about our women who are headed to university because their stories of success and perseverance are so inspiring. From our 2014 class of women, Beatrice. She has five brothers and the Lord’s Resistance Army captured every single one of them. Instead of allowing her fear to rule her, she used that as motivation to continue her education and make a life for herself. She is so adventurous and courageous. The courageousness must run in their family, because all of her brothers also eventually escaped from the rebel group.
Another one of our women, Betty, moved to South Sudan (all by herself at 16!) after she was unable to find a job in Uganda. She worked in a nursery school for a year so that she could save up money and afford to graduate high school. Not your typical 17-year-old girl.
We also have women on our staff that work with us full time and are not continuing on to university. These are women that we hope are with our company for many years. Recently I was sitting down with one of our full-time seamstresses who has worked with Sseko for about two and half years now. She is an older woman and she was sharing with me how much her marriage has changed since she started working with us. She told me how much more her husband respects her because she contributes financially to their family. She makes decisions and has authority in a way she did not before. He is learning to trust her and she is finding her voice. We say “Every sandal has a story.” And we mean it.
We try to inspire and take care of the “whole woman” at Sseko. Part of that is certainly inspiring them to continue their education. One of the ways we do that is through a mentorship program through which we match Sseko women up with professionals in their desired fields. The women have the unique opportunity to sit down with leaders in the Ugandan community and glean from their paths. The program culminates when the women shadow their mentor. For a woman who wants to be a doctor, but has never actually been in a hospital, these experiences are invaluable. In addition to education and careers, we have a health and wellness program (which includes full health care coverage – which is certainly not a standard in Uganda), we do personal finance, budget training and professional development work. Our goal is that every woman that comes to Sseko is actively becoming more healthy, whole and happy.
My hope is that everything we do at Sseko empowers and encourages every one of our team members. At the very basic level, we provide employment opportunities for women who might not otherwise be able to earn a living in a way that is dignified and life-giving. For women who are academically gifted, we use the time we have with them to stay laser-focused on their goals for the future and how we can help get them there with our programs specifically designed to give them a head start. Our programs range from personal finance to computer training and career mentoring. We believe that these young women will do more for Uganda than we ever could and we try to support them in their dreams to do just that.
We really try to build a culture of pride at Sseko. We work hard. We are perfectionists. We seek beauty and dream big. And we ask the women who work with us to do the same. We believe that people can and will rise to the expectations that are set before them. And time after time, they do. There is nothing more fun than hearing a chorus of women shouting “Welcome to Sayyyyyykkkko! The best sandal company in the world!” We’re proud of what we’re doing and excited about the opportunity and hope of what’s to come.
What's next for Sseko Designs?
We’re always dreaming up new plans for growth! Our ultimate focus is to grow our production and employment capacity in Uganda so that we can empower more women through educational and economic opportunities. So far, we have sent 72 women to university! In the future, we hope to put more and more women through university, and watch them graduate and generate change in Uganda and around the world.
There are two big areas of focus for us next. The first is to continue to grow our direct sales channel. The Sseko Fellows are a team of 150+ powerhouse women around the U.S. who are sharing our story, selling Sseko and earning an income for themselves while doing so! These women are bringing the stories of our Sole Sisters in Uganda to life, and they’re making the largest impact in terms of our ability to create sustainable economic opportunity in East Africa. If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a Fellow, visit https://ssekodesigns.com/sseko-fellows.
Finally, we’re actually (spoiler alert) about to launch our first-ever KICKSTARTER next week (on October 17)! We’ll be launching a completely customizable sandal, which will allow the wearer to design their dream sandal, and get connected to the woman who’s making it along the way.