After graduating college, Liz Bohannon made a bold move: She booked a plane ticket to Uganda to learn more about poverty and women’s issues. Not exactly the wisest career choice, Bohannon joked at a recent creative workshop in Portland.
But her courage to take a big risk and eagerness to learn has propelled her company, Sseko Designs, from a small sandal-making company into an established international business. Sseko selects bright, top-of-the-class Ugandan women with a desire to attend college and teaches them how to make trendy gladiator-style sandals. The women can then put their hard-earned money aside for their education. To date, Sseko has helped 33 women fund their own education and currently employs 45 women to run the business.
Bohannon shared with Lady Clever her passion for empowering women, advice for all you creatives out there on starting a socially-minded business, and why jumping into the unknown is still one of her biggest sources of inspiration.
Thanks for talking with us. I’m curious about where your passion for empowering women came from. Did someone or something inspire you at a young age?
I started becoming passionate about empowering women in high school when I began learning more about women living in extreme poverty, and learned statistics like the fact that 99 percent of the world’s assets are owned by men, but women do 65 percent of the world’s work. However, when I graduated college, I realized that although I had grown increasingly passionate about women living in extreme poverty, I didn’t actually know any women living in extreme poverty myself. One day, sitting at my cubicle at work, thinking about this disconnection, I bought a plane ticket to Uganda to learn.
Wow, that’s pretty brave…! Was your trip what you expected?
I experienced most of the things that I anticipated: poverty, disease and injustice. But I also found so much hope, progress and opportunity. Ugandans are deeply committed to their communities and country — I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Most of all though, I met a group of incredibly talented and ambitious young women. These women were some of the brightest in the country, and had already been admitted to top universities, but they lacked the funds they needed to continue their education and pursue their dreams. They were only a few years younger than I was at the time, and we became friends. These young women were what further grew my passion for empowering women and inspired me to start Sseko.
As the founder of a creative fashion company, how do you balance the business side and the fashion side? What do you read or turn to for creative inspiration?
Lucky for me, I have an amazing partner to help balance the business and fashion side. My husband Ben is head of operations, I lead all of our creative and together we lead strategy. Of course, we both make important decisions together, but being able to focus in on the creative side is a real asset. Where do I get my creativity from? By saying “yes” to the unknown and to adventure! I am never more inspired than when I am stepping into the unknown. I try to assume the posture of asking “why not?” and that more often than not lands me in the unknown. And that is where curiosity and fresh eyes lead to inspiration. I also believe deeply in stories and being inspired by the stories of the people and places around me. I assume that in every relationship, I have something to learn from the person on the other side. And from that belief and exploration, creativity flows. We are lucky to live in Portland because it is a city of creators. From your local food carts to multi-national companies, there is a very entrepreneurial spirit in this place. We love surrounding ourselves with passionate folks. And they are not hard to come by here.
I know a lot of people who work at a company that isn’t their passion but is financially secure, and then I meet others who take a risk to do something they’re passionate about. Where do you think you fall in those categories? How did you carve out this path for yourself?
I think I would fall into the second category. I quit my job, went to Uganda, and started a company. That isn’t exactly what you would call “secure” in terms of planning for my future. Sseko started as three women making sandals under a mango tree with no guarantee that the sandals would sell. At first I sold sandals out of the back of my car. It can be intense at times, but both Ben and I are the “high risk/high reward” type, so it works for us. The reward means getting to do what you love, with the one you love. Doesn’t get better than that in my book. Working in Africa, we have had to build the infrastructure out ourselves, and it has definitely been an uphill battle, but building this ourselves has made it all the more rewarding to see everyone’s efforts paying off.
We love seeing women who are creating something bold and different. What advice do you have for other young women who want to start their own creative business?
Honestly, just do something! It’s amazing to me the number of times I talk to people and they say, “I’ve got this idea that I’m super passionate about, that I can’t stop thinking about!” And I ask them, “What did you do yesterday to get yourself one inch closer to where you want to be?” And they say, “Well, nothing because the opportunity hasn’t come up. There hasn’t been this big chance to do it yet.” I think that’s where the issue is. Life doesn’t work like that. It is about taking really small steps and learning and doing and altering the course. If you have an idea that makes you passionate, now might not be the right time, but there are so many things you can do to be learning about it… making connections to people in the industry, whatever it is. Look for those small opportunities and honestly don’t be afraid of failing. I think as a culture, we are really concerned with this idea that we could fail and look stupid. The only way to get over that is to just fail, a lot, and then you realize it isn’t that bad and life goes on. At the end of the day, it’s a numbers game. The more things you try, the more likely you are going to be successful, so get started!
You’ve grown Sseko so much, but it must have been an incredible journey. What were some of your biggest fears and doubts? How did you push forward? What kept you going?
My motivation comes almost entirely from the people who have become a part of this dream. Have you ever created something and had someone outside of you say yes, that sounds a bit crazy, but I trust you, so let’s do this? It is powerful. And motivating. I am especially motivated by the incredibly resilient and persistent women we work with who have overcome incredible odds to pursue their dreams. I would be lying if I said there were not times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but my team is what keeps me going.
Now, looking back, what’s one of your favorite stories about the women of Sseko? Stories about friendship or family or pursuing dreams?
So many! 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. Like 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. We say, “Every sandal has a story.” And we mean it.
The second year, while we were in full swing with our second class, we learned that Mercy from our pioneer class had been elected as the Minister of Women’s Affairs for her university class. When we first met Mercy we had to lean in to even understand her soft, timid voice. And then she went on to represent thousands of female students to the school’s governing body?! I was thrilled and encouraged and decided right then and there we have to give it our all to keep this thing going.
I love your new line of accessories to complement your shoes. What plans do you have to continue growing and expanding?
Actually, we just launched a new fall line featuring leather hobo bags, scarves, wallets, clutches and our signature Sseko sandals [see below images]. The Sseko story is growing! While our story started in Uganda with sandals, we are now partnering with mission-aligned organizations in Kenya and Ethiopia to include beautiful leather bags and accessories. Our goal is to eventually become a lifestyle brand with full product lines in a number of categories. We’re giddy with anticipation for a few new products in the pipeline that we’ll be releasing in 2014. Stay tuned…
Lastly, do you live in Portland or spend most of your time in Uganda?
I spend the majority of my time here in Portland, (where my home and Sseko U.S. office are) but I spend several months a year in East Africa. These are two of my favorite places on earth.
Images courtesy of Sseko Designs.