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Liz Forkin Bohannon, Founder of Sseko Designs (INTERVIEW)

Sandals for Tuition in Uganda

— February 14, 2012 — Social Good
Sseko Designs is a social enterprise that employs young women transitioning between high school and university in Uganda, allowing them to earn a fair income so they can afford their tuition. During this nine month period, the women make beautiful sandals, which can be worn a variety of different ways thanks to adjustable straps. They even have a line of wedding sandals!

In the interview below, Liz Forkin Bohannon shares her journey in the social enterprise world, where her business model came from, and how she keeps herself motivated and inspired on the journey.

4 Questions with Liz Forkin Bohannon, Founder of Sseko Designs

1. How did the idea for the business model come about?
What Sseko has become is somewhat of an accidental result of blind determination. While living in Uganda (I moved there to pursue journalism) I met a group of incredibly talented and ambitious young women who needed economic opportunity in order to continue on to university and pursue their dreams. I knew I was in a certain place in a certain time and that the story of these women would become a part of my story. I couldn’t have cared how that took shape. Almost everything about Sseko was born from necessity. We needed to generate income. We had to do something that 18 year old girls could be a part of for a season and then move on to pursue their goals. We had to create something out of the limited materials available in the East African region. After several other ideas (including a chicken farm!) I was reminded of a pair of funky, strappy sandals I had made a few years earlier. I spent a few weeks scouring the country for the materials we needed and trying to learn everything I could about making footwear. I hired three young women and several weeks later, under a mango tree, a sandal company in East Africa was born!

2. How did you decide to join this sector?
It was less of a decision and more of just putting one foot in front of the other. There were so many seemingly impossible obstacles in the beginning that it really came down to relationships. I had committed to three young women that I really believed in and I owed it to them to push as hard as I could to make it work. I've since become passionate about social entrepreneurship and dreaming about the way business can be an incredibly powerful force for positive social change. We see everyday, first hand, what happens when a woman is empowered through education and employment. And there is no turning back now!

(A little aside as well: We also try to think not just about the individual present needs of Sseko women, but consider their communities and futures as well. We’ve seen first hand the effects of brands that donate products to impoverished communities. Although the immediate need may be met, local economies often suffer. Economies simply cannot thrive when the market is flooded with free product. Instead of donating product to help meet immediate needs, we try to go back further into the cycle of poverty and ask how we can empower and enable communities to take care of themselves and one another. We believe that job creation is a key component to that. And there is nothing better than giving a woman the opportunity to work hard in dignified way so that she can provide for herself and her family. Give her the opportunity and she will do the rest!)

3. How do you get your inspiration? How do you reset yourself to be creative
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 a 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.