Liz Forkin Bohannon ’04 is the founder of Sseko Designs, an ethical fashion brand created to educate and empower women. Sseko hires high-potential young women in Uganda to make sandals to enable them to earn money, through dignified employment, that will go directly toward their college educations and ensure that they will continue pursuing their dreams.
In a small Ugandan village lives a community of intelligent, ambitious young women. These women have a chance to become leaders in their impoverished country because of one alumna who is driven to succeed and make a difference.Read more about Liz
Liz Forkin Bohannon ’04 moved to Uganda in fall 2008, intending to use her journalism degree to assist a youth development organization with its communications and fervently desiring to learn. Although her passion for the “least of these” had been growing throughout her years at Westminster and in college, she had never experienced the effects of extreme poverty firsthand.
During this time in Uganda, Bohannon met a group of young women, mostly her age, who quickly became friends. Bohannon was blown away by their commitment to their education, which they called an incredible gift. “I was amazed at their commitment not only to learning their subjects but also to learning how to love well, how to reconcile their lives, and how to lead their country,” she says.
The Ugandan school system leaves a nine-month gap between secondary school and university for students to earn tuition money before continuing onto college. However, in an impoverished and male-dominated society, many of these young women struggle to find fair work, and there is no respect for women who are not in leadership positions. “When I learned this, I was thinking, ‘Here are the brightest women in Uganda, but they will never be seen as anything of worth in their country because they can’t find work to continue their education,’” says Bohannon. “This was not okay.”
Her first thought to organize a fundraiser was interrupted by a friend who said that these women need jobs, not donation. Bohannon wanted to start a business that would accomplish two goals: provide tuition for these women through a sustainable monthly income and contribute to the overall economic development of Uganda. Coming up with a product that American women would buy was key and not at all difficult: shoes!
“It seemed so simple at the time,” says Bohannon. “I sketched a sandal I thought was really beautiful, and then I spent weeks wandering around the city and through markets looking for materials and anything I could use as a tool to make them,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I laughed out loud at myself a lot and cried, too. It was so frustrating.” But after several weeks, Bohannon had constructed a prototype: the first Sseko sandal. Sseko Designs was born.
Sseko (say-ko) comes from the Ugandan word enseko, which means laughter. “It’s a word that characterizes much of my time with the Sseko girls,” says Bohannon. The socially proactive “not-just-for-profit” enterprise recognizes the power of business and responsible consumerism to support sustainable economic development, which in turn affects a country’s official systems. “Although consumerism makes many empty promises, responsible and proactive consumerism can change lives,” says Bohannon. “Learning entrepreneurial skills such as how to FedEx mass shipments and how to use a computer empowers the girls to become respected doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers, and teachers who will bring change and unification to their country and world.”
Bohannon says that while charities do have a place and are wonderful organizations, they can sometimes be more of a hindrance than help. “We need to give people in underdeveloped countries opportunities – not stuff,” she says. “Until a country can sustain profitability in a business, it will always rely on aid.”
“I know I can’t alleviate global poverty, but I can educate people about how to help,” says Bohannon. “I dream about the change these women will bring – and about the people who see these shoes as something more than a lifeless product on a shelf, but rather as the lives and dreams of the women who made them.”
In addition to the Sseko team’s work in Uganda, they design and source ethically made products from around Africa that create jobs, empower artisans, and help end the cycle of poverty. Sseko was recently named one of the top five most promising social enterprises in America by Bloomberg and also received the Social Venture Network Innovation award.