Alumni Spotlight: Liz Forkin Bohannon ’04
After graduating from Westminster, Liz Forkin Bohannon ’04 earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and moved to Uganda. Today, Liz is the co-founder of Sseko Designs and the author of “Beginners Pluck: Build Your Life of Purpose and Impact Now”.
What’s the story behind Sseko Designs?
After graduate school, I moved to Uganda without much of a plan but with the vague hope of making friends and using my journalism degree to write and report on issues facing women and girls living in extreme poverty and conflict and post-conflict zones. While living and working there, I met an incredible group of female scholars who tested into college but didn’t have the financial (or social) support to continue their education. In response, I started Sseko Designs.
At Sseko, we employ academically gifted young women during the nine-month gap between high school and college. They work at our company where we make sandals, leather goods, and accessories. Half of their salary is automatically deposited into an educational savings fund and at the end of their nine months, and we match their savings with a 300% scholarship towards the college of their choice.
After setting up the manufacturing in Uganda, I moved home to launch Sseko here in the U.S. Shortly after, I married my incredible husband, Ben. (We met while leading Young Life together in college.) Together, Ben and I launched Sseko and we’ve been running it together, full-time, ever since. And, although Sseko is our first baby, we now have two human babies! Theo is three and a half and Will is a year and a half and we’re raising them in an intentional community in Portland, Oregon where Sskeo’s U.S. headquarters are located.
Today, Sseko is the largest non-agricultural exporter in Uganda. Through our work-study program, we’ve enabled 166 women to attend university and have created dignified, fair-wage jobs for thousands across the globe.
How has Sseko expanded since the company’s founding?
In addition to expanding from sandals to a full lifestyle fashion brand, the biggest evolution happened a few years ago when we started dreaming about what it would look like to bring our mission of creating community and opportunity for women in developing economies to women right here at home. We eventually decided to take our products off of store shelves and instead put our products and brand into the hands of social entrepreneurs, known as Sseko Fellows, here in the U.S. to build their own impact-driven businesses.
Why did you write “Beginner’s Pluck”?
As I’ve built this company and especially as I’ve grown into this new role of leading thousands of entrepreneurs who are launching and growing their own social businesses, I’ve become increasingly aware of how stuck and paralyzed many people feel. We were all created for a purpose, but oftentimes the idea of “finding” our purpose or passion can leave people feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. I came to realize that a lot of the common “inspirational” self-help language (“Dream Big!” and “You are special!” and “Find your passion!”) is not only unhelpful but actually contributing to a growing sense of anxiety, analysis paralysis, and burnout.
As I led my teams in Portland, Uganda, and our sellers across the U.S., I developed some core leadership principles and mindsets that challenge some of that ‘status-quo’ lingo and I saw firsthand how those mindset shifts created a sense of freedom, energy, and empowerment. So, I wrote Beginner’s Pluck as a way to share my story and the principles and lessons I’ve learned over the last decade of building a life of purpose, passion and impact.
My greatest hope is that it is a gentle but swift kick in the butt that encourages folks to get out of their own head, take risks, and become more of who God created them to be as they build a brighter world—in whatever capacity that allows them to use their unique gifts to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.
What are some of your favorite Westminster memories?
I fell in love with Jesus during my time at Westminster and for that, I am forever grateful.
I’ve got a core group of women who are my “lifer” friends and a few of them (Whitney Mooney Allen ’04 and Kathryn Fanchi ’04) are truly life-long friends I met at Westminster.
Mr. Baldwin taught me so much about Jesus as a servant leader and the power of proximity and relationship. I loved my time doing improv with Mrs. Klemm (we use the famous “Yes…and!” rule of improv at our company!) And I’d pay legit money to be back in Dr. Holley’s AP English Lit class. I treasure how he nurtured in me a love of story and critical thinking and dialogue. (Although, he did give me the first B- I ever received on a paper. I sobbed and thought my aspirations of becoming a journalist were doomed.)
I’m forever grateful for my dance team coach, Jenna Immergoot, who truly helped develop me as a leader and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the glory of Spirit Week and lip-sync where I realized I really liked rallying people around a common goal! (And, let’s be honest, telling people what to do.)
And, I’m sure they still talk about what a legacy I left in the sports department. Our softball team didn’t win a single game and I think my striking lack hand-eye coordination was more than partly responsible for that impressive record.
Do you have any advice for current Westminster students?
There is an obnoxious amount of advice in “Beginner’s Pluck” that is especially applicable to students, but if I had to boil it down, I’d say, “You do you, boo-boo!” You were created on purpose and for a purpose.
Like a strand of DNA, you reflect a unique aspect and sequence of The Divine, and therefore you will leave an imprint on the world in a way that no one else on Planet Earth can. And every day that you spend being paralyzed by fear and caught up in other people’s opinions of you, is one less day that we get to experience the gifts you have to give. When you actually start to believe that you were made on purpose and for a purpose, it will unlock you to make some serious magic and it’s going to create the freedom for others to do the same. (And please don’t get as bent out of shape about getting a B- as I did. It’s all going to be okay.)