Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT).
Welcome Liz Bohannon, founder of Sseko Designs! Tell us a little about yourself, Liz:
When did this creative dream begin? How did this company get started?
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 didn’t really care too much about how that would take 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!
What makes your project stand out from the crowd?
As far as our mission goes, I think the biggest distinguishing factor is that we are mission-driven, but choose to pursue that mission (of educating and empowering women) with a for-profit business model. We’re not a charity and we don’t accept donations. Rather, we want to make and sell beautiful products in a way that gets us one step closer to our realizing our mission. We use only the highest quality raw materials and sacrifice nothing in our production. We design unique but classic items that we think our customers will love and wear for years to come. We believe you shouldn’t have to choose between buying beautiful products and making a positive impact with your purchase.
What are the goals and intentions of this project?
Sseko was created to educate, empower and provide employment opportunities to high potential young women in East Africa. Sseko began as a way to generate income for high potential, talented young women to continue on to university. Sseko has graduated three classes of women. Every woman who has graduated from Sseko is currently pursuing her college degree. In addition to our university-bound team, Sseko also employs a full-time team of women from all walks of life. By creating an environment of dignity, honor, creativity and dedication, Sseko Designs provides the opportunity for women in East Africa to end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society.
How does your project create community?
My hope is that everything we do at Sseko empowers and encourages every one of our team members and connects them to something bigger than themselves. 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. We also emphasize community through the Sseko Brave Collective, which is a way to bring together women who embody Sseko’s mission. The aim of the Collective is to establish a network of strong, loving and supportive women globally who continually inspire and challenge one another.
Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly . . . but then enthusiasm drizzles off?
Don’t give up. But don’t be afraid to change directions either. There is a fine-line between being determined and bull-headed! Furthermore, recognize that you can’t solve every problem in the world. If you try you’ll fail. But even worse, you’ll become discouraged and burnt out. Focus on one thing you’re absolutely die-hard passionate about. And then run towards it with all your might. And don’t forget to celebrate the small victories!
How involved are you in the day-to-day operations?
Because we’re still a relatively small company, I’ve got my hands in just about everything. I split my time between Portland, OR and Uganda, so just in that, my role varies quite a bit. I spend the majority of my time growing our team both here in the US and in Uganda, working on product development, marketing and dreaming about what our next step will be. It is worth noting, however, that Sseko wouldn’t exist if it were not for our incredible team (both in Uganda and the US) that keep the wheels turning. I couldn’t be more grateful and proud of the Sseko team.
What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?
Because there are not many business of our kind (specifically, production intended for export) the infrastructure for production and logistics is still very limited. Our hope is to not only to make Sseko successful but in the process, to contribute to the overall climate of doing business in East Africa. We are tackling these challenges through ongoing training, identifying great partners on the ground, working with existing technical training facilities, and introducing new technologies from around the world to East Africa.
What have you learned? Have there been any unexpected surprises?
The biggest surprise to me has been the outpouring of support that comes when you commit to a vision, and you start to make your dream a reality. There have been many moments where I’ve felt like giving up, sure. But the support from those around me has kept me going. My motivation and focus comes almost entirely from the people who have become a part of this dream. If you’ve ever created something and had someone outside of you say: “Yes. That sounds a bit crazy. But I trust you. 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.
We really try for a multidimensional approach that balances focus on fashion, story and model. We want to provide those who are interested in our business model and social enterprise with great information about the Sseko story and model. But we also don’t want to rely so heavily on our story that we overshadow the product and our brand image. Our hope is that people are interested in Sseko because of our beautiful, unique products and fall in love with the brand (and tell their friends!) because they connect with our mission.
What social network has worked best for you?
We use social media to filter out all our latest news and build a connection with our fan base. It is also a really important tool for customer service. We really try to create conversation with our fans instead of simply pushing product. I’d probably say that bloggers have been the most effective social network for us; Sseko might not exist if not for them! Especially early on, bloggers big and small were what helped launch us into the universe.
What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?
Fake it till you make it! I find myself in so many situations where I have no idea what to do or how to do it. I find that if I can fake confidence in myself and my decisions, even when I feel terrified or overwhelmed, it isn’t long before that confidence becomes a reality.
Where do you see Sseko in five years?
The hope is that we’ll continue to grow our production, employment capacity and impact in Uganda with Sseko sandals and begin to replicate the model, working with other communities of women all across the globe making additional products. As they say in Uganda, “Slowly, slowly” but we’re dreaming BIG BIG!
What question do you wish that someone would ask about your creative dream, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.
Q: Every sandal has a story. Are there any stories that stand out?
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. From our last 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. Just a few weeks ago I was sitting down with one of our full-time seamstresses who has worked with Sseko for about 2 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.
How can we find your creative dream come true?