Liz Forkin Bohannon was the winner of Blue Collar Service's Jumpstart contest, which awarded $100,000 to the emerging company that demonstrated the greatest need with the best pitch. Liz's Sseko Designs is a footwear company based in Portland, OR whose slogan is, "Every Sandal Has a Story," and that's why I decided to feature Liz's company in this Businesses With Impact post.
Sseko Designs is a sandal company whose products are produced in Uganda. Liz founded Sseko as a way to empower high-potential, talented, young Ugandan women to generate income so they could afford higher education. So far, Sseko has graduated three classes of women who are now pursuing college degrees. The Sseko project has been so successful because in Uganda, that the school system is designed with a nine-month gap between secondary school and university. These nine months allow future university students to work and save up for tuition. By focusing on hiring women for this nine-month period, Sseko has created a symbiotic relationship between the company and its temporary employees. The women hired by Sseko make sandals for nine months, and they can then go on to become "doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers and teachers," according to Sseko's mission statement.
I had the pleasure of a quick evening interview with Liz Forkin Bohannon (center, above) recently.
JS: What does it mean to have won this contest?
Liz: Until now, we have built Sseko Designs on grassroots word-of-mouth communications, trying to build momentum in our community first, which has been amazing and has given us a grounding. Now, with this prize money, I am very excited to have the resources to be more creative.
We are trying to get in front of people that are not necessarily having these conversations already, and providing them with the option to buy something that is super cute at a decent price -- without having to sacrifice product quality for the cause. We want to create top products that people will buy simply because they are awesome... but also tell their friends about, because of the mission. We don't ever want to rely solely on the story to give us an excuse to not be excellent in our design. We don't want the consumer to ever have to make a choice between good design and a good cause.
So far, our customers have been impressed at the quality of the brand. Our hope is that, 10 years from now, people associate East Africa with high-quality production. Right now, fashion customers don't think about getting high-quality pieces out of East Africa. We want to change that. And the women in Uganda are jazzed about the idea that they have the opportunity to make a great first impression on a person in California, for instance.
JS: Why were you driven to start this project?
Liz: I moved to Uganda for journalistic reasons. I had a communications degree, and I wanted to write about my experience there and tell stories about volunteering with youth organizations. Through that process, I met a group of women who were getting ready to graduate from secondary school. They were very bright and had huge visions for their futures. They had done really well in college prep. All of the women were living in extreme poverty. They were living in a patriarchal society that offered no support for women in education, and offered no job opportunities for women.
It stuck out to me that 25 of the brightest, most committed women in the country were at risk of not being able to continue their education. My first thought was that I would start a U.S./Uganda sponsorship program. But with the nine-month gap built into their pre-college time, I realized that they didn't need sponsorships; what they needed was job opportunities.
So I tried to start a chicken farm; that failed. Eventually, I settled on a sandal company and found a design that people loved -- and I realized that this was the perfect product. It was something we could train women on quickly, and the sandals are light enough to ship worldwide.
JS: What are your goals for the next five years, now that you've won this prize?
Liz: To increase demand for our products so we can grow our product capacity in Uganda. I would like to be one of the largest employees for women in Uganda, and provide benefits to economically empower women, and to set a standard for this type of industry in Uganda. Beyond that, I want to continue expanding our products and start branding outside of Uganda, to figure out how we can built what we have created in Sseko and use it all over the world to help solve problems worldwide, using fashion.
Photos used with permission from Sseko Designs
This piece is part of my Businesses With Impact series. I'm highlighting companies that fit within what I consider to be a scope of "significant social impact," meaning that they exhibit a high degree of operational awareness of corporate responsibility, social capital investments and philanthropy. While my research is not qualitative per se, I am confident about featuring companies doing inspiring things to change the world in real ways. If you have a suggestion for a company or individual to feature, please contact me.