Women in Business: Liz Forkin Bohannon, Founder, Sseko Designs

05/06/2015 05:30 am ET | Updated May 06, 2016

Sseko Designs was born out of Liz Forkin Bohannon's vision to see young Ugandan women achieve their dream of going to college. While traveling in Uganda in 2008, Liz learned that when young women graduate from secondary school, they have nine months to save up money in order to pay for their university education. In a patriarchal society where jobs are scarce, Liz found that many high-potential women are unable to find work and are forced to become part of the 98% of Ugandan women who do not complete higher education. Sseko was created to end this problem.

Sseko Designs is an ethical fashion brand that believes in the power of business to create a more just and beautiful world. Sseko produces unique, handcrafted footwear and accessories. The company works with high potential young women in Uganda to provide them with a sustainable income that contributes to their university education. In addition to their work in Uganda, Sseko partners with artisans around East Africa to produce beautifully crafted goods. Sseko products can be purchased online and in over 400 retail outlets in North America, including Fred Segal.

By using fashion to provide employment and scholarship opportunities Sseko helps women to pursue their dreams and overcome poverty. To date, through their employment/scholarship program, Sseko has enabled 47 women to continue on to University. Sseko provides employment (along with access to a comprehensive social impact program) to a team of 50 women in Uganda. Sseko achieves all of this through a financially self-sustaining model.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
From an early age, I had a recognition that the life I was born into in middle class America offered me opportunities that, when compared to the rest of the world, are very rare. Yes, I work very very hard. Yes, I have some natural gifts and talents that I've been able to refine and grow, but so much of my life is what it is because I grew up in an environment where I was safe, my basic needs were always met and I had access to education and a social support system. That perspective on my place in the world and how rare it is, specifically as a woman has shaped everything.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Sseko Designs?
Well, when I started Sseko I had just graduated from university and had only a few months of experience at a communications firm before I quit and moved to Uganda. So, to put it mildly, my previous employment experiences were actually quite limited. But I actually think my naiveté served me well. I think, had I known what I was getting into, there is a chance I wouldn't have pursued this little dream!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sseko Designs?
I am totally in awe of the people I get to work alongside. Our women in Uganda or partners in Ethiopia, the people here in the US that are pursuing their own dreams and working tireless to make Sseko happen. I love, love, love that I am constantly challenged, inspired and always, always learning. The greatest challenge is just the sheer amount of things we have going on at any given time. From product design to quality control to HR to longterm strategy, trying to prioritize is a constant challenge.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
If you don't know "the first step" just take a step--in any direction! That step will lead you to your next step. It's not about conquering a mountain in a day, it's about moving forward and staying in motion.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Nothing is as good or as bad as you think it will be! There is no such thing as a "silver bullet." I can get myself so excited about the next Big Idea that I let myself think it will solve all of our problems and catapult us into success we've never dreamt of! And...that's never really happened. Ha! On the hand, it's easy to blow the "bad" out of proportion, too. But the truth is, there are very few things you can't overcome! Every win and every loss is creating a larger narrative, don't freak out about the individual highs and lows--stay focused on your long term vision.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My community is incredibly important to me and trying to be a good and present friend keeps me grounded and engaged in things outside of work. The people that know and love me best are a reminder to me that while my work is a very important part of my life, it isn't all of me.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are a lot more social "costs" for women who are in the workplace and much higher expectations for women to be able to balance all parts of their lives. We're afraid of being seen as weak or incapable but we're also quite afraid of being seen as "too strong" or "bossy" or "intense." It creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety for women in the workplace that hinders a lot of women into becoming the best version of themselves.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship grounds me and keeps me both encouraged and humbled. I'm so grateful to have women who have lived rich lives and are willing to honestly and openly share those experiences with me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Well, Melinda Gates and Jacqueline Novogratz are personal heroes of mine in the way they are pushing the boundaries of social innovation. I look up to Sara Blakey of Spanx because she is truly gifted entrepreneur and I'm inspired by her creativity, guts and business savvy. My professional mentor, Diane Paddison, has been an incredible example of how to work hard and smart and to always put people before projects.

What do you want Sseko Designs to accomplish in the next year?
2015 is the year of growth for Sseko. We've spent the last five years diligently laying a framework that is sustainable, rock solid and scalable. And now is the time to grow our distribution and brand awareness. We're really excited about this new season of focus and growth!