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Valerie Berset-Price Headshot

Social Entrepreneurship Is Good Business

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By now we've all heard of global social entrepreneurship and how important it is for companies to do their shares to contribute to building a better world. By now we have also realized that too many companies have joined the social entrepreneurship platform to redeem a damaged image and prove to the world that there's more to them than a greedy, toxic personality.

On the brighter side of things, as briefly mentioned in my last blog, I had the privilege to stumble on a pure gem: a company created on the other side of the spectrum with only the idea that contributing to a better world would create a richer humanity for us all to enjoy. And out of this generous concept came a viable business model.

Please meet Sseko Designs, a company headquartered in Portland, Oreg., that manufactures beautiful sandals in Kampala, Uganda. What makes Sseko Designs unique is its story: a story of sheer generosity, cultural respect, and empowerment all-around.

The story started four years ago when Liz Forkin-Bohannon, a 22-year-old blond girl from Missouri, decided to experience the world first hand. Born and reared in an upper-middle class family, Liz had never experienced poverty beyond what she saw between the airport and the Mexican resort where her family vacationed.

In her eyes, it was time to experience the world at large-which took her to Uganda for a year to visit a college friend working in a local orphanage. While there, Liz put her communication skills to work to create a newsletter for the orphanage.

Her daily contact with the locals made her aware of the cultural differences at play. She would overhear mothers talking about their daughters who would soon graduate from high school, speaking of it as the end of the line. College was off-limits, not only because they were girls in a society that doesn't promote female emancipation, but because there was a nine-month gap wherein most girls lost their aim for school due to the lack of hope of ever finding a job to fund their college educations.

To Liz (who, thanks to the assistance of her family, never had to doubt that she would go to college), this bottleneck had to be resolved. A solution had to be found so girls who had already fought their way all the way to high school and were outstanding students eager to learn more, would not get lost during those nine challenging months.

A productive solution had to be provided so the girls could earn a living and remain focused. In Uganda, where industries are rare and opportunities for women are even rarer, Liz had to think out of the box. Work opportunities had to be conceptualized from scratch.

While in college, Liz had entered a phase where she would avoid buying new items of clothing. Everything she wore had been recycled from somewhere else -- an exercise that had engaged her imagination and provided her with some serious skills. That's where she came up with the idea of transforming broken flip-flops into strappy sandals, using scarves she would purchase at Goodwill to create a design that generated a positive reaction among many of her friends and even total strangers on the streets.

Armed with that idea, Liz went to see the superintendent of the local high school in Kampala and asked for the names of the most distinguished and deserving female students he would recommend to be sent to college, were the funds available. Rebecca, Mercy and Mary were thus selected.

Liz met with them and explained that they would together learn to make strappy sandals out of pieces of leather they would turn into real shoes that she would then sell in the U.S. to fund their college education. That would be her farewell gift. They thus downloaded YouTube videos on how to sew leather and started building their first pairs together.

A month later, Liz returned to Missouri with two large suitcases full of sandals. She contacted all her friends and family members, begging them to help her fulfill her promise to those three girls. To her surprise, people loved the designs and didn't seem to buy the sandals out of compassion, but rather out of genuine respect for a well-built product with a great story. It thus took no time for Liz to sell all the sandals from the back of her car and gather the money needed for the three girls from Uganda to attend college in the fall.

Happy and proud, she could now move on to her next adventure. But could she really? There were a slew of young girls who needed help to go to college in Kampala, and there were people in the United States who really liked the product. She had a sustainable business model in her hands and a little voice in the back of her head telling her she needed to pursue this.

And she did. As of today, Liz and her husband, Ben, manage a team of 40 employees in Kampala and six employees in Portland. For nine months the plant provides a safe environment for girls where they can earn money to fund their college educations. As of today, their sandals are sold in 27 U.S. states, as well as Canada and Australia.

What makes Liz's story unique is that she doesn't have any business background. She had zero money to start her venture. She just had a beating heart and the clear understanding that Ugandans did not want to qualify for another world aid program; Uganda did not need another school, church or orphanage from well-intentioned foreigners. That community in Uganda needed a way to make money so an entire generation of girls could lift themselves out of poverty.

Ghandi suggested that we all become the change we want to see in the world. I'm sure he would be extremely proud of Liz!