Saturday, June 2, 2012

TWHS Interviews Sseko Sandals Founder Liz Forkin Bohannon

Liz Forkin Bohannon is an extraordinary woman who knows the power of fashion.  As the founder of  Sseko, the Not-Just-For-Profit sandals made in Uganda, Forkin Bohannon has been putting her best foot forward for three years through sustainable economic development.  The leather sandals have interchangeable fabric straps that can be styled in hundreds of ways.

For young women in Uganda, the society is a male-dominated one that does not cater to a woman's career.  Enter Sseko Designs, where young women earn above a fair wage, which allows them to put over 50% of their salary in a fund that goes directly towards their university education.

Below is my telephone interview with her about her mission:

TWHS:  First, I want to thank you for transforming impoverished women into educated, well-heeled women through shoes!  Sseko provides university tuition for young Ugandan women through a sustainable monthly income, while contributing to the overall economic development of Uganda.  What does the name Sseko stand for?

Liz: Sseko is from the Lugandan language, and it means laughter. I wanted the company to have a name that captured the essence of my time with the girls.

TWHS:I find that it is no mistake that the nine-month gap between secondary school and university in Uganda is exactly the same length of time a woman carries a child.  Have you ever thought that you are giving birth to the future of an entire group of young women?

Liz: No, but it's an interesting concept!  LOL I am just a  small player in a  beautiful story.

TWHS: Sseko was built on the platform of empowering women.  Are there any men employed by the company?

Liz: Yes, we do have male employees.  Ben, my husband & co-founder, oversees the company's office in the US, another is from Mississippi and our floor manager is a Ugandan male.  But the  majority of our employees are female.

TWHS: The concept of  sustainable economic development is so simple.  Why do you think more companies have not embraced it?

Liz: So many are comfortable with the BOGO model because it's simple and sexy, which is what most companies are attracted to, but yet we don't want to think about the long-term effect on the economy when you speak of that free item.  In order to have a sustainable economy, people have to be working in a job that pays well.

But when it comes to Africa, people get stuck in a giver/receiver mentality.   We have to be talking first about trade, and then the question, "What am I supporting with my dollar?"

TWHS: With the current condition of the U.S. economy, have you received any criticism from those who feel you should focus on creating jobs right here in your own back yard?

Liz: Maybe once in a blue moon, and it it's few and far between.  My response is that this is my calling; my purpose.  But empowering women in the U.S. is just as important.

TWHS:  Your business model is instant inspiration for any young girl who attends a Sseko party, so that in of itself is building business here!

Speaking of Sseko Parties, they are a great idea to gather women together for a worthy cause.  I see you even have a bridal collection!

Liz: Yes, the raw silk strap is popular with bridal parties, which is a trend more brides are opting to do that brings more meaningful touches to their ceremonies.

TWHS: So in a sense, the Sseko bridal sandal is a gift with purpose: footwear for (or after) the ceremony, as well as a bridesmaid gift?

Liz: Exactly!

TWHS: Since starting the business, what one experience will always stick with you?

Liz:  There are so many stories, but the first three women to work at Sseko will always play a pretty big role.  One day, we were all sitting under a mango tree making sandals, when I posed the question about the  difference between charity and scholarship.  Of the three girls, Mercy responded, "If someone gave me tuition money I'd be grateful, but giving me a job would stay with me forever".

That was a powerful statement, filled with dignity. And that's what I admire about the young women of Uganda; they are eager to stand on their own two feet.

TWHS: Where would you like to see Sseko in the next five years?

Liz:  I want to continue to perfect the business model and replicating in different groups of women.  And of course, continuing to empower women!

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