Liz Forkin Bohannon moved to Uganda after she graduated college in 2008 with a journalism degree. While there, she began Sseko Designs – creating sandals, scarves and leather bags – as a way to generate income for talented young women to go to university. As these women work, fifty percent of their salary each month goes into a saving account for tuition, ensuring their income goes toward their education. Liz’s passion and tenacity for women’s education and Sseko product inspires the achiever in us all.
Darling Magazine: After college, what compelled you to move to Africa?
Liz: While studying journalism in college, I became interested in how extreme poverty disproportionately affects women across the globe. When I graduated from university, I had so much “head knowledge” about the things I cared deeply about, but realized that I was missing perhaps the most important thing: relationships. I didn’t have a single meaningful relationship with a woman living in extreme poverty. I decided to close that gap by moving to Uganda. My primary intention was to build a life and friendships that would deepen my understanding and commitment to the issues facing women worldwide.
DM: Have you always had a heart for women’s education?
Liz: Not particularly for education, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been passionate about gender justice and equality. It wasn’t until I moved to Uganda that it really hit me that millions of women across the globe don’t even have access to education, which I’ve come to believe is one of the most fundamental pieces to achieving gender equality and ending extreme poverty.
It wasn’t until I moved to Uganda that it really hit me that millions of women across the globe don’t even have access to education…
DM: How did you come up with the sandal design?
Liz: While I was still in college, I often wore flip-flops. I remember having the thought, “I wish I had a pair of flip-flops, that don’t flop!” So I tore apart a pair of sandals and replaced the plastic thong portion with some ribbon that crisscrossed my foot and tied up around my ankle. I quite honestly wasn’t interested at all in fashion or design, but I’ve always loved inventing nifty little solutions for everyday problems. Almost every time I wore the sandals, someone would stop and ask me about them—people loved them! At the time, I didn’t think twice about it. Many moons later, while in Uganda brainstorming some income generating activities a friend back home casually said, “What about those funky strappy sandals you made in college that everyone loved? Could you make and sell those?” And that is how Ssekos were born!
DM: How have university educations impacted Mary, Mercy and Rebecca (your first graduates)?
Liz: When Mary, Mercy and Rebecca were simply given an opportunity to pursue their education, gain skills and hear the powerful words, “I believe in you. Go, be great,” they were off to the races. They all graduated with impressive marks and received university degrees that have allowed them to pursue their careers and the visions they were dreaming about when they were 19-year-old girls, making sandals under a mango tree. They’re now building their careers in counseling, IT and community development; no doubt these young graduates are already becoming change-makers in their communities.
DM: Congratulations on being the SXSW ECO winner! How was that entire process for you?
Liz: Thank you! It was actually quite daunting. I generally really enjoy public speaking and telling the Sseko story, but the three-minute time limit for this event made it one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I love being really transparent and authentic in my story telling which means I usually keep the rehearsing and bullet points to a minimum. But when you’ve got a giant red countdown clock looming over you, every second and every word matters. I haven’t been that nervous in a long time but as a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I secretly enjoyed the rush.
DM: What is next for Sseko Designs?
Liz: We’re working tirelessly to grow the Sseko brand so that we can continue to grow our production, employment capacity and impact in Uganda. Eventually we’d like to take our model into a new country with a new product line. Our hope is that someday Sseko will be one of the largest employers of women in the region. In addition to supporting individual women through employment, education and social impact programming, we’re dreaming about building a scalable platform that has the voice and authority to change workplace culture for women in the region and across the globe.
DM: Your determination is inspiring – do you have any advice for our Achievers aspiring to change the world?
Liz: First, a big vision for how to make an impact in the world can be incredibly daunting. It is easy to look at the mountain ahead of you and become overwhelmed by the impossibility of it all. But great things never happen overnight. And all you have to think about today is what small step you’re going to take that is going to move the needle, no matter how slightly.
Second, absolutely at all costs, you’ve got to avoid the temptation to compare yourself to those around you. That is a dark trail to insecurity and discouragement. While seeking advice and learning from others is paramount, remember that you’re writing your own story that will have an entirely unique timeline and arch.
Third, you’re not an impostor! You’re learning and growing as you go, as is everyone around you, no matter how confident and put together they appear. I so often have to fight this nagging fear that one day as I am just bumbling through this life, the curtain will part and the truth of my inexperience and inability will be revealed. But there is something incredibly freeing about owning where you’re at on the journey.
Find the stories of the Sseko women here.
To catch up on other Embodied posts, find them here.
Images via Sseko Designs