Heroines for the Planet: Sseko's Liz Bohannon Empowers Ugandan Women with Sandals

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Liz Bohannon isn’t your typical 20-something. Just out of college, Liz fearlessly set off to Uganda to experience another side of the world. Once there, Liz realized  she wanted to help the country overcome extreme poverty, social injustices and disease.

A unique take on the sandal, Liz decided, would be a boon to Uganda. Here’s this heroine’s story.

Lindsay:  After you graduated from college in 2008, you decided to make a life-changing trip to Uganda. Tell me about that journey and how it changed your view of the world.

Liz: Although I had grown increasingly passionate about women living in extreme poverty, I lived in a world that was so disconnected to that reality. I moved to Uganda to first and foremost to learn.  I experienced most of the things that I anticipated: poverty, disease and injustice. But I also found so much hope, progress and opportunity. Ugandans are deeply committed to their communities and countries—and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.

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Lindsay: When did the vision for Sseko Designs first pop into your head? What were some challenges you faced as a young social entrepreneur in Uganda?

Liz: The vision for Sseko was born very soon after meeting these young women. I had no idea how we would accomplish our goal (at one point, Sseko was a chicken farm!) but I envisioned a team of women, working together to fight for opportunity, beauty and justice. As for challenges? Because the path we’re on isn’t the most traveled, the infrastructure for production and logistics is still very limited. Our hope is to not only to make Sseko successful but in the process, to contribute to the overall climate of doing business in East Africa.

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Lindsay: How does Sseko empower Ugandan women?

Liz: My hope is that everything we do at Sseko empowers and encourages every one of our team members. At the very basic level, we provide employment opportunities for women who might not otherwise be able to earn a living in a way that is dignified and life-giving. For women who are academically gifted, we use the time we have with them to stay laser-focused on their goals for the future and how we can help get them there with our programs specifically designed to give them a head start. Our programs range from personal finance to computer training and career mentoring. We believe that these young women will do more for Uganda than we ever could and we try to support them in their dreams to do just that. We really try to build a culture of pride at Sseko. We work hard. We are perfectionists. We seek beauty and dream big. And we ask the women who work with us to do the same. We believe that people can and will rise to the expectations that are set before them. And time after time, they do. There is nothing more fun than hearing a chorus of women shouting “Welcome to Sayyyyyykkkko! The best sandal company in the world!” We’re proud of what we’re doing and excited about the opportunity and hope of what’s to come.

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Lindsay: Where does Sseko source its materials used to create your sandals and clutches? How did you conceive of the idea to create sandals with straps that could be interchanged?

Liz: We source the majority of our materials from the East African region. Our hope is to not only contribute to the women we work with but to contribute to growing the economy in the region by supporting local suppliers. As for the initial design of the sandal, like most parts of our story it was a bit of an accident. I had made a pair of sandals out of flip-flop bottoms and some vintage ribbon I had lying around. I loved them because they were kind of funky and super comfortable. Every time I wore them, someone would ask me about them. At the time I just laughed and told them that I made them sitting on the floor of my friend’s apartment one night. Many moons later, while training to brainstorm things we could make in Uganda, a friend who had seen the sandals asked me if those could be something we could make. And the rest is history! You never know how the seemingly insignificant moments in our life can set you on an entirely different trajectory—of course, until they do!

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Lindsay: Tell us about your 30 Ways/30 Days campaign. What’s your favorite way to tie your Sseko sandals?

Liz: We adore the 30 Ways 30 Days campaign because it gives us a chance to see the amazing styles and ties that unbelievably creative Sseko wearers come up with! We get submissions from all over the world and always walk away inspired to keep creating. As for my personal favorite, if I am being super active, I always opt for the Classic Tie because it is so comfortable and sturdy. But when I’m in the mood to spice things up I opt for a style like the Braided Thong with a metallic strap–an elegant and classic silhouette with a twist.

Lindsay: How involved are you in the day-to-day operations?

Liz: Because we’re still a relatively small company, I’ve got my hands in just about everything. I split my time between Portland, OR and Uganda, so just in that, my role varies quite a bit. I spend the majority of my time growing our team both here in the US and in Uganda, working on product development, marketing and dreaming about what our next step will be. It is worth noting, however, that Sseko wouldn’t exist if it were not for our incredible team (both in Uganda and the US) that keep the wheels turning. I couldn’t be more grateful and proud of the Sseko team.

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Models wearing Sseko sandals.

Lindsay: Where do you see Sseko going next? What goals do you have as a social entrepreneur?

Liz: We have a lot of dreams and plans for growth. Our primary focus is on continuing to grow our production and employment capacity in Uganda so that we can empower women through educational and economic opportunities. We’re also excited about continuing to grow our product offerings. We want Sseko to occupy the space between typical ‘fair-trade’ goods that might have a great story but are lacking in market appeal and mainstream fashion by making beautiful, high-quality on-trend goods that are made in a way that positively impacts both the communities that produce and consume those goods. Eventually, we’d like to replicate the Sseko model in different communities of women around the world and have a global impact.

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Past Heroines for the Planet interviews.

About Lindsay E. Brown
Lindsay is the Director of Communications at CBS EcoMedia and is a co-owner of Eco-Chick along with Starre Vartan. Previously, she was the managing editor at Eco-Chick, and created the acclaimed interview series “Heroines for the Planet." She has written for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine, Edible, Cottages & Gardens, Huffington Post, EarthHour.org, Livia Firth's Eco-Age.com, Ecover US, Laura Turner Seydel's blog, and Gather Green. Lindsay was featured on the Veria Living Network as a “voice for the planet’s health” and was named in Ecover’s “30 Under 30″ contest which recognized those who are making a sustainable difference in their local or global communities. Lindsay holds a B.S. in Global Business Studies and Marketing from Manhattan College, and received the 2012 Honors Award for Top Student in RW1 at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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