"It's crucial to create a culture where questions can be asked¬—the really hard questions—that might push and change and kind of mold your vision."
Ethical fashion brand Sseko Designs is a “not-just-for profit” company that provides entrepreneurial training, employment and scholarships to women in East Africa. The company hires young women transitioning between high school and university in Uganda, pays them a fair income so they can afford to pay for their university tuition and then provides scholarships that match the women’s savings.
Founder Liz Forkin-Bohannon started the brand from one sandal – designed while she was still in college. Today she splits her time between Uganda and Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband Ben run Sseko Designs. As of 2014, Sseko sells sandals, handbags and scarves. Fergal Byrne catches up with the entrepreneur for Talkback.
Where did the idea for Sseko Designs come from?
When I was first in Uganda, I wanted to start a chicken farm –it was not a very well thought out idea. But I knew I really wanted to do something in Uganda and a friend suggested the idea of making sandals—I had designed some strappy, funky sandals while in college that everyone seemed to like. This was something I was familiar with, and could be sold to women in America. When we looked at the idea more closely, in terms of the raw materials needed, the skills required, we worked out that it would be a viable, if challenging, proposition.
You call Sseko Designs a “not just for profit” company. What does that mean?
We feel very committed to being a for-profit because we really believe that business can be one of the most powerful forces for positive change. Too often “not for profit” or “for-profit” end up being shorthand for organizations that either do good or don’t care. “Not just for profit” seems like a good way to describe an organization that cares about something big and is doing something good while making a profit to sustain its operations.
We often say: “no margin, no mission.”
If we are not selling products, not making money, we have no social mission: we can’t employ women, we certainly can’t give them scholarships to go to college and we don’t have a platform to talk about the issues we care about. For us making money and having a successful, healthy and thriving business is not counter to or competing with our mission but very much a part of it. Profit for us is about achieving something bigger than purely just making money for people at the top.
You focus on employing young women before they go to college, which means they can only work with you for a year or so…how does that work?
Yes, that’s right. That’s something we have learned to adapt to. We employ 19- and 20-year old women who have never had a real job before and have certainly never done anything in the production industry before. These are women that come and work for our company for nine months during their gap year, earn money and then go on to university. In the early years, we had a 100 percent employee turnover built into our business model, which caused a lot of problems.
In fact, they’re actually productive for maybe six months when you take into account the training and on-boarding and then, toward the end, they inevitably start to become much more focused on getting ready and preparing for going to school and the next season of their life, which is great. Now we have built a model that allows us to have a trained team of women who are full time workers that can invest in the younger women and can really provide that production and quality consistency. Building up our Ugandan staff management has been a huge challenge and also a big success over the last couple of the years.
What was it like to get a business off the ground with no business or fashion experience?
When I look back at my 22-year-old self, I just feel really tired. Of course, I was young and so unbelievably and incredibly idealistic about the world and about what we can do. My attitude at the time, which I still have to some degree, is that failure is not an option. I was just so committed to these young women; these relationships and this idea and seeing it come to fruition.
It was pretty challenging at the beginning. We were in a community that didn’t have an artisan trade and tradition of design. There was just no existing framework or understanding of this kind of work. The tools that we were using, the materials we were using, the end goal that we are trying to achieve were all new – and the women we were building our company on were temporary employees for all intents and purposes.
So in the first couple of years, a lot of challenges just came down to quality issues—in our production and with the raw materials that we were using. We were so small we didn’t really have a lot of say or sway with our raw materials providers so when quality issues came out, we had very little leverage. It’s hard to make really high quality products when we don’t have high quality ingredients.
How have the challenges changed as you have grown?
As our business grows and we focus on large-scale distribution and sales, retail and growing our e-commerce, our challenges have changed too. These growth challenges are definitely very different than the challenges of creation, which was more defined the first couple of years.
When you make mistakes in the beginning, no one knows who you are. There are no expectations when you’re a little start-up. The mistakes are also a lot less painful because you can just move on. Whereas now, with distribution all over the U.S., Australia, South Korea and so on, when something goes wrong or we have an issue with our production or delay, the implications are a lot bigger.
It’s critical to build a team as you grow.
You need to be clear about what you are good at and find people who are awesome to do the rest and let them run with it. I don’t want to be the bottleneck that keeps our company from growing and flourishing. So I have really focused on sharing decision-making and building a team that will take ownership and challenge me. While I have a pretty specific vision for the way I want things to go, it’s crucial to create a culture where questions can be asked—the really hard questions—that might push and change and kind of mold your vision.
What is your vision for Sseko Designs?
My ultimate vision is for Sseko Designs to be completely run and operated by a Ugandan team – and that we would buy finished products from an awesome production company based in Uganda. And I have to say we’re pretty close to that.
We still have two American staff members, one that does design and one that does social impact programs development, but everything else from HR to procurement and our actual production management is managed by Ugandan staff which we’re just super proud of. They are awesome and they’re doing a great job of building this company and taking ownership in its success.
About the Author:
Fergal Byrne is a seasoned freelance journalist who has written for many years for The Financial Times and The Economist Intelligence Unit. You can hear Fergal’s interviews with inspiring social entrepreneurs and changemakers at www.inspiringsocialentrepreneurs.com.
About Social Venture Network:
Since 1987, Social Venture Network (SVN, www.svn.org) has been the leading network of entrepreneurs who are transforming the way the world does business. SVN connects the leaders of socially responsible enterprises to share wisdom and resources, form strategic alliances and explore new solutions that build a more just and sustainable economy.