When you open your closet doors to piece together your #OOTD, do any of the pieces tell a story? Sseko Designs creates fashion with a purpose that empowers women – is there anything better than that? Ellie Hughes, Marketing Manager of Sseko Designs, was kind enough to share a closer look at this ethically produced line of women’s fashions with us. The drive and passion that’s put into each piece makes this brand truly unique.
Why did you decide to open/start your business?
When our founder, Liz Forkin Bohannon, bought her one way plane ticket to Uganda back in 2009, she didn’t embark on a trip to create an ethical fashion brand. She moved there to learn about the experiences women were having in conflict and post-conflict war zones. She wanted to hear their stories.
When she got there, she got connected to a school called Cornerstone Leadership Academy. Cornerstone is a private high school that students can get into for FREE (that’s a BIG deal in Uganda) if they pass some pretty rigorous tests. Getting into Cornerstone shows that you are the brightest of your village.
Cornerstone’s girls school was much newer than their boys school and Liz got to know the girls pretty well! She saw them start to apply to universities and get accepted to some of the top universities in Uganda. Then, she saw them not ever go on to attend the universities they were accepted into.
She couldn’t help but ask why.
After asking around she found out that in Uganda there’s a nine month gap between high-school and university designed to give students the time to earn enough money to pay for their tuition up front.
Girls were graduating from Cornerstone, going back to their villages with gusto and an eagerness to find a job, and were met with a few harsh realities:
First, because of the economic state that Uganda was (and still is!) in, there were VERY few jobs available in the villages. And because of the largely patriarchal society of Uganda, any jobs that were available were always preferred for men.
On top of that, there’s a TON of social pressure for girls to start settling down and having a family right out of highschool.
Liz knew there had to be something we could do to get these girls on to University. After approaching the leaders at Cornerstone Leadership Academy, they encouraged her to find a way to employ the girls during the nine months between high school and university.
Here’s the kicker. Liz studied journalism in college. In fact, before she bought her one way plane ticket to Uganda she had worked in a cushy corporate journalism job right out of college for a whopping two weeks. She didn’t have any clue as to how she was going to create a way to employ these girls, but she was determined to figure something out.
And that’s how we got our start!
We started back in 2009 with three women making sandals (ribbon sandals, specifically!) under a mango tree in Uganda. We’ve since sent 87 women off to University to pursue their dreams!
What is your favorite thing about your company?
Wow. THIS IS TOUGH! As a company we’d say our greatest success has been building our incredible team in Uganda. It was a huge goal for us to have a completely Ugandan run company and best in class leadership team in Uganda…and we did it! We are so proud of the way they lead with integrity, dignity and passion!
What makes your place/offerings/voice unique?
The combination of amazing quality products (have you seen our latest collection?!) with our mission for true empowerment of women globally makes for a unique win-win scenario!
Who typically buys Sseko?
Women between the ages of 18-50.
How big is your company?
We currently have almost 50 full-time employees at Sseko Uganda and work with a handful of other partners around the world. Our team in our US headquarters is about a dozen, and we have hundreds and hundreds of Sseko Fellows who represent Sseko to their communities all across the country!
Is there anything special you’re trying to promote?
We’re always looking to spread the word about our Sseko Fellows program! A lot of people still don’t know that they can join Sseko in this way! It’s amazing to see women connect across the globe as each of our Sseko Fellows is matched one-on-one with a woman in Uganda!
What challenges have you overcome with your company?
The list is long! There are so many logistical challenges that come with international manufacturing, especially when you’re doing it in a way that’s ethical for everyone involved. It takes a lot of intentionality and we’ve had our fair share of road bumps along the way.
What kind of products/ services do you sell, and which are the most popular?
Though we started with just one product (our Ribbon Sandals!), we now sell an array of footwear, apparel, leather bags, jewelry and more! There’s really something for every woman! The Ribbon Sandals continue to be super popular because of their versatility and unique design, but our classy Sheba Handbag and Eden Backpack are also bestsellers!
Where are you located and why is STL a good area for your company?
The beauty of Sseko is that we truly are a global company. Our primary workshop is located in Uganda, but we work with artisan partners across the globe. Our headquarters are located in Portalnd, Oregon and our Sseko Fellows are spread out all across the US!
What makes you passionate about your company?
Our mission has been fueled by passion from day one. Passion and a lot of hard work. We’ve seen that what we’re doing is WORKING and that continues to fuel us! As of this year, we’ll have sent over 100 women to university!
What do you see for the future of your company?
Our aim is to continue to increase our impact, both in East Africa and in the USA. We see the Sseko Fellows program continuing to grow and thrive, inviting more and more women to be part of this beautiful community!
If you could describe your company in one word what would it be and why?
Brave. Bravery is a theme across all areas of our company, we believe that it takes courage to challenge the way things are and pave the way for a brighter future, but it is so worth it!
Photo Credit: Sseko
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