“You've got to walk outside your life to where the neighborhood changes.” Ani Difranco
Liz Forkin Bohannon has fully embraced the business ideology of consumerism and marketing, catering to a growing niche market of highly educated consumers with a greater appreciation for and awareness of materials, manufacturing and the philanthropic benefits of ethically resourced and produced goods. Bohannon knows that a product's story is what rescues it from anonymity, and breathes life into it.
Sseko Designs, producer of funky, stylish sandals—with a story—has one of the most innovative offerings in the fashion industry.
After graduating from college, Bohannon visited Uganda to assist a youth development organization in their communication efforts. It was in Uganda where she was challenged by her older Ghanaian peers to create a solution to one of the community’s ultimate needs: jobs for female students to earn money for college tuition during their nine month break from school.
"When I was in college, I had a functional desire to have flip flops that did't 'flop' so much. I bought a pair of ninety-nine cent rubber flip flop bottoms and crafted the base to my foot with some vintage rainbow ribbon. People would literally stop me in the street to ask about them." When brainstorming businesses in Uganda, this memory prompted Bohannon to procure high quality leather materials for sandals, and evolved into the creation of Sseko Designs: footwear that allows consumers to become co-creators of the product—with the ability to interchange the look of the sandal by simply changing the ribbon.
In collaboration with Cornerstone Leadership Academy, Sseko Designs hired three women based on their potential to excel but who also faced financial obstacles. "These women believed in me enough to make these funky sandals and send them to school in the fall with money," says Bohannon.
In the beginning, Bohannon used her life savings to purchase sewing machines, leather and rubber."My mentality was 'do what you need to get it done and out the door.' I literally sold the sandals from the back of my car."
To protect women from familial pressure to give away their earnings, a secure financial program was established—fifty percent of their earned salary enters a savings account each month that is inaccessible until school tuition is due.
Another program advantage grants women university scholarships matching one hundred percent of the savings they’ve accumulated during their nine months working at Sseko.
The popularity of Sseko sandals in the United States has allowed the company to be fully funded by the revenue of their sales. Nineteen women have officially completed Sseko's program, with ten more women ready to graduate.
Sseko employs women on two different tracks: "University Bound" team members are highly educated, ambitious women en route to University. "Veteran" team members haven’t graduated high school and have never held a job. "Our hope is that Veterans will be with us for years and years, building lives and families with this career," says Bohannon. Sseko's management model is one striving for long term sustainability —towards a holistic lifestyle for all employees by providing stable employment, personal finance training, budgeting, health and wellness opportunities.
As the trend of social entrepreneurship grows, Bohannon urges start ups to focus on growing a sustainable business model. "You don't have to choose between being a nonprofit or private sector business to make a distinct and direct social impact. For profit companies can create change and impact specific social needs. Start by attempting to solve important social issues. Consider who you employ and what your values are."
Successfully identifying their own values, Sseko has collaborated with other like-minded organizations, including the Kwalaga Project, which helps girls 14-25 years old transition out of the commercial sex industry. Kwalaga Project provides therapy to the girls, then once they complete their rehabilitation, Sseko works to provide opportunities for employment. "If they don't have stable, safe and reliable jobs, they’ll continue to be vulnerable," explains Bohannon.
While 2013 will be about scaling employment, production and new partnerships in Uganda, Sseko will also focus on increasing visibility in the United States.
"As a brand our desire is to lead with product. We want someone to buy the sandal because they love the sandal. We want them to tell their friends about it because they love the story. We want to compete with mainstream fashion because it's the most sustainable way to grow a company. From a value standpoint, we have a niche of women searching for products ethically produced that they feel good spending their money on. Then we have people who buy the sandals because they're funky and creative and over time become connected to the mission and the story."
More information on Sseko Designs.
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