By Marty Wiggins
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Give Well” is a weekly column written by Dawn Franks of Your Philanthropy, Kyle Penney of the East Texas Communities Foundation and representatives of The Women’s Fund of Smith County.
“Do Things That Scare You.” That is just one of the messages of Liz Forkin Bohannon, the founder of Sseko Designs, an ethical fashion brand that works to educate and empower women. When Liz completed a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, she started an incredible journey that combined bravery, heart and a philanthropic spirit.
Liz’s story began in 2008 following graduation when she moved to Uganda to assist in the communication efforts for a youth development organization. While there, she saw the incredible poverty of the nation, as well as the incredible young women who were struggling to finance their education. She travelled the country by motorcycle – again, “do things that scare you!” – to find raw materials and gain knowledge on how to produce strappy leather sandals by hand.
“With zero background (or interest at all in business or product design), I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” related Liz. “I laughed at myself, out loud, a lot. I also had a dramatic cry in the rain in the middle of a busy market because for three entire days I had been looking, without success, for a tool to punch holes in leather. Not rocket science, people.”
From this uncertain start, Sseko Designs was born. In four years, the company grew from three women making sandals together under a mango tree, to an international fashion brand that provides employment, educational opportunities and entrepreneurial training to women in Africa.
“I had entered into a community, like most communities, with brokenness and despair,” noted Liz. “But there was also so much hope, success and life. I believed these women deserved the same opportunity to continue their education that I had been afforded. I wanted to be a part of creating a world with women like them at the helm – all they needed was an opportunity.”
She described that some of the young Ugandan women are from villages that had never seen one of their own finish high school, much less college. Through Sseko, these women are now bravely seeing beyond seemingly impossible barriers of the now to a vision for what they can become.
Sseko is not a charity, says Liz, but a business that creates partnership, possibility and opportunity where it didn’t exist before. Today the company employs 47 women, providing fair wages and a workplace founded on dignity, honor and dedication. Its mission statement reads:
“Sseko Designs hires bright and brave young women in Uganda to enable them to earn money through dignified employment that will go directly towards their college education and ensure they will continue pursuing their dreams. In addition to our work in Uganda, we design and source ethically made products from around Africa that create jobs, empower artisans and help end the cycle of poverty. Every Sseko has a story.”
Every woman involved with Sseko Designs has a story as well. Perhaps summarizing for them all, Nancy (a Sseko Class of 2014 graduate) says, “Every woman is an extraordinary woman. It’s ordinary women with extraordinary courage that can do whatever they want.”
Liz’s own story continues to be written: “I am still learning. Sseko isn’t even close to being perfect, but it is a beautiful adventure. I love to dream alongside these women about their futures. About the change they will bring and the love they will give.”
The themes of “practice radical generosity, do things that scare you, every woman has a dream and every great journey begins with a small step” help define Sseko Designs and the spirit of Liz Forkin Bohannon. However, these themes are universal to the mission of women’s philanthropy, as together we strive to make a difference from home communities to communities a world away.
For this reason, Liz will serve as the keynote speaker at the 8th annual Power of the Purse luncheon, the signature event of The Women’s Fund of Smith County. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear more about how each of us can give bravely – give boldly – and make philanthropy the adventure that changes the world.
Marty Wiggins serves as Director of the ETMC Foundation and the 2015 Chair of The Women’s Fund of Smith County. Join us on Oct. 27 at 11:30 a.m. for “Women’s Philanthropy: Impacting our World,” the annual Power of the Purse Luncheon, featuring keynote speaker Liz Forkin Bohannon. Visit www.womensfundsc.org for details on this event and Women’s Fund membership.