Earlier this month, a Facebook friend posted about shopping for strappy spring sandals. Despite similar styles catching her eye at Old Navy and Madewell, she opted to pay more for a pair from Sseko Designs, a company that ensures workers a fair wage and supports college-bound women in East Africa. “I guess I'll have to spend more so that my dollar does something more,” she said.
As Sseko founder and CEO Liz Forkin Bohannon sees it, one purchase or even one company isn’t going to do much to change the world, but social enterprises give shoppers like this one the option to spend in a way aligns with their values about women, work, and dignity.
“Just buying a pair of sandals, a meaningless thing you would have done anyway, has now become a tangible way to manifest a belief that you have about the world,” she said in an interview with Her.meneutics.
When Bohannon moved to Uganda in 2008, she quickly befriended women around her age—many of them in the “gap” period after high school. Patriarchy and extreme poverty made it impossible for these grads to save the funds to make it to university, despite being among the top in their class. “My first thought was to start a sponsorship program, because that was like my only framework for thinking about how an American would engage with Africa,” she said. But the more she got to know these women, she became convinced that a business would be the way to go.
Since its founding in 2010, Sseko has helped 71 women (every one that has entered their nine-month program) save enough to continue their education. With split headquarters in Portland, Oregon, and Kampala, Uganda, the company also employs 50 Ugandan women full time.
Bohannon’s trendy sandals—including popular versions with interchangeable ribbons and accessories that can be tied several different ways—have appeared in US fashion mags and are sold in more than 400 stores. The concept even got her the chance to pitch on ABC’S Shark Tank last year.
I spoke to Bohannon last year about her growing startup and what women’s rights in privileged and impoverished contexts have to do with each other.
What made you decide to structure Sseko the way that you did: as a for-profit company with a social good component?
When I showed up in Uganda, it became very clear to me very quickly that I was walking into a very deep history of relationship. That relationship probably started with colonialism… and then it kind of entered into this philanthropist phase where it’s been for more or less the last 20 years. I realize there’s this strong dynamic between white Americans and Africans where Americans are the givers. We’re coming over because you’re less fortunate because you need something. Your social script as the African is to be really thankful and excited about that, and then that’s kind of the dynamic of our relationship.
I’ll preface this by saying I believe that in some situations that’s the only model that works. There is completely a place for charity. I believe that in the kingdom of God, though, that’s not necessarily supposed to be a role that we play. It’s supposed to be like a season and a posture. Sometimes I’m giving and sometimes on the receiving end; we’re all in it together. What made me really uncomfortable in East Africa was it was not seasonal. I don’t think there’s a lot of life in that, and I don’t want to be part of that.
If I’m going to do something I want to do it alongside of these people, so let’s brainstorm together. I have connection to a market that can afford products that your market can’t. I could sell products. We could make a margin that we wouldn’t be able to make in the local economy. What you have is the resources, time, talent, human resource component, and the desire to actually make that happen. If we combined those things and built something really cool together, there’s not a giver and a receiver. It’s like, “If Sseko succeeds, we are all succeeding. And if Sseko sinks we are all sinking together.”
I can see how that’s a different model than a charity, but did you still struggle with a “white savior” complex? You’re still the one who came up with this idea and who’s rallying people around it.
Totally. The only thing that fixes that is relationship, the moment you enter into relationships saying, “It’s sink or swim together, and here’s what I need from you.” Sseko won’t work unless our team shows up and does really good work and is super creative and is on time and is honest and is bringing their all. It’s very clear that I’m not saving anybody.
This used to make people really uncomfortable. I’m dependent on a group of 20-year-old women in East Africa. Me getting to provide for my family and building a life over here in the US is actually somewhat dependent that they hold up their end of the bargain, in the same way that them getting to go to college and earning a fair wage is pretty dependent on me.
Are the women that you work with believers? How does Christian community come into play?
Uganda is very culturally Christian—very evangelical, charismatic. Almost all of our women would identify as being believers. My husband and I are both believers. The main reason we’re doing Sseko is because we believe that this is what the Lord’s calling us into. We’re at least trying to live out the ideals of Jesus and his beliefs about power and equality.
But we also are working in a culture where religion has been pretty coercive, so our calling is to create a place that it’s safe, that people are treated with dignity, that relationships start to happen and build and out of those relational growths people that don’t know Jesus hopefully will come to know him. But they’re not coming to know him because we have a Bible verse on the wall. We just want to create a space for authentic relationships in the same way that we do in Portland.
I would say at least half of the people, maybe more, that work in our office (in Portland) aren’t believers, but there’s a lot we do agree on. We can come together about compassionate consumers and ethical fashion and equality. The workplace is a really important place to have diverse relationships, because I go to church with all Christians, most all my best friends are Christians, and a lot of my family is. I feel like I am set when it comes to having a fellowship of other people that believe what I believe. This is an area of my life that I want to create opportunity to bring people together under something else.
Social enterprise has come under some criticism lately. How do you think about the dynamics of capitalism, guilt, charity, and morality to ensure you’re presenting this enterprise to your consumers in an ethical way?
If you are a woman in America, you are 100 percent likely to buy a certain amount of shoes, depending on what income level you’re in, a year. I’m not coming in and making you buy shoes; it’s going to happen anyway. I’m not claiming that you’re going to end extreme poverty or gender disparity globally by buying our sandals. What I am going to say is you’re going to know who made your product, and you’re going to have visibility into it.
In some ways I would so much rather take money away from that giant supplier in China that treats their people like crap or the sandals that you were going to spend 40 bucks on at Target anyway, take a piece of that pie and kind of redirect that towards something that’s going to align with your belief system.
How does having to think about the role of women in society in Uganda change that way you’ve looked at women in the US?
Well, they go hand in hand. When you’re in Uganda or a lot of developing countries, it’s just so obvious. There are human rights violations that happen against women that are really heinous. But what I’ve come to realize is that we can also do ourselves a disservice when we use developing economies of the third world as the market, because it kind of gives us an excuse to not have to deal with our own stuff.
I’ve become very passionate about issues of gender equality, specifically in the context of America, and even more specifically in the context of the church in America, and even more specifically in the context of male Christians in America and of their role and their involvement in the conversation. Because I think it’s easy to feel like equality is zero sum somehow. I might post an article about some horrible, awful, horrific thing in Ethiopia, but also I will post an article about something that happened in the media where it’s much more subtle.
Sometimes I’ll have people say, “Well, I don’t understand why all the liberal feminists are wasting their time on this when there are women who really need equality.” I think that that is a big, fat, stupid excuse to not care about the splinter in your own eye, if you will. Because if it’s good for me as a woman here in America, that means the ripple effect in the universe, not to be too hippy-dippy, is good for that woman in Ethiopia. And the wins that she has in her own life, in her own society, in her own culture—that is a win for me as a woman millions of miles away here in America. I think it’s all really connected. As an American woman I actually have a responsibility to create conversation about my culture.
What would your challenge to American evangelicals be?
There’s a lot of myth-busting that needs to be done about the movement towards gender equality, about feminism, about feminists. There’s a lot of defensiveness that happens, and I think there’s a lot of fear. To me, it comes down to Jesus and to Jesus’ perspective on power. Jesus came to earth and over and over and over again we saw that Jesus’ kingdom is different. It’s not about power and prestige.
Men have said things to me, like “Women, they’re basically taking over the world now.” Oh hey, bro. Less than one percent of the world’s assets are owned by women; women own less than 10 percent of the income in the world. That narrative is not true. Even if it were true, as a follower of Jesus should your No. 1 one thing in life be about making sure you’re holding onto power? Was that the message that Jesus promoted? If I give you voice or I give you power, how much of that is taking away from me?
What’s your advice or encouragement to people who have felt a sense of calling behind an idea?
You’re never going to know 100 percent that the next step you’re taking is the right step. In order to create great things, we just take a lot of steps, and we happen to take more steps in the right direction than we do in the wrong direction. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety around “I have to have a plan or I have to know or I have to be really confident that this is the right way.” But I would say taking a step and moving is always better than not. And so go ahead and do it, and give yourself the freedom.