As the founder of Sseko Designs, Liz created the business as a means to impact social change with an intention of empowerment. As an ethical fashion brand that believes in the power of business to create a more just and beautiful world, Sseko Designs is a confluence of passion and purpose supported by a great determination. Liz shared with us on her journey to this point and the motivations behind building a business with a mutually beneficial model.
Sseko Designs began with women’s footwear, but before that, it was briefly grounded on the idea of a chicken farm. What’s the story behind that?
What Sseko has become is somewhat of an accidental result of blind determination. For the first few years, the business itself (what we’d make/sell) was just a means to an end. My first idea was to start a charity but I became increasingly committed to the idea creating a sustainable, market-place solution. So my next best idea was a chicken farm! Ha. I truly do believe that agriculture is an amazing investment for development impact but I couldn’t operate at the scale we’d need to create impact anytime soon without a capital infusion…which I didn’t have. And to be honest, the idea of running a chicken farm in Uganda didn’t exactly make my heart beat a little faster, HA! I was reminded of a pair of funky, strappy sandals I had made a few years earlier. I spent a few weeks scouring the country for the materials we needed and trying to learn everything I could about making footwear. I hired three young women and several weeks later, under a mango tree, a sandal company in East Africa was born!
Hardest part of the Sseko Designs journey so far? Proudest moment?
My very hardest and darkest moments have been things I wouldn’t share publicly. I don’t say that to be ambiguous or angsty but rather because I think often times when you “follow your dreams” people assume the road will be easy and that just isn’t the case. The road has actually been filled with grief, stress and pain, in the midst of all the beautiful and life giving things that come along with pursuing your purpose and passion. The degree to which you give your heart to anything determines the depth of what you experience in the process. And especially if your passion leads you to trying to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, your heart is bound to get a little shattered in the process because you realize more than ever how deeply broken the world is and how seemingly insignificant your efforts can feel at times.
THAT being said, perhaps my proudest moment to date was this past Spring when I took a group of 10 of our sellers, Sseko Fellows, to Uganda. We were in our factory and were explaining this amazing scholarship program we have for our Uganda employees and one of our team member’s, Sylvia, raised her hand. I fully expected her to ask something about her scholarship and instead she said, “This is all wonderful, but what do our Fellow’s get if they succeed?” This concern for making sure her U.S. sisters were also being compensated and taken care of for their hard work made me SO proud. It felt like such a confirmation that the culture we are creating isn’t one of charity, but a global sisterhood where we have one another’s back!
How did you decide on social entrepreneurship as a way of creating impact?
Well, this could be a whole post on it’s own, but it comes down to a deep belief that in order to solve the world’s most pressing challenges (for us, that includes global gender inequality and extreme poverty) we must engage the for profit business sector. There will always be a place for charity, but the greatest, most widespread and fastest change will come through the business sector.
One of the most beautiful parts of using business as a means to social change is this mutually beneficial model. The very process of building a success business eliminates the ‘giver/receiver’ dynamic that is very common in traditional charitable models. By providing employment, businesses have a unique ability to truly empower communities in a way that makes ‘beneficiaries’ an essential part of the success equation. There is a world of difference between ‘helping’ someone and building a team that will work towards a common goal. The privilege to call the women we work with partners, and to mean it in the truest sense, is arguably the most rewarding and transformative part of my job.
We’re working together with the belief that our future and dreams are bound up with the rest of humanity. Together, we’ll build a world that is more just and equitable. And we’ll use business to do it.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten?
We’re all just figuring it out as we go along!
What is one question you wished people asked you more often?
How is your business/work/mission changing you. We can get caught up in the idea that we are changing the world, and while there is truth to that, I also think there is a lot of work that needs to be done within my own soul and that my work is a tool God is using to sharpen, challenge, humble and encourage me. (It’s also a good reminder that we’re not here to “save” anyone. Just to be faithful to what’s been given to us!)
How would you like to be remembered?
Woah. I’d like for people to remember me as someone who helped them dream a little bigger and bolder about their lives and step into the gap between the way things are and they way things could be.
We are inspired by Liz’s determination that bridges passion and purpose and are proud to have her as Fieldtesters, a group of inspiring individuals that test MATTER products in their everyday journeys of passion, to help us improve durability and design. Liz is wearing the Simple Shirt Dress in Falcon Footprint, Size 1.