How many people you do you know under 30 that have a successful business of their own? Not many, right? Liz, the founder of Sseko Designs, is an amazing woman that started an ethical business empowering women in Uganda. Not only is she creating products that were ethically made, but providing women the opportunity to pursue an education. How cool is that!?
I’m so excited to share her story with you today because she is a huge inspiration to me. Creating an ethical business isn’t easy, but Liz found a way to make it happen without compromising her beliefs. You really have to admire someone for taking on every risk imaginable and still being successful. Read on to learn more about Liz’s career, what she’s learned along the way, and what she thinks is in the future for ethical businesses.
What is Sseko Designs?
Sseko Designs is an ethical fashion brand based in Uganda. Sseko was created to educate, empower and provide employment opportunities to women in East Africa. At Sseko, we believe every woman should have the opportunity to pursue her dreams. We hire high potential young women in Uganda to make sandals, enabling them to earn money through dignified employment that will go directly towards their college educations. To date, we’ve enabled 47 women to continue on to university. Sseko also employs a full-time team of women from all walks of life. By creating an environment of dignity, honor, creativity and dedication, Sseko Designs provides the opportunity for women to end the cycle of poverty and create a more equitable society.
You were so young when you moved to Africa to figure out what you wanted to do. What led you to choose Uganda?
I moved to Uganda after graduating university with a journalism degree to learn more about the effects of extreme poverty on women. I had grown increasingly passionate about women living in extreme poverty, but lived in a world that was so disconnected to that reality. I moved to Uganda first and foremost to learn – with the idea that I would eventually work for a humanitarian organization.
I began volunteering with a youth development organization based in Kampala and this is where I fell in love with a group of incredibly talented, passionate and intelligent young women. I experienced most of the things that I anticipated: poverty, disease and injustice., but I also found so much hope, progress and opportunity. Ugandans who are deeply committed to their communities and countries—and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
When did you know you wanted to create an ethical fashion brand?
What Sseko has become is somewhat of an accidental result of blind determination. While living in Uganda, I met a group of incredibly talented and ambitious young women who needed economic opportunity in order to continue on to university and pursue their dreams. I knew I was in a certain place in a certain time and that the story of these women would become a part of my story. I didn’t really care too much about how that would take shape. Almost everything about Sseko was born from necessity. We needed to generate income. We had to do something that 18 year old girls could be a part of for a season and then move on to pursue their goals. We had to create something out of the limited materials available in the East African region. After several other ideas (including a chicken farm!) 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!
What were some obstacles you faced with starting a business? Do you have any advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs?
Because there are not many business of our kind (specifically, production intended for export) the infrastructure for production and logistics was very limited. Our hope was to not only to make Sseko successful but in the process, to contribute to the overall climate of doing business in East Africa. We tackled these challenges through ongoing training, identifying great partners on the ground, working with existing technical training facilities, and introducing new technologies from around the world to East Africa.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, specifically in the humanitarian business sector, is to…
- Know that you can’t solve every problem in the world. If you try you’ll fail. But even worse, you’ll become discouraged and burnt out. Focus on one thing you’re absolutely die-hard passionate about. And then run towards it with all your might. And don’t forget to celebrate the small victories!
- Engage with the community you are serving in and listen very seriously to their opinions and wisdom.
- Don’t give up. But don’t be afraid to change directions either. There is a fine-line between being determined and bull-headed!
What do you see in the future for ethical businesses?
We have so much hope that more and more consumers will continue to demand transparency and accountability from the companies they support with their everyday purchases. As technology and communication continues to grow, the world is becoming a smaller place. As we connect consumers to producers, we start to see one another as human. Our greatest hope is that the more we can make those “human connections” the more dignity, respect and compassion will drive our consumer decisions.
Where do you think Sseko Designs will be in 10 years?
We’ve got lots of dreams and plans for growth! Our primary focus is on continuing to grow our production and employment capacity in Uganda so that we can empower women through educational and economic opportunities. We’re also excited about continuing to grow our product offerings. We want Sseko to occupy the space between typical ‘fair-trade’ goods (that might have a great story but are lacking in market appeal) and mainstream fashion by making beautiful, high-quality on trend goods that are made in a way that positively impacts both the communities that produce and consume those goods. Eventually, we’d like to replicate the Sseko model in different communities of women around the world and have a global impact. As they say in Uganda, “Slowly, slowly” but we’re dreaming BIG BIG!