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Bravery and Lifestyle Branding with Liz Bohannon of Sseko Designs (An Excerpt from Rank & File Magazine)

sseko-liz-sandal-photo

“It’s not rocket science – 99 percent of it comes down to courage and grit.”

Being brave can mean a lot of things.

Liz Bohannon was 22 when she left her job at a corporate communications firm. She’d gotten the job just out of college after graduating with a degree in journalism. It was while pursuing her degree that she became passionate about the issues facing women living around the world in extreme poverty and in conflict zones. Unfortunately after graduation, like many, she failed to find her “unicorn dream job” where she “would get paid to travel around the world and cover the issues [she] thought were really important.” She’d had her corporate gig for all of three months when she looked around and decided that her life did not reflect her passions. So she quit and bought a one-way plane ticket to Uganda.

Liz says she “went through a pretty classic journey that a lot of people go through during their first trips in developing economies of [feeling] a little bit overwhelmed, very inspired, but also seeing kind of the dark side of what’s not working and why it’s not working.”

After a few months, she ended up volunteering at a nonprofit school focused on finding “the best and the brightest” teenagers in Uganda and preparing them not only for college but also to become future leaders in their communities. Liz was drawn to the idea of investing deeply in a few in order to impact many. It was here that she found a home and a community that would change her life. Liz ended up becoming a part of this conversation that the organization was having at the time specifically about the girls in their program.

In Uganda, there is a nine-month gap between high school and college during which young adults return home and work to save up enough money to pay for university. Girls were finishing the program and testing in the top five percent of college applicants in the country, but then couldn’t surmount societal pressures to get through their gap year. It was a very real problem, and the organization didn’t have the money or the resources to help these girls. So Liz started brainstorming. She admits that her first thought was “pretty classic.” A 22-year-old, “white American who goes to a poor country for the first time and is just like…‘these poor African women don’t have enough money to go to school.’ The solution is ‘let’s give them money.’”  

She thought about starting a nonprofit, but the further she went down that path, the clearer it became that she wanted to do something not only more sustainable, but also something mutually beneficial and more empowering. She decided to step out of the “giver/receiver relationship pattern” that has been the traditional dynamic between white Westerners and Africans. First, she tried and failed to start a chicken farm, and “naturally, chickens evolved into women’s footwear.”

Remembering a quirky sandal she made for herself in college by tying ribbons to flip flops, Liz hit the local market in hopes of recreating that sandal with the resources she had available in Uganda. Liz told Rank & File that she remembers wandering a local market for three days trying to find a tool that could punch a hole in leather, which culminated with a good cry in the rain.

But Liz persevered, and even though she had “zero background in business of any kind,” she gathered the necessary tools and materials to start what today is Sseko Designs.

Sseko, the Luganda word for laughter, began with just three girls and a rudimentary plan: they make sandals for nine months, Liz returns to the U.S. to sell them out of the back of her car, and the girls get to go to college.  

From these humble beginnings, Sseko has grown far beyond the trunk of Liz’s car into an extremely successful social enterprise. In the years since its inception, Sseko has sent every single graduate of its program to university, a total of 71 and counting, and employ 50 women in Uganda.

Liz’s story is filled with bravery, a crucial trait at the core of what it means to be a Sseko woman. Rank & File’s conversation with Liz focused on her advice for building a lifestyle brand and how to continue evolving and expanding your impact once you’re successful.

 

Building a Lifestyle Brand

Sseko Designs began with a single product, the sandal, but they quickly grew into a lifestyle brand. Liz knew early on that if Sseko Designs was going to succeed it was going to be because they were “running a great business that makes great products.”  

“We are unapologetically a business,” Liz shares. “We want to be a best-in-class design, production and manufacturing house in East Africa, but we want to do that in a way that gives dignity and honor and provides room for transformative relationships for every person that’s a part of that.”

For Liz, building a successful social enterprise involves not just a strong mission and vision, but also the strategy behind building a solid brand. Liz finds that “a lot of social enterprises don’t really think a lot about brand because they have a mission.” She argues that in addition to having a clear mission, you have to “build a pretty compelling brand.” You have to “recognize that a mission is not a brand, it will only take you so far.” Liz has several tips for how to build a successful lifestyle brand:  

 

Ask a Lot of Questions

Liz’s work “consisted of a lot of pounding pavement, years and years of traveling around the country.” But she wasn’t just trying to sell her product, she was also asking questions. Liz found that asking questions in person is the most effective way of getting real answers. It is much simpler than you think. She took a clipboard into a busy city center and just started asking strangers questions like: What do you like about these sandals? How much would you pay for them?

Liz says, “It’s not rocket science; it’s having the courage to have a stranger look at you and say, ‘No, I wouldn’t buy that.’ It’s putting yourself in pretty socially awkward, weird positions.” It’s walking up to a stranger who might blow you off.  You have to be willing to ask questions you aren’t sure you’ll like the answers to. “99 percent of it comes down to courage and grit.”

 

Get Past Your Biases

Part of defining your brand is self-exploration and research. Liz encourages social entrepreneurs to really dig deep into their own biases and individual outlook on the world to discover why they truly think their product is beautiful. “How has that been defined and what are your influences?” Liz suggests going through this practice and incorporating it into “how you’re thinking about your charter customer and how you’re thinking about growing your community.”

 

Craft a Great Product

After examining your personal biases, the next step is to think beyond your social mission for a moment. Liz says, “part of building a really strong brand is having really phenomenal, interesting, unique, innovative products that [you] feel pretty confident standing in a room and saying, ‘I have something to offer that is really special and unique.’” Would you feel confident telling a roomful of strangers that they should buy your product, not just because it supports a great cause, but because it is simply an amazing product? If not, you might have to go back to the drawing board.

 

Be Specific

Liz finds that many people, especially when they’re just starting out, “are so afraid to exclude.” When you’re building a brand and defining your consumer base, “if you try to speak to everyone and you try to be so broad and so inclusive, no one will hate you, but you won’t move anyone,” Liz says. “No one will look at what you’re trying to do and have that feeling of like, ‘Oh that’s speaking to me. Those are my people, that’s the language I use, that is igniting something in me that maybe hasn’t been ignited before.’”

Liz has focused Sseko Designs on being “unapologetic about who the Sseko woman is.” They put the lifestyle out there, and if women don’t see themselves in their brand, then that’s okay. It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone will be your customer.  

 

Define Your Personality

After you have done all the work and gotten the data necessary for defining your customer, the next step is to make sure your brand personality expresses it. When they were building their brand, Liz found that creating the Sseko manifesto, the 12 principles of what it means to be a Sseko woman, was a crucial step. She thinks that “putting it on paper and kind of saying ‘here are 12 sentiments that define who [we] are in a way that feels a little more fun than just your classic demographic’” was important for defining their lifestyle brand.

 

The full version of this story, including Liz’s tips for how to evolve and expand your social impact is available in Rank & File Magazine.

Rank & File is a digital publication for purpose-driven entrepreneurs who believe people are worth serving and business can create change.

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Photos in this article courtesy of ©Sseko Designs

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