Liz is the founder and CEO of Sseko Designs, an ethical fashion brand that works to educate and empower women around the world. She joins Charlie on the show today to talk about how and why her brand started with employing high-potential women from Uganda, and what it does today for every woman in the Sseko network.
[2:30] - Liz went to journalism school, and while there, she became interested in issues facing women and girls who were living in areas of extreme poverty and post-conflict zones. She moved to Uganda, and discovered a unique issue facing women there. During a transition period in their schooling, they had to return to their villages where they were competing for jobs with men in the village, and they also lost a lot of social support to continue on to University. In response to this problem, Liz started Sseko.
[5:03] - She committed to three young women that if they made her sandals for the next three months, they would get to university in the fall. When she decided she was going to start a sponsorship-based non-profit charity, her research shifted her focus to something that was more about sustainability, job creation, and contributing to the export market. She tried a few other business ideas, and sandals worked. At the start of her business, Liz wasn’t really passionate about the business side, but over the course of her career, the business aspects have become something that fuels her.
[8:45] - When starting her business, an important thing was recognizing the abundance of resources in both the United States and Uganda. For Liz, it was a two-way street between the material resources available in the US, and young people in need of a job in Uganda. What good businesses and marketplaces do well is come together to combine their resources to create something sustainable and mutually beneficial.
[10:35] - Liz and Charlie talk about American culture, and the idea of building up the economies in these developing countries rather than exporting their labor and resources elsewhere. One of the most beneficial human interactions is one that’s mutually respectful. What Liz is trying to do with Sseko is create mutually beneficial relationships, from trade to the relationships between the people who work for the company.
[12:50] - Liz talks about how the journey in Africa of empowering women to be equal partners in the marketplace compares to the journey we’ve been on in the US. The two journeys are pretty similar, and it all comes down to a power dynamic. There is a belief that the more women are empowered, engaged, and lifted up, the less power men will have. This is a false dichotomy. The challenges women are facing in East Africa are more dramatic and obvious than the challenges women in the US are facing. Liz talks about some of these real challenges that the women of Sseko face during the nine months they go back to their villages before University.
[18:55] - Liz talks about their business model. Rather than a portion of the profits going to the women, they are a paid a monthly salary based on what they do and what their job is within the company. This salary would be about 2-3 times more than the proposed minimum wage in Uganda.
[21:30] - At the original conception of her venture, Liz was very against it being a business (rather than a charity). She felt that most businesses contributed to a system where people were divided by who was privileged and who was oppressed. Liz didn’t want to be involved in that system, but when she got to Uganda, she realized that the tool of capitalism in the marketplace in business was amoral. It’s about how you do it, the decisions you make, and the spirit in which you do those things that can contribute to a system that creates mutually beneficial relationships.
[24:50] - Though there are many businesses and business people that abuse the system, there are many more, like Liz, who use their business to create good in the world. For Liz, it was when she was in Uganda and thinking about her specific goals with her project that she realized her goals meant starting a business. Her model is capitalism for good.
[27:45] - Liz’s biggest personal challenge as an entrepreneur is focus. Liz often finds herself bending the rules and going after the exception without realizing the cost on the overall mission. Her team helps keep her check and maintain focus so they are able to continue to help the most amount of people.
[31:30] - The biggest challenge on the business side has been being a vertically integrated company. They currently run two different models - a manufacturing company and a sales/ distribution marketing company. These companies require different finance models, ways of running, and types of employees. So far, it’s a worthy challenge they are continuing to pursue. Charlie and Liz talk about what would have to happen for Sseko to reconsider this model.
[35:50] - What does the future of retail look like? This is something that Liz has become interested in over the past few years. At Sseko, they shifted their model to be a direct sales model (women become spokespeople for their brands in their own communities and sell the product in their communities), as retail has moved away from brick and mortar to something more personal and social. E-commerce is taking over, but that takes away some of the experiential side of retail. Their direct sales model creates an engaging and community-oriented way of shopping. It’s almost like the future of retail is going back to the past.
[41:52] - The direct sales model for Sseko specifically means that a purchase will help a woman in Uganda go to college, but also helps support the family of the woman in your community you bought a pair of sandals or a purse from. When we realize we’re all creators and makers and we all can contribute, then we start to break down the idea that we can’t buy or sell stuff to our friends.
[43:10] - Liz’s invitation to listeners is to join Sseko; if you’re interested in being an entrepreneur, you can be a part of their community of dreamers, doers, and impact entrepreneurs. If you already have a product, think about how you can make an impact on your local community and in the global community.
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