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Sseko Designs founder Liz Forkin Bohannon talks sandals at Stephens

Thursday, August 30, 2012 | 7:00 p.m. CDT; updated 7:16 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 30, 2012
Liz Forkin Bohannon, founder and CEO of Sseko Designs, a sandal company based in Uganda, visits a product development class at Stephens College on Thursday. Bohannon shared her experience of creating and building her company with the students.

COLUMBIA — When Liz Forkin Bohannon was a student at MU, she wasn't interested in fashion.

"I wore, like, the same pair of pants 10 times in a row just to stick it to the man," she said Thursday during her keynote speech at the annual opening convocation at Stephens College.

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Forkin Bohannon had to shift her interests out of necessity when she founded Sseko Designs, an Ugandan-based company that makes women's sandals. The company's goal is to give women there a chance to follow their dreams, something Forkin Bohannon knows a lot about.

She started the company in 2008, selling sandals out of the back of her car.

"That was exactly what my parents wanted me to do with my college education," she said with a smile.

Forkin Bohannon's determination paid off. Sseko Designs sandals are now sold at more than 100 retailers nationwide.

Sseko Designs shoes are sold locally at Mustard Seed Fair Trade and Swank Boutique. The Sseko Designs website features a small line of purses and a wedding-themed line of shoes in addition to the regular sandals.

The sandals have a leather and rubber base, with fabric straps that can be laced in different styles. Straps can be removed and replaced with new ones to make different color and fabric combinations.

The idea for the company came to Forkin Bohannon after she learned how the school system worked in Uganda. There is a nine-month gap built in between secondary school and university so students can earn money for tuition.

"If you don't have your money to go to school upfront, you don't go," Forkin Bohannon said.

Work in rural Uganda is scarce, and it's especially hard for women to find a job. Forkin Bohannon created Sseko Designs with those women in mind.

Sseko Designs employs women during that nine-month period. It's required that 50 percent of their salaries go to a tuition fund. At the end of nine months, Sseko Designs grants scholarships that match the women's savings they've earned up to 100 percent.

Forkin Bohannon studied journalism at MU and got a job at a global communications company after she graduated, but she said she didn't feel like it was the right fit for her. At work one day, she said she came across a video about how helping women in poverty can make a difference and started crying in her cubicle.

"I was so overwhelmed by the idea that girls could change the world," she said.

After seeing the video, Forkin Bohannon said she decided a change was in order. She said she went to Uganda because a former neighbor lived there and had extended an invitation, saying Forkin Bohannon could stay with her if she was ever in the area.

Forkin Bohannon got a job working for the Cornerstone Leadership Academy, a school for gifted but poor students in Uganda. She said the girls she met at the women's leadership academy helped to motivate her.

"Of everything I saw in Uganda, this is what inspired me," she said.

When she learned about the nine-month gap that was causing so many women to end their educations, Forkin Bohannon started brainstorming ideas to help them get the money they needed.

She said her first thought was to create a nonprofit organization that matched Ugandan women with U.S. sponsors. Her Ugandan friends told her it was a nice idea, but what they needed were jobs, not sponsors.

"I had never thought about creating jobs or running a business," she said.

She said she got the idea for sandals after remembering a pair she had made for herself in college.  She asked Cornerstone to pick out three women who would benefit  most from a job, and she told them her idea.

"They thought I was off my rocker," she said.

The three women chosen ended up earning enough money for their first year of university.

Sseko Designs continues to employ high-potential young women and help them fulfill their dreams of continuing their educations. Forkin Bohannon said working with the women has changed her life.

"Their stories started to become part of my story," she said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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