SSEKO DESIGNS

Is it possible for a company to make a positive impact when their “sole” philosophy is to “Make beautiful things to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women pursuing their dreams and overcoming poverty?” Sseko Designs When was Sseko founded? 2009 What inspired you to start a company of this nature? What Sseko has become is somewhat of an accidental result of blind determination. While living in Uganda (I moved there to pursue journalism) 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 couldn’t have cared how that took 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 is the Sseko philosophy? The short version: Make beautiful things to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women pursuing their dreams and overcoming poverty. We believe passionately in three things: 1. Women hold up half the sky; empowering and educating women across the globe is an integral part to creating a more just and peaceful world and alleviating extreme poverty. 2. Business can and will change the world. We occupy a unique space as a for-profit company that meets social needs traditionally addressed by NGOs, while also building industry and maintaining competitiveness with the traditional for-profit sector. (As we both occupy the “do good” footwear space, we are often compared to TOMS. We differ from the ‘Buy One Give One’ model, however, in that we leverage consumerism to build sustainable industry, employment and educational opportunities that we believe will have a greater long-term impact on alleviating poverty.) 3. All humans desire and deserve dignity, respect and the freedom to dream. We strive to create a space at Sseko that provides every employee, partner and beneficiary with respect and dignity. We hope to challenge and equip every Sseko family member to become the best they can be and dream big. We especially believe this of our Ugandan friends. The often-told story of Africa is one wrought with devastation, war, poverty and disease. And while these things exist, it is also a place full of so much joy, success and progress. That is the story we want to tell. Our women are incredibly talented, driven and bright. Our hope is simply to give them the opportunity to succeed. “Our HOPE is simply to give them the opportunity to SUCCEED” How exactly, does your company help young women in Uganda pursue a college/university education? We make high quality products designed for the mainstream Western market while providing employment opportunities that will allow high-potential female students to generate income during their academic break and continue on to university. Sseko employees will also have access to professional and personal finance training, career mentoring and health care. Using local resources, Sseko aims to build industry in the East African region while also providing services to a highly vulnerable population through job creation and training. During the nine months that each university-bound woman works for Sseko, she will earn enough income to finance the first year of college tuition and will be eligible for a scholarship that will match up to 100% of her income savings. I believe your company is very noble. It is very rare that a company is founded on the premise of helping empower it’s employees through education versus a solely profitable ambition. How exactly do you plan to sustain this program after the first graduates move on to their respective jobs in the future? Great question. Our solution: For every university –bound woman we employ, we employ two women who are full-time, year-round employees. Every year we hire a new class of women and it is our veteran team that keeps the wheels  turning during the time of hiring and training our newest class. Our veteran team consists of everyone from our cooks to sandal makers to managers. It is important to us to build a company that is sustainable and will continue to meet needs year after year and building an excellent full-time staff that we hope will be with us for a long time is part of how we do that. Do you plan to take the successful formula you started in Uganda and possibly expand to other developing countries? There may be some dreaming and scheming going on regarding just that… On your website you mentioned, “We are excited to be a part of a growing movement the uses “patient capital” to combine philanthropy and traditional business models to change the world.” Have you noticed a large majority of your consumers are socially aware consumers that purposely seek out brands with a social conscience or do you find that your consumers become more aware through purchasing your product? It depends what market we’re in. A lot of our online customers are intentionally seeking out ethically-made products or they hear about us from their communities who care about ethical fashion and find us through their existing passion. Our typical customer who walks into a boutique (the majority of our boutiques are mainstream fashion boutiques and don’t have an ethical or cause-based retail space) is often trying on or purchasing the sandal when our retail partners share the story behind the sandals with them. We LOVE being able to provide a reasonably-priced, high-quality product to our friends who care about where their things are made. But we also love introducing folks  to the concept of ethical fashion and proving that you don’t have to sacrifice on style or comfort to make an impact with your purchases. Are there any other organizations that your company supports? Not formally. But we love collaborating with other ethical brands. And in Uganda we’ve partnered with other programs on the ground. For instance, we work with a wonderful organization called the Kwagala Project that does rehabilitation work with women coming out of the commercial sex industry. When they graduate from the program, they need a way to support themselves and their families in a way that is safe and dignified. And that is where Sseko comes in! Several of our veteran team members have come to Sseko through this program. We love working with organizations that do incredible work, but might be lacking an incoming generating component to provide sustainable and dignified jobs. What can consumers do to become more involved in bringing awareness to your company and its socially proactive initiative? Wear Ssekos. Tell your friends. So much of our growth has come from our incredible customers who tell everyone about their sandals! So many of our retail partners have come from customers insisting that their favorite stores start to carry our brand. And the majority of Sseko-wearers find out about us in the first place through word-of-mouth. We LOVE when are fans help us spread the word; that is really why we can continue to do what we do. For those who love sandals AND parties, we have a “party in a box” option where women can get together and go in on a group order. We deliver a box full of goodies and the hostess gets to share the Sseko mission with her friends. (And get free shipping! And 10% off!) We also often have internship and job opportunities coming up, which is of course, the ultimate way to get involved. We’re building an incredible team of passionate, intelligent and creative folks both here in the US and Uganda, which has been such a dream. How are the young women selected for employment and participation in the program? For our university-bound program, we do an application and interview process where we try to identify the women who are most likely to really succeed in university and beyond, but also have the greatest need for tuition assistance. Is there a set number of young women who are selected each year to enter the program? Yes. But every year that number grows! What are the ages of most of the girls there? Our university-bound women typically range from 18-22. Our veteran team ranges from anywhere to 18-65! Our veteran team is comprised of women from all walks of life. From grandmothers to young women, we love the diversity it brings to our workshop! How are they trained to make the shoe soles and ribbons? Quality is incredibly important to us and every woman that joins the team goes through an intensive training process. Each team has a leader that really focuses on teaching our new team members everything they need to know about how to make top-notch products. We have really high expectations for our team and we find that these partners can rise to the challenge! Do the girls live at home still or do they live on a campus provided by the company? Our university-bound woman come from all over the country and many of their families live up to 14 hours away. So our university bound women all live together on their own. We joke that it is the Sseko Sorority house. They stay just about a quarter mile from our workshop. Talk about a dream commute! Our veteran women come from all over to work each day; most live in or around the city. Who came up with the design of the shoe you currently use? Yours truly. An accidental shoe designer. I’m learning as I go. From journalist to designer, I’m doing a little bit of reverse engineering over here. Although, we recently hired on our first ever product designer who is in Uganda full time. She is amazing and I ADORE having her on the team! Having another eye and design-opinion has been just dreamy. How do you all come up with the unique methods of tying? Will you be introducing new tying methods in the future? We’re always coming up with new ties! Honestly, a majority of the most popular ties have been designed by our customers. We’re always getting photos or videos from super creative Sseko lovers who are AMAZING at styling their Ssekos! We love sharing their creations with the rest of the Sseko-wearers who need a little inspiration. Will you be introducing any new products in the future or will you stick with just the shoes? We introduced a line of clutches this past holiday season. They were such a hit we sold out in a FLASH and we’re working hard on our new clutch collection now. Stay tuned! Where do you see Sseko Designs in 5-10 years? The hope is that we’ll continue to grow our production, employment capacity and impact in Uganda with Sseko sandals and begin to replicate the model, working with other communities of women all across the globe making additional products. As they say in Uganda, “Slowly, slowly” but we’re dreaming BIG BIG! Do you think more business will develop a social conscience in the future? Absolutely. 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. I really appreciate you taking the time out to answer these questions and allowing us to write a feature on Sseko Designs!