Sseko is a fashion company. A company that earns around $14 million dollars in revenue a year. But, that’s not how it started. Founder and CEO, Liz Bohannon says, “The reason I became the CEO of a fashion brand was very much a means to an end.” As a young woman who had just graduated from college with little work or world experience, Bohannon didn’t have a background in business or fashion. What she did have was a desire to learn and to help.
When it came time to go to college, Bohannon’s dreams were dashed when she had to choose a university close to home due to family circumstances. At the time, she says she was “devastated” but tried to make the best of the situation.
Bohannon never felt a calling toward any one area of interest. What she did know — reading, writing and telling stories came naturally to her. The University of Missouri just happened to have a top-ranked journalism school, so she settled on both a school and a major.
She credits her mother, a pediatric nurse, for always making her aware that her privileged reality was not the norm for everyone. Through her journalism studies, Bohannon discovered a passion for communicating stories of social injustice. “I lived in a world where there was inequality and wanted to have a life that was an acknowledgment of that.”
In 2008, Bohannon decided to take action. She felt strongly about the struggles facing women and girls in conflict-riddled areas. Leaving a corporate job, she decided to move to Uganda… with no plan other than to learn about the area and forge relationships. Her decision wasn’t met with overwhelming support from her family, “I was definitely going against the current.”
In Uganda, she encountered a school for girls identified for their achievements and potential, many of them lacked the funding to go on to university. Inspired, Bohannon came up with the concept of Sseko, a company that could produce shoes, the profits from which could go towards higher education for the Ugandan students.
Bohannon taught the students to make shoes. She returned to the US, shoes in hand, which she sold everywhere, even on busy Los Angeles freeways during stand-still traffic. “I had zero experience with physical product, manufacturing and creation,” Bohannon recalls. “I had zero experience with business.” What she did have was a desire to help. Sometimes, she says, “You don’t find your passion and then go do it—your passion is built.”
A key ingredient to her success with Sseko, per Bohannon, is a lack of expectation. “My identity wasn’t tied up in the idea.” Liz learned on the job with “a ton of curiosity and a ton of humility.” She turned to everything from the internet, advisors in both the US and Africa, to business courses at a community college. “I took help in every form you could possibly imagine.”
The journey wasn’t always easy, especially as Sseko grew. What she had to learn? “The fine line between humility and being insatiably curious,” she says. “I wanted to receive feedback and learn, but couldn’t discount myself [in the process].”
Ceasing ongoing apologizing was vital. “I learned very quickly if I don’t take myself seriously, nobody will take me seriously, specifically as a young woman in business in America.”
Bohannon recently published a book entitled Beginner’s Pluck. In it, she chronicles life lessons, while challenging conventional ideas about opportunity and success. “I believe every person was created on purpose and for a purpose.”
Her goal with Beginner’s Pluck was to help combat the idea that the struggles most people face when searching for their success are unique. “You’re not really special and neither are your issues,” she says. “You’re going to feel like you’re out of your league, you’re going to feel embarrassed, you’re going to fail, you’re going to feel stressed.”
When training Sseko’s team of “fellows” who are part of the US social sales force, she noticed a lot of the same limiting beliefs and obstacles coming up from her predominantly female staff. She encourages women to “embrace your average.” Bohannon believes removing the idea that everyone is exceptional releases the pressure of expectation and moves people toward a growth mindset. “You don’t need to be above average to build a really above average life.”
Liz Bohannon hopes that by sharing her story she will empower the next generation, “If there’s anything about my story and the lessons I’ve learned that can help free another person to go make an impact in another sector, another area—I want to live in that world.”
About Redefining Rosie
This profile on Liz Bohannon is a part of our Redefining Rosie: Cool Women, Uncommon Jobs.
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Liz Bohannon Sources