Sseko sandals entered the Shark Tank on February 13. Heavy interviewed founder Liz Forkin Bohannon. Here’s what we learned about the company, which was only her and three young women making sandals under a mango tree just a few years ago.
1. It All Started in Uganda
After college, Bohannon went on a trip to see firsthand how people live in extreme poverty. She explained, “I wanted to go somewhere to learn about the issues facing women and girls living in extreme poverty and in conflict and post conflict zones. This was something I cared so much about, yet I didn’t have a single relationship with a woman living in extreme poverty I wanted to change that.”
Since she was 22 at the time of her epiphany, her parents were not thrilled that she was traveling there, and her mother went so far as to hide her passport in the cookie jar. Luckily, for Bohannon, she had a friend living in the East African country, and she asked to stay with her while she got settled. “She said yes and I bought a one way plane ticket to Uganda,” she explained.
What she saw when she lived there was heartache, poverty and war in Northern Uganda. She was especially concerned with the women of the country. “I learned firsthand that women in Uganda face many social, financial and legal barriers that perpetuate a wide opportunity gap between men and women,” she explained. “The young women I met, although academically gifted, were unable to continue their educations…I wanted to be a part of their story and help create a world where these women would become the next generation of leaders.”
Now, the company has a university-bound program where 50% of some employees’ salaries each month is auto-deposited into a college savings fund.
2. Her Initial Capital Was Her Babysitting Money
The company was completely self funded before the Tank. “When we went in the Tank, we were already in the midst of finding investors to help us grow Sseko. Up until this point we were entirely self funded, our initial capital was my babysitting money” she explained.
The new businesswoman knew that in order to grow her company, she would need capital. When she decided to apply to Shark Tank, she didn’t tell anyone, not even her husband or business partner.
3. It’s Ending Poverty, But Is Not a Charity
During her pitch on the show, Bohannon wanted to make it clear that her company is not a charity since it does not raise funds through donors, but by its own revenue. She believes that creating opportunities for women helps to end poverty. Although she sees the value of charities and nonprofits, she also knows the benefits to creating jobs and building industry in impoverished countries.
She also wants to get across that she does not want people to buy Sseko’s products because they feel guilty. “I want you to buy Sseko goods first because you love the product and next because you want to be a part of creating opportunity for women and girls across the globe,” she said.
4. They Have a Bridal Line
Although their classic Ribbon Sandals with black straps is their best seller, they also do well with their bridal line.
“It’s been so fun to see how women incorporate Sseko into one of the most important days of their lives. Often times, our Sseko brides will send us photos from their wedding that we get to share with our team in Uganda, which is so fun! Not to mention, wearing Sseko sandals in your wedding means you can dance all night without worrying about sore tootsies,” Bohannon said.
Customers love Sseko’s products and hundreds have even traveled to Uganda to visit the company’s workshop and enjoy a meal with the women who made their sandals. “We love creating connections between global sisters,” she said.
5. They Sell Accessories Too
A few years ago, they began selling handbags. In the fall of 2014, they launched a full collection including closed-toed shoes, handbags and scarves.
Everything is made in East Africa in a production facility, which has grown. The expansion enables the company to meet higher product demands and grow their brand here in the US.
Also on the episode: