Our workplace culture filters every success through a monetary lens. It’s what every professional is conditioned to weigh their goals and progress against. But is the world’s economy the only one that matters? Does God’s economy broaden the scope of success? Liz Forkin Bohannon of Sseko Designs shares openly about what it was like to guide a company through a global pandemic, and how those hard times helped her understand a better definition of success.
You can listen to this entire conversation with Liz on our podcast, Work, Love, Pray! Listen below or click here to find your preferred listening platform.
Your passion for the women of Uganda soon became a thriving business that helped to support these women while also recruiting Americans to support the mission through purchasing your products. What was it like for you to experience that success?
Sseko wasn’t successful from the get-go and that is something I feel really passionate about making sure folks know! It’s super easy to be seen as “an overnight success.” At Sseko’s beginning, there were three years where I was living out of my car and eating peanut butter and we weren’t making any money and it wasn’t successful. We were asking ourselves as an organization, “Is this like actually viable?” Over Sseko’s history, there were years when we were meeting all of our goals and experiencing success, and then there were seasons where it felt like it wasn’t working anymore and maybe we needed to pivot.
I think that up-and-down journey is a really important thing to talk about, because I think when we only share the stories of instant or perpetual success, it causes other people to think, “Well, if I’m not experiencing that instant success, maybe what I’m working on isn’t valuable or the right thing.” And I think God’s economy is a lot more complex than that! We have to think about what prosperity is. Is it financial prosperity? Is it an affirmation from the market that you’re doing the right thing and everybody sees it as valuable? Or is success a little bigger than that? Is it us taking a step back and understanding that, even if you’re not experiencing monetary success or worldly success, you’re still succeeding because you’re becoming more of who God created you to be?
Americans are very conditioned to view success as mainly being monetary success. I think, instead, we need to be asking, “Is this work bearing fruit in my life? Is it bearing fruit in the lives of the people that I’m impacting?” The answer to that question can be a really powerful indicator of your true success. You can have extreme monetary success but also be falling apart on the inside. If what you’re doing is not bearing fruit, you might want to reevaluate. Just make sure that the fruit you’re measuring is the fruit that you also feel makes sense for what you’re trying to accomplish in the world.
Like many other companies and organizations, Sseko was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. How did that turn of events affect your perception of the success of the company?
I definitely went through a season in the very early days of the pandemic where I thought it might be the end of Sseko. We had to shut down our workshop, our sales were immediately impacted, and our entire supply chain froze. It was a really, really scary time for so many people. I remember, though, thinking that it was almost so bad that it felt kind of life-giving to relinquish control and tell God, “This is going to be so hard, it feels really impossible, and I don’t know how we’re gonna make it through, so if we are, you’re going to have to show up.”
Honestly, that mindset is how we should be operating all the time. We’re not in control! But sometimes, when the circumstances are dire, we can start to feel like if we just do this, then this will happen and we’re still in control. During the pandemic, I remember being like, well, if we’re going to go down, we might as well go down swinging. It was really, really bad for a few weeks and then we actually took this turn and the consumer economy reacted in a way that we never could have seen coming. So it ended up being a really interesting year of growth and opportunity for us.
I would be lying if I just said, “Yeah, this global pandemic hit and I had this deep sense that we were going to be fine and make it.” There were definitely some weeks that we had some strong people advising us to cut and run. We literally had an advisor say, “You’re not going to make it through this. No business of your size with your level of international supply chain complexity is going to survive this. If you cut and run now, you’ll be in a way better position than if you try to hang on for the next year.” But there was still this small voice going, “I don’t think God’s done with this yet, but if we’re going to make it, God’s going to have to show up.”
We will all have pivots in life in some form. How would you encourage someone to remain as positive as possible when they are in a situation like that?
Listen, it’s hard. It’s so hard. I don’t want to sugar coat it. If you’re in a season of uncertainty, or you’re letting a dream die and you haven’t quite figured out what the next one is, or you’re being asked to make a big pivot but it feels really scary and you’re feeling anxious, alone, or overwhelmed, the first thing that I want to say is…you’re not alone. Being a human that’s co-creating in the world is a really hard thing to do. It’s not hard because you’re broken or not good enough or not smart enough. It’s hard because it’s hard and you’re not alone. Give yourself a lot of grace in those seasons!
It’s a lot easier for me to start asking the “what if” questions. Just the phrase “what if” can be very negative and cynical and worst-case scenario. I have found that by simply changing the intonation of my mental track to instead ask, “What if we do this and it works? What if we do this and it fails but then actually reveals the next thing we’re supposed to move towards?” We have to choose curiosity and ask if God is up to something that we can’t quite see. What if something really beautiful might be on the other side of this, even though it feels really hard and heavy and scary right now? What if right around the corner is the next evolution of where we’re supposed to be? Intentionally making that little quarter turn from “what if” to “but what if” has been really life giving to me in times of uncertainty.
Liz Forkin Bohannon is the founder of Sseko Designs and the author of the book Beginner’s Pluck: Build your life of purpose, passion and impact now.
Sseko Designs is an ethical fashion brand that works to educate and empower women. By providing employment and educational opportunities, Sseko enables women to continue their education and become leaders in their country.
Liz graduated from the University of Missouri with a Master’s degree in Journalism. In 2008, she moved to Uganda where she met an incredible group of talented young women who were struggling to finance their higher education.
After traveling the country by motorcycle to find raw materials and learn how to produce footwear by hand, Liz hired three young women and started Sseko Designs. Since then, Sseko Designs has grown from three women making sandals together under a mango tree, to an international fashion brand that provides employment, educational opportunities and entrepreneurial training to hundreds of women in East Africa and across the globe.
Using her unlikely story of a journalist-gone-shoe-maker, Liz shares her passion for social enterprise, conscious consumerism, social justice, creative leadership and gender-equality.
Liz and the Sseko story has been featured in dozens of publications including: Vogue Magazine, Redbook Magazine, O Magazine, Inc, Fortune and others. Sseko has appeared on national broadcasts including ABC’s Shark Tank and Good Morning America.
Among other notable honors, Liz was recently named a top three Transformation Leader by John Maxwell and Bloomberg Businessweek named Sseko as a top social enterprise. Forbes named Liz one of the top 20 public speakers in the U.S. Liz’s powerful, disarmingly authentic and witty voice captivates and inspires her audience.
She now splits her time between Uganda and Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband Ben run Sseko Designs and raise their two young sons.
Join us for 4word’s 8th annual Gala celebration, presented by Toyota. This year we’ll feature New York Times bestselling author and Founder of it Cosmetics, Jamie Kern Lima. Jamie will be moderated by 4word’s good friend, author, speaker, and founder of Sseko Designs Liz Bohannon. Click here to purchase your tickets today!