There is a saying “Behind every successful woman, there is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.” That notion has never felt so clear to me as it did on my recent visit to Uganda, where I met a team of women who share the most beautiful sisterhood and who push one another to be the bravest versions of themselves, every day.
These women are the powerhouses behind the largest sandal manufacturer in Uganda, Sseko Designs. Sseko is an ethical fashion brand that uses fashion to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women pursuing their dreams and overcoming poverty. Through a not-just-for-profit business model, we employ a team of women who construct beautiful leather sandals, shoes and bags. To date, we’ve enabled 71 women to continue on to University!
Baylee, Bri and I have worked at Sseko for several years, running marketing and direct sales at our U.S. office in Portland, Oregon. We finally had an opportunity to visit the team in Uganda this past month, and after hearing so many stories, it was incredible connecting with these women in person.
I can safely say I haven’t before met a more spirited bunch of women. The 50+ women that work at Sseko are warm and boisterous, constantly laughing and cracking jokes (mostly about babies and “chairmen”… which is the term for boyfriend in Uganda). They are also some of the strongest, bravest women I’ve ever met, and they have tremendous pride in the work they do.
Uganda is a patriarchal society. Women aren’t given as much an opportunity as men to pursue their dreams; they’re encouraged to marry, have babies, and care for their husbands and families. Which is why the work at Sseko can be very new for these women. On top of that, we’re asking them to do what is traditionally considered “men’s work”: operating heavy machinery, manage inventory and procurement, and lead production teams. These ladies are breaking down gender stereotypes in the work that they do each day, and defining for themselves what it means to be brave.
These ladies are breaking down gender stereotypes in the work that they do each day, and defining for themselves what it means to be brave.
It quickly became clear that the reason these women feel so empowered is because of the support they receive from the rest of their team. These women are family to one another. They look out for each other, both in the workplace and outside of it. And they push each other to be the bravest versions of themselves. We heard story after story of women on our team who entered Sseko full of trepidation and nervousness, and how, at Sseko, they have been challenged to be braver, work harder, and be even better versions of themselves.
Take Dorothy, for example. Dora has worked at Sseko for 4 years, working her way up to become a Team Leader. She is a soft-spoken woman, small in stature but always beaming with joy. She said that for her whole life, she’d never seen herself as a leader. So when she was made Team Leader, she was nervous, and the only thing that made it easier for her was knowing that the rest of the team was cheering her on: “Sseko made me realize that I’m a brave woman. I’m strong enough to manage others. And I really love that! I was very shy, but when I was made a team leader, I gained confidence.”
Bravery doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Bravery is a result of sisterhood, of opening yourself up to a community beyond yourself, one that pushes you to become the best version of yourself. One that tells you “you CAN” when you think you can’t.
Then there’s Auntie Jenifer, the mama of the workshop. At 65 years old, Auntie is a mother of 8 (including two sets of twins!). When her husband died over 10 years ago, she was pressured to move back to her village, and told that her children would not be taken care of properly if she stayed in the city (which is more expensive). But she stood firm and decided to stay in Kampala, taking on paid work for the first time in her life because she wanted to be in a place which afforded her children the greatest opportunities. When she started at Sseko, she said that everything changed; she was welcomed into a family of women that began supporting her, without question. These women became second mothers to her children, and have helped her in so many ways throughout the years.
Finally, there’s Sharon, whose risen to many challenges as our Strap Team Leader. She’s had to learn how to count inventory, keep records, and manage a team, things she never thought she could do, and that she admits terrified her at first. Whenever new processes are introduced at Sseko though, she reminds herself: “I am brave. I can do these things. I can do the best.” And then she does, thanks in large part to the support of her manager and role model, Aggie.
It’s a beautiful process. To see these women come to find a bravery within themselves they didn’t even know existed. Bravery that was called out to them by their Sseko peers.
Bravery doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Bravery is a result of sisterhood, of opening yourself up to a community beyond yourself, one that pushes you to become the best version of yourself. One that tells you “you CAN” when you think you can’t. One that does what they can to care for you and your family when you’re unable. And one that loves you unconditionally.
Our trip to Uganda was incredible for SO. MANY. REASONS. (Safari! White water rafting on the Nile! Taking boda-bodas around Kampala!), but it is the love and kinship we experienced at Sseko Uganda that we will carry home with us. It’s made us realize that in our small US office of 9, we can even stand to be more of a support system for one another. The more we lift one another up, the braver we all become.
“Being brave is knowing who you are, and knowing what you want in life, and going for it. That makes you brave.”
— Sylvia, Quality Lead
“To be brave is to be a woman who is strong and capable of doing anything.”
— Sharon, Strap Team Lead
“Being brave doesn’t mean that you don’t fear anything. But it means believing in yourself, even if you’re afraid.”
— Sandra, University-Bound Class of 2016