I am celebrating one year as a Fellow with Sseko Designs this week! I still remember reading the Fellows guide on the plane to and from a friend’s wedding (happy anniversary, Mo!) and
pestering nicely asking our program manager from the airport if she could please set up my account over the weekend because I really wanted to buy the accent tote special help empower women in Uganda as soon as possible. Ahem. Priorities.
Starting a new business three months before having a baby is…audacious. In some ways, I wish I had waited a bit because I feel like I kind of lost my momentum in the final weeks of my pregnancy and the first two months of Fire Monkey’s life. But I am profoundly grateful that I had this tribe of phenomenal women near and far around me as I became a mom, and anyway, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have joined the Fellows at all if I had waited to do so until after Fire Monkey was born and I lost 34% of my brain.
Gratitude is the primary emotion I feel toward my experience as a Fellow, so in honor of my Ssekoversary, here are 10 things about Sseko that I’m grateful for.
- The personal connections. This is probably a book in and of itself and I’ll list a few specific people in a moment. But everything about Sseko is personal and relational, from the initial recruiting process, to the Sole Sister program connecting U.S.-based Fellows to the women working in Uganda, to day-to-day customer service and support for Fellows. I have never had to talk to a computer and I can tag the founder (and about a dozen other women) whenever I have a question and a real person will respond.
- Our sole sisters. Last spring Sseko launched its Sole Sister Scholarship program, in which sales made through Fellows directly contributed to a bonus scholarship fund for our university-bound women. We are able to send and receive letters and photos and learn about their lives and goals, and that connection has helped me keep going when I was tempted to quit. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not motivated by selling or competition or prizes (one of the reasons I hated my experiences with other direct sales programs), but I will do just about anything for someone I care about. Last year my Sole Sister was appropriately named Faith, and with her bonus scholarship she is able to continue her studies of Human Rights and Ethics. This year I was able to choose my Sole Sister and I picked Jenifer Sr., one of our veteran women who stays with Sseko season after season. I chose her because she has a pure motherly heart toward her 8 children (including 2 adoptees) and a really cool name but maybe I’m biased.
- The fact that I can make my Sseko business what I want it to be. Like I said, starting a new business three months before having a baby was audacious and also completely in character with my tendency to deal with a full plate by piling on more. (This tendency has mellowed since becoming a mother, fortunately.) I knew going in that I wasn’t going to be able to work my new business full time, and the truth was, I didn’t really want to. Direct sales isn’t my jam but I believe in the mission and love the products enough to share it with a few people. And that was totally okay with HQ, my mentor, and my teammates. Some Fellows are full-time, many are not. Some run their business exclusively through Facebook or Instagram, others only do live trunk shows and vendor events, and many do a combination. There’s room for everyone in the program, and everyone–from the founder, Liz Bohannon, downward–is open to feedback, new ideas, and constructive criticism. Maybe that’s a plus side to being a new company; no one’s attached to “the way we’ve always done things” because…there is no “way we’ve always done things.”
- The very few have-to’s, need-to’s, and get-to-by-three’s. Along the same lines as #3, there are no territories, inventory minimums, mandatory events, or obligatory trainings. There is pretty much one thing you must do as a Sseko Fellow, and that is sell $500 of product every 3 months. (And even that has some flexibility.) How you do that is up to you. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t support and infrastructure in place…there are plenty of training opportunities and most Fellows are paired with a mentor Fellow and placed on a team for additional support. But none of it is required. (Which is good for me because finding an uninterrupted hour for video calls is…tricky. Fortunately, they’re all recorded.)
- Room for failure…and learning. I’d be extremely remiss if I presented myself as a booming sales success. I’ve done trunk shows when I was too exhausted to do the leg work to coach my hostess properly, scatterbrained from not having enough time and energy to prepare my inventory, and just really awkward from sleep deprivation. Needless to say, I didn’t sell anything at those shows. I’ve been tempted to quit after those sorts of thing happen, but I don’t because 1) I am stubborn and also hate letting people down; and 2) no one is going to fire me for a few bad shows and eventually I have a better one and it’s enough to stay active. I did hit Sole Sister status ($1,000 of sales in one month) once, rather unexpectedly, but overall my career as a Fellow has been modest. And that’s fine. My main focus is momming and soon I’ll be supporting other mompreneurs through writing and content services. Sseko has always been a side passion project for me and everyone is okay with that.
- My mentor, Genavieve. Facebook was kind enough to remind me that on this day a year ago I became Facebook friends with my mentor, Genavieve. (It doesn’t commemorate the days of Instagram stalking I did prior to this momentous occasion, but oh well.) Gena has been so much more than an upline or director or whatever other sales companies call it; she has been a constant source of encouragement and support throughout my journey through Sseko and new motherhood, perhaps more so the latter than the former. She has built a community of like-hearted women with diverse stories and talents and that community has been priceless this last year. Speaking of that community…
- The other amazing Sseko Fellows I get to hang out with virtually. My social life went from 60 to 0 when the baby was born. (Well, I AM an introvert. So maybe like 15 to 0.) Suddenly Facebook and Instagram was my window on the world. Among the Fellows, there are plenty of other moms, which is one reason I made sure to connect with Genavieve’s team in particular, because I wanted to know the Fellows program wasn’t just for college students who have enviable amounts of free time whether they realize it or not (I’m just jealous). As with my other friend circles, there are a disproportionately high number of health care providers, teachers and other caring professions. Many have other side hustles and cool life stories that I love learning about. I can easily say that we offer each other support in life beyond Sseko.
- The opportunity to meet both my mentor and Sseko’s founder Liz Bohannon, and the honor of calling them friends. Liz came to speak at Ohio State in October and Genavieve came to help me work a table for that event. (Gena’s first attempt to visit me prebaby in February was foiled by severe car malfunction.) Having chatted online with them for months, it was really moving to finally meet them in person. And they are just as loving and approachable in real life as they are online.
- The radically egalitarian way that Sseko operates. There’s a distinct lack of hierarchy at Sseko (not to be confused with lack of organization). Mentors and team leaders are no more (or less) important than regular Fellows, and our entire leadership team has a genuine servant attitude. When Liz designs products, she does so with the Fellows in mind, thinking ahead to what can be sold most readily through a direct sales model. I feel like I matter, not just for the dollars I can rake in (or not), but for my ideas and experience and just as a person.
- The hostesses who gave me the opportunity to share the Sseko story with their friends and family. Sseko is a business, not a charity, and we use the power of responsible consumerism to change lives. The upshot of this is that there’s no impact if no product is sold, and there are no sales without hostesses and Fellows willing to share Sseko with their communities. So a big thank you to my hostesses near and far. (We also like to give them free Sseko swag!
Finally, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a difference. This is maybe a little trite but my kid is teething and I’m too tired come up with a more profound way to say it. Because I swallowed my fear of failure and aversion to sales and powered through my awkward spazziness, a girl in Uganda gets to go to college. (17 girls, actually.) Women are able to get an education, provide for their families, and take big, BIG steps toward breaking the cycle of generational poverty. As we say at Sseko, these women and girls will not make sandals forever. They’ll go on to become doctors, lawyers, business and home owners, leaders in their country. The university-bound girls are selected from an academy that takes the top students in the country, so I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if a Sseko girl ended up in government someday. I can’t wait.
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