EMPOWERING WOMEN, FROM SEED TO SHELF
By Allison Hata | Contributor
JAN-FEB 2022 ISSUE
Photo courtesy of Shea Yeleen
In the concrete jungle where dreams are made and broken, a bright-eyed entrepreneur carried a region’s future in the palm of her hand. Her purpose? To create living wage opportunities for women in Ghana by helping to sell their organic, natural shea butter.
But as Rahama Wright walked the floor of a New York City conference hall in 2011 — holding a small sample container, unable to afford a display table to woo some of the world’s largest beauty ingredient manufacturers — she reached a tipping point.
“Imagine a young woman, I think I was in my mid-20s at the time, running around like, ‘Hey! Would you like to buy shea butter made in Africa?’” Rahama says. “And these super formal business executives and directors, probably sourcing for Fortune 500 companies, were just like, who is this person?”
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Rahama is the CEO and founder of Shea Yeleen. Launched in 2005, it then operated as a nonprofit supporting the financial empowerment of African women who harvest shea for commercial manufacturing.
“There are an estimated 16 million African women who are part of the global shea butter supply chain, but for decades and decades, they've never been visible,” Rahama explains. “Why are these women so poor, yet they are supplying raw materials to incredibly large, multi-billion dollar industries?”
Through Shea Yeleen, she invested heavily in the supply chain. She provided access to capital, helped women acquire equipment and built the infrastructure so they could not only harvest shea, but handcraft it into butter they could sell. Rahama supported everything from filing incorporation documents to technical assistance — but did nothing in terms of marketing.
It was in that New York City conference hall, at a gathering hosted by the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, where Rahama had an “aha” moment that changed everything.
“I was talking to a guy who was displaying his product and he says, ‘Hey, listen, no one is going to buy that. … No one trusts that African women will make as good quality. Most of the shea we bring to market is chemically processed in Europe and Asia,’” she recalls.
At a time when conventional brands were concerned about shelf stability and aesthetic standards, the clean beauty movement was not yet on the radar. The natural, unrefined shea butter from Ghana is devoid of any chemicals and packed with vitamins A, E and F, but also varies in color depending on the type of shea nuts used, as well as the processing method. It posed a challenge for Rahama, who was trying to help the cooperatives find cosmetic industry buyers.
“If you're creating a natural, organic product, it's impossible to make it cookie-cutter, right? It's still quality. It's still pure and natural. All of that great stuff, but they're not looking for that. They just want something that essentially looks like Crisco,” she says. “If I was going to be able to help these women, … it was actually requiring a complete transformation of the way the market sees this product.”
And with that, the idea for Shea Yeleen’s next phase as a social impact business was born, selling its own line of skin care products using shea butter produced by and purchased from women in Ghana.
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To understand Rahama’s drive and passion for supporting women in Africa, you can draw a dotted line to her time in the Peace Corps. Though she once believed a career in international affairs was in the cards, two years in Mali opened her eyes to the daily issues facing many of her community members.
Watching women visit the health center, unable to afford basic medical services, sent her researching potential income-generating opportunities. She educated herself on the supply chains in Africa, where so much raw material like shea grows, but then leaves the continent for international manufacturing and distribution.
“I was so certain that these women deserved a seat at the table when it came to the billions of dollars being made using their labor. No one can tell me I was wrong,” Rahama says. “Being able to see the disconnect is part of the reason why I created Shea Yeleen.”
Another reason hits a little closer to home. Though Rahama grew up in upstate New York, her mother was born and raised in Ghana by a family who wanted to stop her education and marry her off young — just like so many others who now form shea butter cooperatives with Shea Yeleen.
“My mom is those women,” she says. “I see the struggle that she had immigrating to a foreign country and trying to make a better life for herself and her children.”
Like her mother, the women in Rahama’s Peace Corps community and those she now works with are real people, not just numbers in a spreadsheet. She has spent time in their homes, met their kids and developed a deep connection beyond a business transaction.
One woman, Gladys, shared with Rahama that she experienced violence in her home stemming from the family’s financial struggles. But when she became a shea producer, the relationship with her partner was strengthened. He felt a great sense of pride in her work and relief in knowing her increased income could help with expenses. But most importantly, Gladys had an opportunity to create a better life for her daughter.
“It's different when you see it firsthand, young girls in my community just having to stay home,” Rahama says. “And so the number one thing women in our cooperatives do when they have increased income is send both their kids to school.”
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Since formally transitioning to a social enterprise model and launching Shea Yeleen as a product in 2012, Rahama has secured capital from venture funds, launched pop-ups in locations like Washington National Airport, and landed deals with the likes of Whole Foods and MGM Resorts.
More recently, Shea Yeleen was invited to join Macy’s last year as part of the 15 Percent Pledge initiative. You can now find the company’s shea products online at macys.com, with tentative plans to launch in-store in early 2022. A brand-new $640,000 government grant will also keep Rahama busy over the next 18 months, with a project from the economic development office to build a beauty makerspace in D.C.
Prior to COVID-19, Rahama had reached 14 communities in Ghana. She had approximately 800 women working across a completely redesigned supply chain in which Shea Yeleen purchases directly from Ghanaian producers at a fair price — five times the local minimum wage.
She has also worked tirelessly to educate U.S. consumers about natural beauty care products and fair trade. “How can I get someone… to care about how that lotion and cream is made?” she recalls asking herself. “And wanting to find and support a brand that's ethically sourcing and developing living wage jobs.”
It came down to two things: offering a quality shea product, whether that’s Shea Yeleen’s lip balm, body cream, body balm or soap, and bringing customers into the journey and process of making each item.
Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a photo or video on social media. But Rahama is incredibly proud of a program she launched pre-pandemic, which brings women from cooperatives to the United States for several weeks to observe business operations. They participate in everything from touring Whole Foods with buyers to supporting company pop-ups with live production demonstrations. The experience offers perspective for everyone involved. The women can see their work on the shelf and gain a fuller understanding of their direct impact on the industry. And for customers, it supports Rahama’s efforts to bring a real face to the shea products.
“We're here for that customer who understands that in order to take care of yourself, you have to also think about caring for others,” she says. “… They're invested in our product because of the quality, but they also feel the connection to the work that we're doing.”
Of all the accolades Rahama has earned in her career — and there have been plenty, including appointment to the inaugural Presidential Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa — it’s these trips for Ghanaian women that she considers irreplaceable successes.
Because ultimately, she’s not trying to create shea producers forever. Instead, Rahama hopes to bolster a new wave of entrepreneurs, who take the skills learned from Shea Yeleen to create bigger and better opportunities.
“We want them to be able to save their money, and invest in other income-generating activities,” she says, mentioning that Gladys eventually opened up a food cafe and employed her neighbor. “Those are the types of ripple effect benefits that we seek with our business model.”
She offers a few words of advice for these aspiring entrepreneurs: cultivate real, authentic relationships, and don’t be afraid to invest in your own care.
“Being an entrepreneur, especially an entrepreneur of color, especially a woman, there are so many ‘-isms’ that you have to overcome to even just get to the table or just get to a place where you're going to be taken seriously,” she says. “The amount of fortitude, persistence and resilience is heavy mentally. … Be incredibly mindful of your stress triggers when you're feeling burnt out. Take care of yourself. I certainly need to take this advice more!”