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SHEA YELEEN FOUNDER RAHAMA WRIGHT ON PRODUCTS WITH PURPOSE

April 16, 2021
April 16, 2021
Shea Yeleen

Many brands have a humanitarian initiative as a component of their brand identity, but Shea Yeleen has had empowerment as a core strand of its DNA from the very onset. Founded by Rahama Wright in 2005, the nonprofit social enterprise operates on the premise of empowering women all the way through its supply chain, from offering educational training to ensuring a fair return on profit for the women that produce its products in West Africa.

While the global shea butter market is a substantial component of the cosmetics industry and is expected to reach a value of $1.36 billion by 2025, that abundance hasn’t always returned to those at the very beginning of the product creation process. After serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa in 2005 and meeting shea producers firsthand, Wright started Shea Yeleen as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In 2013, she began extending her company into product development, selling organic, fair trade skincare.

Wright sat down with BeautyMatter to discuss the evolution of her company, the meaning of truly sustainable beauty, and why mission out-trumps commodity.

How have you seen the industry evolve since you first started?

Initially, I was looking at the problems from a very community development, grassroots activism perspective. I felt these women need access to capital, production equipment, training. There was so much in terms of ecosystem building that was lacking. That’s where I focused the first ten years of Shea Yeleen. And it wasn’t until 201 that I did a pivot to a business structure, where I was really looking at the market side, which wasn’t something I was paying too much attention to. I was working so heavily on the supply side, but was seeing a disconnect between how that translated into income generation for women. That missing piece of connecting shea products, ethically sourced from women’s groups, was what pushed me to develop a brand that centered shea butter as the core and main ingredient.

I started Shea Yeleen with no business background, no money, no network. I was really moved by what I witnessed as a volunteer [in the Peace Corps], but it took me a very long time to get to a place where this solution means an actual product behind it. There have been tons of shifts. When I first started, there wasn’t a brand that was connecting the dots between women, shea butter producers, and the US marketplace. No one was talking about living wages. You would hear some folks talking about donations, but this idea of centering women and their financial position, how to improve and increase their ability to generate sustainable, sufficient income from their labor, was nonexistent. That was the most important thing about the global shea butter supply chain: women in Africa.

I spent a lot of time beating my head against the wall, trying to get that message out there with very limited resources. Now, there are so many brands that talk about supply-chain issues and sourcing, but the entire supply chain and value chain specifically for this one ingredient has a very long way to go. Over 16 million women in Africa across 21 countries are impacted by the supply chain. A majority of them are living on less than $2 a day. That’s just the reality. Yet, they supply multibillion-dollar industries like the personal care and confectionery industry. Those women have not caught up in terms of being able to transform their lives by being part of this industry. Although more people are talking about this issue, there is not a lot of transparency around the specific financial impact on their lives. It’s still very murky. You never really know how much a woman is making from being part of the supply chain. That is an important thing because if we’re able to create the standard that the women in these rural environments deserve sufficient income so that they can access health services, send their kids to better schools, access higher nutrition, invest in other income-generating activities, if that is prioritized, you’re impacting the lives of millions of women, creating generational shifts and poverty alleviation.

"Over 16 million women in Africa are impacted by the supply chain. A majority of them are living on less than $2 a day."
By Rahama Wright, Founder, Shea Yeleen

A lot of times companies have been able to hide behind the complexity of supply chains. Considering how much that ingredient is used, there is this disconnect around the end product versus the lives being impacted.

That is my soapbox. Why is Shea Yeleen, this small but mighty brand, the one screaming about this issue when there are very large companies that could drive real impactful change? There’s a couple of reasons why that’s not happening.

One: historically, the way that African resources are brought to market is done in a very post-colonial extractive method, where raw materials are the priority, not value-added products. The shea seed leaves Africa in very large quantities, but you’re not getting to a place where women can develop a value-added product that can increase income and wages. This is not just for shea butter. This is for every commodity you can think of on the continent. The global marketplace has looked at Africa as an extractive place. We extract raw material, take resources, value addition happens elsewhere, and then global distribution happens. These trade systems have been in place for hundreds of years and have not changed.

The second thing is that this is women’s work. This is not only an African issue but a global issue. Historically, women are always underpaid. Shea butter is largely women’s work, so there’s that gender issue.

The third issue is lack of knowledge and awareness of the value of their product by women in these communities. If you go to a typical shea producer who is harvesting the fruit, she’ll be shocked to know that people are getting shea butter in London, Germany, the US. Many of them have not been formally educated, they rely on the goodwill of others. A lot of the women in the cooperatives that we work with don’t even know what a profitable selling price is. We spent a lot of time going through everything in terms of the cost of every input that they use to make their shea, and then the landing per kilo price. We found out they were not actually making any money from this. Those are three reasons why we’re not seeing the push that we need.

For example, the fashion industry, even though it still has a lot of issues, more people are outraged when they hear about sweatshop labor. Brands said we’re going to fix this because people protested. You don’t see the same thing when it comes to shea butter. It’s still one of those things that people know about, but they don’t really know about it. These women are kind of hidden, so until we’re able to address those issues, the industry will continue to leave those women behind.

How did your working relationship with the co-op in Ghana come about?

Initially, my Peace Corps service was in Mali. I worked with shea producers there until there was a coup in 2011. Prior to that, I had started developing cooperative linkages between women in Mali and Burkina Faso in Ghana. I still have it as a vision, it’s just incredibly difficult to create a multi country stakeholder of women producers who can advocate for themselves and negotiate better, because the process is different from one country to another. They’re literally competing against each other, versus working together in an alliance of producers that are able to connect with each other, share resources, talk about pricing, and how they can use this ingredient as a way to address a lot of the issues that women face across the board, regardless of country. I’d already started making those regional connections.

When Mali was having security issues, I had already started working with groups in the northern part of Ghana. I was invited to Ghana by the American Embassy, to meet with shea butter cooperatives and small business owners throughout the country. That’s when I found the current group that I work with. I had also worked with another group in a far northern part of Ghana called Damongo. Some of those women have traveled to the US as part of our ability to help them see the market side, a reverse trade mission.

How was the process of starting as a nonprofit and then making that shift to a consumer market space?

Ultimately, we want to have the nonprofit work on the community development. We’re expanding upon micro-financing. In addition to the product sales, we’re doing lending and savings programs, so that even if a woman is not part of the cooperative, they can financially benefit from this resource being in their community. That’s where the nonprofit sits. The business would do all of the product development, distribution marketing.

Some of the challenges are you have to be very careful with tax law to not violate using a nonprofit structure for a profit gain. There can’t be shared bank accounts, shared board members. There’s a regulatory component and tax issues that you have to navigate. In terms of difficulty, when I started developing products, I kept getting the the advice of, “Don’t talk about your mission. Nobody cares about that. Customers just want good products”, from marketing and branding people over and over again. I do not know how to talk about this product without talking about the women. That was really challenging, because I was getting very experienced executive-level folks discouraging me from talking about the social impact. They felt that you’re going to get people to buy because they liked the story, but not loyal customers. You’re going to get pity purchases, you need to just focus on why shea butter is such a good thing.

A lot of times we talk about beauty that’s good for our planet, but it’s not just the environmental piece. You also have to look at the people involved.

Absolutely. It takes a long time to do this work and for systems to change. Sometimes I feel like I’m spinning my wheels or I’ve gone only one inch forward. The reason why I keep doing it is because I do believe that you might not get the credit, but people are seeing it. It’s influencing consumers, newer brands that have launched in the last five years. Most of them are Black owned, have this heritage story, are talking about impacting the lives of women in Africa. There’s still questions in terms of transparency and impact, but the fact that people are talking about it is so important. It allows for us to dig a little bit deeper, like you’re working with these groups, what does that actually mean? What is the bottom line benefit to their relationship with your company? That’s a win.

My role in this evolution of talking about and centering African women in ingredient supply [chains] is to create a maker space for indie beauty entrepreneurs that really ties into all of these things. Yes, we want to protect the environment, but people are also important. How can we create systems that allow women and men to be able to have financial independence and the ability to sustain themselves through their labor. I keep talking about labor because there’s this misconception that people who are impoverished are somehow the reason to their poverty, like it’s a choice. These people work so hard, but that level of work is not reflected in their ability to have financial security. One brand is not going to be able to do that, but a community of brand operators who want to prioritize this issue of labor and financial empowerment.

Beauty is having a reckoning around inclusion, but not just around racial diversity. It’s beyond that. We need to get to a place where we tackle the very real impact of the scarcity mindset. There seems to be a level of, if I win someone else is losing. I don’t believe that. We have to create spaces where we can collectively recognize that if you’re an indie brand, a small business owner, a micro entrepreneur, it isn’t in your best interest to have a scarcity mindset. It’s in your best interest to partner with other small brands to learn from each other.

Normally you would have a trickle down effect, but indie voices are the ones putting these things out there, and them gaining enough momentum can then impact change. Why do you think it’s taking such a long time for the industry to shift?

It’s dominated by these incredibly large companies who’ve done things a certain way for decades. It’s always hard to shift. Also, any time there is a threat to someone, if we’re asking folks to shift their financial position for something that has been very lucrative, it is a very hard sell. When you don’t need to, what’s in it for them? At the end of the day, consumers have the final say. Until you educate both the producer, so they understand their value, and educate the consumer, so they can understand the power of their purchase, a lot of these systems are going to be very difficult to break.

How has the feedback from the consumer and industry side been?

The way we track our impact data is very succinct. Are women making living wages? Are women earning five times their country’s minimum wage? We came up with that number through asking questions about the cost of living expenses, talking directly to the women. If women are able to make five times what was determined by the Canadian government as a minimum wage, they actually could be able to not only supply their needs, but also invest in savings, or maybe start up another income generating activity.

How has that helped us in terms of connecting to the customer? I’m thankful that I didn’t take the advice of just talking about the benefits of shea, because every time I talk about the women within our supply chain, and this issue that I’ve been focused on for the last 16 years, I see a shift in the customers. Most times people are like, I didn’t know that. It still baffles me that it is still an issue that a lot of people are not aware of.

In 2011, we had three of our shea producers come from Ghana to the US to make shea butter for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I still get emails about it today. Last week, I got an email from a woman who came to that festival saying she’ll never forget meeting us. You can’t make that up. That is a transformation. That’s what I’m talking about in terms of that re-education, taking a product that people think they know and having them think differently about what shea butter actually is, how it’s made, the woman behind the product.

If you were to ask me, when I felt like Shea Yeleen was successful at our mission, it would be when anytime someone thinks about shea butter, they think about a woman in Africa. That to me is transformation, personalizing it to the woman behind that product. That is how was make that shift.

The second trip that we had, we were on the road for three weeks. The ladies get a chance to experience what I experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer. Here I am in a foreign country learning, being exposed to new things, seeing how things are different from my [experience] growing up. Oftentimes that reverse never happens. It’s always us going somewhere and having our own transformation, versus those same populations having that same opportunity to come and have their own experience. When they went back to Ghana, they did their presentations to the other cooperative members. Learning from your peers is incredibly impactful.

The third thing is the customer being able to hear the story from the woman versus just from me. For me to tell this story is very different from a woman telling her own story. Sometimes you need a spokesperson, but when you’re doing social impact work if you’re only hearing from the founder, that’s a problem. I wanted them to feel like it was their time to shine.

It was also incredibly impactful for them to see me in my entrepreneurial journey. Especially in African countries, people think that America is the land of milk and honey, that everyone is rich, no one is poor. That’s why they struggle so hard to come here, because they have put it on a huge pedestal. It was important for them to see me being a bootstrapping entrepreneur in real time. It builds trust, because as you open up your business to all of your stakeholders and open up how you operate, it allows people to see a part of a business that they typically don’t have the ability to see.

Would you ever be open to expanding that to other ingredients?

I already have a list of the other ingredients. We have the partnership survey to get a sense of how the cooperatives structured, how they operate. Shea Yeleen is separate from the cooperatives, we do not own them. We do a lot of infrastructure development, we build processing facilities, we provide access to capital, but any cooperative or member can take everything that we’ve provided and develop business opportunities with someone else. I want to make sure that they either have already thought through certain systems and operational systems for themselves, and if we can offer support, to help make it more equitable. We have a a code of conduct that folks have to sign off on, like no child labor, there’s a start and end time to a work day, all of that stuff. What is the blueprint that has worked, that can be adjusted and adapted? There are certain values that we want to make sure are maintained with any new country or ingredient that we source.

Do you have any investors or is it self-funded?

I bootstrapped Shea Yeleen for 10 years. I made the shift when we set up the business structure and got a seed round of capital from a company that is no longer in existence, the Pan African Investment Company. Between them, friends and family, and some angel investors, I’ve been able to raise over a million dollars. That’s how we were able to get our brand to Whole Foods, MGM, and build some of our processing centers in Ghana.

Are there any products or projects in the works?

I’m getting more and more excited about the beauty part of my business. Last year, for the first time, I felt that my way of doing business was finally seen. The attention, the 15% pledge, Pull Up or Shut Up…I felt like the industry had a wake up call. I’ve always felt like an outsider to be quite honest. Really great conversations made me very optimistic that a business model like Shea Yeleen can survive and thrive in the beauty industry.

[In terms of] line extensions, I’m looking at is haircare, facial, body oils. Looking at haircare ingredients from Chad and Cameroon, in Central Africa, and also East African shea butter, from South Sudan and northern Uganda, which has a lower melting point than West African Shea. The consistency and the texture would work really well for a facial line. For the ingredient expansions, I am looking at moringa and baobab. It’s fascinating, there’s so much out there, not only in Africa, but also India and various Asian countries. There’s a whole world to natural beauty that we haven’t explored. I love traveling, so I can’t wait to get on a plane and visit these places to learn. Eventually I want to have a very diverse set of products that touch upon various regions in the world. The maker community is not only going to be a digital platform but an actual physical space where indie makers can create products. We have shared kitchens for food entrepreneurs, but we don’t have anything like that for the beauty industry. Imagine if you can get a group of 200 brands working out of shared space, and all of them are aligning with social impact metrics, ethical sourcing. That means more women can be impacted by this business model. For me it’s this whole new chapter of how do we build shared equity? How do we build cooperatives here in the US, that tap into this idea of working with each other versus I gotta get mine?

Beauty as a means to community rather than exploitation or exclusion.

One person said, I don’t think that’s going to work because nobody wants to share their ingredients in their formulas. A lot of these formulas is literally like cooking in the kitchen. It’s not some secret. A lot of the makers that I would be targeting are people who are not necessarily trying to build multi million dollar brands. They’re just trying to do something to get a little bit of money. Typically over 70% of Black owned businesses in America generate less than $30,000 a year. So what if you could create opportunities for people to get to six figures? That’s life changing. I’m trying to tie into the locally made movement. It’s really hard to buy local body care products because a lot of people aren’t making it locally. I see this vision as not just being in DC, but you can license it so that anyone in the world can take our blueprint and do it for their community.

Some of this goes back to sustainability being practiced by a big majority on only surface level. And then there are companies where it’s built into the foundations.

I am of the mindset that if people are given an easy way to do the right thing, they’ll do it. But when you make it hard for them, or they don’t really understand, they’ll do whatever is easiest. This vision I have for the maker space, is to make it super easy for people to just do the right thing. But it’s like people are trying to have a monopoly on empowerment. That’s not how it works, and it takes oxygen and energy away from those of us who are really in the trenches, doing that hard work every day. Part of this evolution of Shea Yeleen is to support other brands who want to align with our mission, and make it easier for them to achieve those same metrics. I’m not trying to hoard impact, I’m trying to create impact. A lot of times, we only want x person to be the good person and everyone else just sucks. We can actually create new models and systems that help everyone do good. I want it to be really empowering people. If I’ve been doing this for 15 years, why wouldn’t I want to make it easier for you? Why would I want you to experience the same hardships I went through? That’s very selfish. Especially when so many other people gave their lives and made sacrifices before me.

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