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.