Many people want to make the world a better place, but Ghanaian native Rahama Wright has actually set her dream of empowering women in West Africa into action.
Wright’s company, Shea Yeleen, sells beauty products made by female shea butter producers in cooperatives in West Africa. The company has given women in cooperatives the opportunity to take their local resources and bring them to a global marketplace. Wright, 35, ensures that the shea butter producers are paid fair wages, increasing their original earnings by approximately 130 percent since joining Shea Yeleen.
“I am not in the business of selling shea butter; honestly that is the boring part for me. I am in [the] business of helping women become financially independent so that they can contribute to their families and to the future of their children. This is what excites me most about my work, the strong relationships I have with the shea butter producers,” Wright said.
Wright noticed the poverty that shea producers in Africa experience firsthand, and recognized that the demand for high quality shea butter products in the Western world could be an opportunity for them to gain financial stability.
“After serving at a community clinic in Dio, Mali, as a Peace Corps volunteer [from] 2002-2004 I was struck by the high levels of poverty facing women in my village. Many women would come to the clinic unable to purchase medicine, so I began researching income-generating activities for women,” she recalled.
“I learned that shea butter production was one of very few income-generating activities for women in the Sahel region of Africa. However, I was surprised to learn that although shea butter had become a popular natural ingredient in many global skin and hair care products, traditional women shea producers were stuck in a cycle of poverty,” Wright added. “The connection between shea production and women was the reason I was drawn to shea butter, I had a desire to figure out how to help women financially benefit from the production, sale, and distribution of shea butter products.”
Wright’s strong desire to help shea butter producers also stemmed from her own culture. “My roots as a Ghanaian-American are central to how I see the world,” she explained. “Part of the reason I felt a close connection to women shea butter producers is because many of them share similarities with my mom, who made many sacrifices to give my siblings and I a better life. For example, my mom, growing up in Northern Ghana, was not allowed to go to school because she was a girl.”
Wright was motivated to create a solution for the shea butter producers, but had very little knowledge about the business world. She gained knowledge by conducting her own research and seeking out resources. “I knew very little about creating a social enterprise and learned by researching business models, leveraging resources like the SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives] program of the SBA [Small Business Administration], and working with pro-bono consultants through programs like Net Impact. I also relied heavily on Google and was able to find many of my initial suppliers of items like caps, jars, labels, printers, through the Internet,” she said.
Wright explained that she self-funded Shea Yeleen during its first seven years of business. She worked multiple jobs at a time to support both herself and her company. “One job would pay for my personal expenses and the other would pay for Shea Yeleen expenses,” she said.
“I would also host small fundraisers and sometimes borrow money from family members to pay for specific projects like building a storage facility for the shea seeds or training. It was very hard and unsustainable to operate in this way,” she continued.
Shea Yeleen began and remained a 501(c)(3) nonprofit company for seven years. In 2012, Wright created Shea Yeleen Health and Beauty LLC, a for-profit sister organization that works in tandem with the nonprofit company.
“After seven years I learned that it was increasingly challenging as a small start-up nonprofit to generate enough grant funding to pursue my mission,” Wright said. “I also realized that the key to addressing the issues facing shea butter producers was to help them bring high quality products to the U.S. market. I decided to create a for-profit organization in addition to the nonprofit to address these two challenges of funding constraints and market penetration
“The nonprofit is responsible for all activities related to cooperative support including training, capacity building and providing access to production tools. The LLC focuses solely on the marketing distribution and sale of the high quality unrefined shea butter line created with the shea sourced from the cooperatives. The relationship has to be at arms length to protect the 501(c)(3) status, however, we have lawyers who are working with us on ensuring we are operating within the legal requirements,” she continued.
Wright explained that the creation of the LLC allowed her to secure impact investment funding from the Pan African Investment Company, a private equity fund based in New York City, in October 2013.
All of Shea Yeleen’s handmade soaps, body balms, body butters, and lip balms are chemical and preservative free, and they come in a variety of scents. The products are sold on the Shea Yeleen website, www.SheaYeleen.com, and on the shelves of Whole Foods Market stores.
“The first two times I pitched to Whole Foods I was rejected. In 2012, I learned about a program called YouthTrade that supported social entrepreneurs under the age of 35 to bring products to market. Their partner was Whole Foods. YouthTrade only certified businesses, not nonprofits, so having [an] LLC was essential,” Wright said.
“I applied and was accepted, which allowed me to pitch a third time to Whole Foods. The third time was a charm! Shea Yeleen launched in seven North Atlantic Whole Foods stores in December of 2012 and now we are in 57 stores in the North East, Mid Atlantic, and North Atlantic regions,” she continued.
Shea Yeleen’s also brings shea producers to the United States by hosting speaking tours. “The women are able to share why shea butter is important in their communities as well as the impact our business model is having on their lives,” Wright explained.
When asked about her plans for the future of her business, Wright said she seeks to expand the size of the company and the reach of its products. “Over the next year we will be building a national sales force in the 11 regions of Whole Foods Market, revamping our website to include a robust e-commerce platform in addition to telling more stories of the shea producers we partner with,” she added.
“Over the next three years our goal is to expand from national distribution of our product line to global distribution including African markets. Long term goals include impacting the lives of at least 10,000 women shea producers,” she continued.
Wright’s success has not come without struggles, however. She explained that she encounters business obstacles because of her gender and race.
“Don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to do what you believe in,” she said.
“When you don’t achieve a goal the first time, second, or even seventh time, try again. Learn from mistakes and don’t beat yourself up when you make a mistake,” Wright added. “Areas you will need to have a good proficiency in include public speaking, developing and creating financial statements, and developing and managing teams. Be persistent, be passionate, and be confident that as you walk on your path and in your purpose everything will fall in place.”
Christina Raus is a creative writing student who plugs her ears with her fingers whenever anybody tries to tell her that a degree in writing is good for nothing more than to guarantee her a lifelong, fulltime job as a barista. She works as a tutor at the Western New England University Writing Center, where she empowers students of all academic disciplines to express themselves through written language. After graduating with her Bachelor of Arts degree, Christina intends to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing.