Being an entrepreneur means being comfortable with taking risks. There are few safety nets when you are the sole founder of a business and the buck most certainly stops with you.
Rahama Wright knew this when she founded Shea Yeleen, a social enterprise that sells ethically produced shea butter products and empowers the women in Africa who make them. With 15 years of experience behind her and numerous highs and lows in that time, even Rahama was taken aback by the devastating, overnight impact of Covid-19 on small businesses such as hers.
“You cannot plan for the entire political, social and economic system to crumble,” she says from her home in Washington D.C., which now doubles as her office. “I do think folks are doing the best they can, but right now we’re pretty much at the mercy of what political leaders are going to do – and we’re at the mercy of this virus.”
Even in the face of a challenge that seems unimaginable just a few weeks ago, the president and CEO of Shea Yeleen is determined to use it to her advantage. “I think this is the time to take a step back, this is a time to reflect,” she tells Invest for Good. “It’s a great opportunity to see where the weak areas are in the business and then to shore up resources.” Rahama is, therefore, reaching out to other entrepreneurs, advisors and leaders, to keep the lines of communication open and remind herself that she’s not alone.
It’s a sombre moment in what has been an extraordinary journey. Shea Yeleen wouldn’t exist today were it not for Rahama’s belief that she could right a social injustice. She saw this injustice for herself when she travelled to Mali to live in a rural village as part of the Peace Corps. It was something she had wanted to do because of her mother’s Ghanaian background: “I really craved knowing where I came from. I heard the stories of how my mom grew up, knowing it was incredibly different from how I grew up.”
None of those stories, however, truly prepared her for the reality of being there in person. Working in a community healthcare centre in a rural setting, she was frustrated that many women couldn’t afford basic medicine for their children. “I felt like I was hampered in my ability to help people in my community,” the CEO recalls, “because what they needed was income so that they could make their own decisions and live the life they chose for themselves.”
Rahama started to research how women in Sub-Saharan Africa bring in a basic level of income and that’s how she first learned about shea butter’s origins in Africa, where the shea tree exclusively grows. Holding up a shea nut between her fingers, the social entrepreneur explains the labour-intensive process that transforms the nut into what eventually becomes a butter used in skin products or, by locals, for cooking. It takes days of picking, crushing, roasting, grinding and boiling. For this back-breaking work, women – who are the traditional harvesters – only typically make about $2 a day.
This is something that Rahama recognised as grossly unfair. “The bulk of the billions of dollars made within the supply chain aren’t trickling down to these women,” she points out. It’s estimated that revenue generated from the shea butter market could be worth upwards of $2.9bn by 2025. It’s on the rise, partly because consumers in the United States and Europe are seeking out products that they perceive to be more natural; it’s also a popular alternative to cocoa butter in the confectionary industry.
Yet, for many of the shea producers who are so critical to the supply chain, it's a bleak existence. Rahama’s idea was simply to pay these women a living wage to produce shea butter, which she could later sell in the United States and elsewhere. “That’s why I wanted to create Shea Yeleen – to connect the dots between these women in these local communities and the global marketplace.”
The women she partners with in Ghana earn about $10 a day, money that gives them more choices and financial freedom. “We’re not trying to create shea producers for the rest of their lives. That’s not what we’re trying to do,” Rahama explains. “We’re giving them the opportunity to take a local resource, benefit financially from it and grow into something else in their lives.”
Another aim is to make the African women more visible to the people who buy these products abroad. “A lot of times people don’t know where their products are coming from,” Rahama notes. “I didn’t know anything about shea, I had no idea it even came from Africa.” She believes that consumers don’t necessarily choose products that create inequality in the world, but that our global system is set up to make it easy to choose those products.
Founded in 2005, it took many years of hard work and grafting to get Shea Yeleen to where it is today. There was literally no money to get it off the ground, the founder says, adding that her best resource was her mind: “Your ability to learn, to organise resources, to become an expert on whatever topic. This is what you have in the beginning.”
Shea Yeleen first started out as a nonprofit but became a social enterprise eight years ago, a change in direction that allowed Rahama to scale up the business, be more competitive and approach investors. The CEO admits that she didn’t get her financial strategy in place from the start, a lesson that she would advise other entrepreneurs to heed. It’s more important to know when you will break even, she advises, than to dive into marketing.
Eventually she was able to raise over $1m for her business after pitching numerous times. With some of that investment, Rahama was able to launch a line that includes a body balm, lip balm, soaps and a cream. These are stocked by Whole Foods; a few, natural independent outlets; and there’s a spa line available (when it reopens) at the MGM Grand Hotel.
Her experience of fundraising taught her that it’s primarily about relationships, in addition to having a solid business plan and a strategy around growth. Like many female founders, she does think it’s harder for women to be taken seriously and access capital. “It shouldn’t only be VC funding, we need more grants, we need more gap funding, we need access to debt capital at better terms and we need policy-makers and decision-makers to be willing to take more risks when it comes to investing in people of colour and women, period.”
Along with successfully securing capital, another of her business highs was bringing a group of African shea producers to the United States to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. They gathered at the National Mall in Washington D.C. and demonstrated their traditional practices in front of a world stage.
For Rahama’s mother, it was the moment she finally felt that her daughter was onto something. Initially, she wasn’t impressed with the business idea, despite the positive impact on women’s lives. “I think parents generally just want to make sure that you can take care of yourself, and I was making very high-risk choices with very little financial gain … She was very driven to make sure her kids had a better life than she did.”
Those high-risk choices are now returning to the foreground, however. “There have been some incredible highs and there are also incredible lows. Right now, with the coronavirus, it’s affected everything, so it’s kind of a rollercoaster,” the CEO acknowledges. A planned trip to Africa has been postponed and Shea Yeleen’s supply chain is currently interrupted, with retail sales affected.
But Rahama tries hard to keep some kind of perspective on the current state of affairs, pointing out that brands aren’t created in years, they’re created in decades. “I always try to make sure I am realistic about the results, the impact that I can make within a certain time, especially given the fact that women of colour receive the smallest percentage of investment funding.
Her approach is to focus on her “mental spiritual health” to help get her through, and she currently has a team of five people that she trusts and relies on. “Many people aren’t built to be entrepreneurs,” the businesswoman observes. “It has a lot of mental wear and tear because of that up-and-down cycle and you have to have inner strength.” She is calling on some of that strength now, but these are unprecedented times. “What this has shown is how vulnerable small businesses are to external forces. It’s hitting Main Street harder than anywhere else.”
You can learn more about Shea Yeleen and its products by visiting the website.