Social entrepreneur Rahama Wright believes in the restorative powers of shea butter – so much so that she launched Shea Yeleen International, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that supports women-owned cooperatives in West Africa, and provides training on quality assurance and micro-enterprise development.?
Here, we caught up with Wright, who was born in Ghana and currently resides in Washington, DC, to talk about her impressive resume which touts a 2014 appointment to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.
TNJ.com: Tell us about your company, Shea Yeleen International?.
Rahama Wright: In order to understand the issues facing women shea producers in the Sahel, it?s important to know that over 90% of all shea that leaves the continent of Africa is in the form of raw material i.e. the shea seeds. Large seed brokers purchase the seeds for pennies from local women harvesters. These seeds are sent to Europe and Asia for mass production in seed oil refineries utilizing harsh chemicals. The end product called refined shea butter is what makes up the majority of the beauty care industry. The less than 10%?of shea butter produced in Africa is unrefined shea butter and handcrafted by women and much of that amount is consumed locally. The small percent that is brought to the global market as unrefined shea butter, does not provide women with living wages, and is not made in safe working environments. This is where Shea Yeleen plays an important role. Our goal is to help women turn shea seeds into shea butter in a safe working environment; while providing them with living wages.?We accomplish this through capacity building, training, providing access to production tools, and connecting a high end skincare line to the marketplace.
The impact on the lives of the shea butter producers that we work with is central to our business model. We exist to ensure that the highest quality shea butter is brought to market and the lives of shea butter producers are transformed in the process.? The women in the cooperatives we work with are provided with health insurance and production sites that we outfit with electricity and water, along with training on money management and business skills.
TNJ.com: What, if any, were the challenges in getting your business started???
R.W.: I was in my early twenties when I created Shea Yeleen with a meager $6,000, and I have experienced challenges from board development, finding manufactures, and developing a strong team. I?ve been able to navigate these challenges and successes through perseverance, developing key relationships and hard work. ?
TNJ.com: How were you chosen to be on President Obama’s Advisory Council??
R.W.: I completed an extensive application just to be considered for an appointment to the President?s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. I was lucky to be chosen, over two thousand other applicants, to be one of fifteen members. As part of the council, I represent the perspective of a Diaspora entrepreneur focused on women?s economic empowerment through supply chain development in rural Africa. The creation of this council signifies that the Obama administration sees the potential in developing business opportunities between the US and Africa. In 2014, President Obama announced that US companies wouldinvest $14 billion in African businesses, and the role of the council is to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce Pritzker and President Obama on how the US government can play an effective role in trade engagement with and in Africa.
As part of the council, I serve as the Chair of the Marketing and Outreach Subcommittee to develop recommendations on how to improve the perception of doing business in Africa by telling success stories that can influence efforts and encourage continued investment. We are also looking at how the US government can create enabling environments that can support entrepreneurship.
Personally, it has been a great experience serving on the council. I have the opportunity to work with many successful business leaders like Kevon Makell the CEO of SEWW Energy and Dominic Barton the Global Managing Director of McKinsey who have decades of experience and a passion for Africa. ?
TNJ.com: Tell us about your private equity investment with the Pan African Investment Company.??
R.W.: I was fortunate to meet the CEO of PIC Dana Reed the same year I launched Shea Yeleen in Whole Foods Market. I needed capital to help grow the business and after meeting two shea producers from Ghana, she instantly became a supporter of the Shea Yeleen model. In the fall of 2014, I completed a first round of private equity investment with PIC and the investment has been fruitful. I have had the opportunity to work with the PIC team and leverage their resources to develop the business.
TNJ.com: What are your short-term and long-term goals for your company?
R.W.: In the short term, I will continue to expand our product beyond Whole Foods Market stores to other retailers.? Additionally, I would like to invest in a robust e-commerce site and launch distribution of our products in the Canadian market.
In 10 years, Shea Yeleen will be a well-recognized global beauty brand selling in several international markets including Europe, Asia, and Africa. As we grow, the women we work with in Africa will also see a transformation in their lives; not only in their economic development but also in their leadership within their community.
TNJ.com: What are some of the problems you see with global affairs when it comes to the African Diaspora? What needs to be done?
R.W.: Perception is a huge issue. Mainstream media tends to portray the negative issues in Africa often leaving out the diversity in culture, resources, and potential within the Diaspora. Changing the perception issue requires a broader storytelling that gives a new and better narrative as related to Africa. Human capital development on the continent is also important. This is where I believe that Diaspora members who have lived and studied abroad can play a larger role in exchanging knowledge that can improve the capacity of people in Africa to achieve their full potential. I created Shea Yeleen because I knew I could help local shea butter producers bring their products to market through my connections both in Ghana and in the US. More Diaspora members can play similar roles of being connectors and facilitators.
TNJ.com: What’s next for Rahama Wright?
R.W.: I currently serve as an advisor to students in the John Hopkins Social Innovation Lab. I enjoy helping other entrepreneurs who want to change the world through business development. I see myself spending more time working with entrepreneurs and paying it forward.