Story 5: In Order To Be Successful, You Have To Work Together

Cameron Laird

Cameron Laird

Published on: 22 November, 2021

Rahama Wright

Community, Support & Social Good

We're back with another amazing episode of The Chirp. If you missed our last episode, you missed an entertaining one - we dialed up the humor level to an 11, and enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at what happens at your local auto repair shop when finances become a hot topic of discussion. If you didn't get a chance to check out our previous episode, listen to JoAnn Shilling's tale here - Story 4: I Know I Owe You Money, But I'm On A Secret Mission.

In this episode, we got a chance to speak with Rahama Wright. A voice you may recognize from your TV airwaves. Rahama is the CEO of Shea Yeleen and power-user of Pigeon Loans. She stopped by our studio to tell us about the fascinating world of the African shea butter industry and the financial realities that come into play with running a business in her line of work.

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This Episode In A Nutshell

Community and doing things for one another is an ethos many of us can identify with. From book clubs, to sports teams, to villages in Africa - people coming together to achieve a common goal and advance one another is one of the purest forms of humanity we experience. In this episode, we got a chance to talk with Rahama, creator of Shea Yeleen, to hear about the financial underpinnings of what powers the shea butter industry. From stories about brilliant businesswomen building together to the shared sense of financial responsibility instilled in many African communities, listen to Rahama Wright as she walks us through her journey with Shea Yeleen - a game-changing beauty brand dedicated to producing social good for women.

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Have a story to tell and want to be on our podcast? Let us know by sending an email to claird@pigeonloans.io.

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Audio Transcript of Story 5: In Order To Be Successful, You Have To Work Together

Opening Monologue

Welcome, everyone. The Chirp is coming to you from Ireland this week as I am back home, visiting family. Will that stop us chatting to amazing guests and getting you your new story? Absolutely not!

I really enjoyed this interview that you're about to listen to. Every guest we have on The Chirp has experienced a lot of success in their life but this next guest's interview, she's an entrepreneur, she's a humanitarian, she's the CEO of her own company - and she's also a really, really, really nice person.

Rahama Wright is the founder of Shea Yeleen, which is a company that produces shea products. Rahama's business practices and approach differentiate from so many other companies that you know, offer similar products, and I won't ruin the story, but it was a very captivating listen on my end, and I'm sure you will all feel the same way.

We finally found time to talk, as we are approaching the holiday season, which is Rahama's busiest time of year, especially this year. And so it's great to have a chat with her and get to know her story, her journey, and you know, we barely even scratched the surface as well.

There's so much more that we could have discussed. This story is compelling. It's educational, it's heartwarming, and you know, even on her travels in Africa, Rahama experienced money affecting relationships in different ways and in different cultures.

So give it a listen. Hope you like it and enjoy!

Interview

Cameron Laird

Rahama. Thank you so much for joining me today. I know that you are absolutely flat out at the moment with um - I think you have two pop-ups at the moment with Shae Yeleen don't you?

Rahama Wright

Yes, we do have two pop-ups. The holiday season is always our busiest. I'm not complaining. It's great to be busy, but I really appreciate the invitation to participate in the podcast. Thanks for inviting me.

Cameron Laird

No, it's a pleasure to have you. And when researching you and Shea Yeleen and you know, all of the amazing things you've done in your professional career I was very keen to chat to you, I suppose, you know Shea Yeleen - I'd love you to kind of explain that to me first, as far as what it is like to me, it kind of a culmination of this long journey that you've had in your life.

So can you tell us at first, a bit about Shea Yeleen and then how did you get up to this point where, you know, you get to have really busy Christmases, which is great. 

Rahama Wright

Yeah, no, absolutely. So Shea Yeleen is a DC-based social impact beauty brand. I started after serving in the Peace Corps and we have a very simple mission.

We help women in cooperatives in West Africa, Ghana create Shea Butter products. So a natural product that grows in their communities. And then we connect those products to the US marketplace by creating a line of cleansers and moisturizers using Shea Butter. And by doing that, we increase women's income five times their country has minimum wage, giving them a living wage for the very first time.

And so our whole mission and model is really looking at strengthening and creating ethical supply chains that incorporate fairly the labor of African women and giving them the ability to overcome systemic poverty that has been in their communities for decades.

Cameron Laird

Do you kind of receive backlash against you know, local government in terms of, you know, empowering these women, some more charges to have your full support, or do you have their full support rather? 

Rahama Wright

No, I've never received backlash. And I think that everyone wants their communities to be successful.

Everyone wants to be able to send their kids to school and have access to food, medicine. I don't think that is a desire that is only for particular groups. It's a human desire. And so I've, I've actually had the opportunity to see women in our communities that we partner with and work with, be able to engage their local leaders, to support them, and help them.

And so it's been a positive experience for me and also the women that we work with - we've had the opportunity for women, for example - to come to theUS and visit whole food stores that are carrying our products, then get an opportunity to see the market side of the supply chain, which is something that they typically don't have access to and share their stories to our customers and experience the ability to use their voices in a larger platform.

Imagine, you know, never traveling to the capital of your country, but now you're in New York City or Boston or Washington DC, and you're in front of an audience and sharing why this product is so important to your livelihood and the lives of your children. And so - to answer your question, I've never received any backlash. Sometimes people also ask me if the men, you know, their husbands get upset and I know it actually reduces tension in the home because now the man doesn't have the full burden, the full financial burden of caring for their family. And it lessens the load in the, in the household.

And so it's been, it's been a positive experience, not a negative one. 

Cameron Laird

Fantastic. And kind of what brought you to this moment? I know you, you, you spend time in the Peace Corps and you know, you, you saw so many things going on in such an illustrious career, but what, what kind of led you to this moment and to, to begin Shea Yeleen.

Rahama Wright

Yeah, in order to understand my entrepreneurial journey, you first have to get some insight into my upbringing. So I grew up in upstate New York in a very small town outside of Syracuse. And that's where my dad's family was from. And my mom's family is West African from Ghana. And so I grew up in a household where we talked about international issues and international relations. We talked about African affairs and African issues. I was able to see firsthand the differences, in my mom's upbringing and the differences in my dad. So for example, my dad had a master's degree. My mom had a sixth-grade education because she wasn't allowed to go to school and she had a lot of issues and challenges growing up as a girl child in a very conservative family that wanted her to marry young and just have kids and not necessarily have a career or work for example.

So seeing that and recognizing very, very early on that the life that I had was incredibly different and full of opportunity in comparison to my mom's life and my mom's experience always made me interested in African issues. And so I knew that I wanted to do something in Africa when I grew up, I just didn't know what. And initially, I was going to work at the state department. I wanted to become a foreign service officer.

And so that's what I studied in college. I studied international affairs, political science. I interned at the state department. I interned at the American embassy in Burkina Faso. And so I was on the path. I was eventually just gonna, you know, take the foreign service exam and then get a post somewhere in the world.

But when I did the Peace Corps, it really changed my trajectory because for the very first time I'm living in a community in a rural community and seeing firsthand and experiencing similar things that my mom shared. Her, what her growing up experience was like and being, and seeing so many women in my community, really not having access to just basic necessities.

I worked at a community health center and women would come into my health center and they often could not pay for medicine. They couldn't pay for the medical services and it just really struck me that there are so many limitations and it's all-around financial capability. And so I started researching income-generating activities, and I learned about Shea Butter.

I knew about Shea Butter, but I really didn't know that it really touched the lives so deeply of so many women in Sub-Saharan Africa. It's a product that grows in a tree. So it's a natural resource and is found in roughly 21 countries and approximately 16 million women across those countries in Africa are affected by the supply chain.

And so as I started seeing how women made it, you know, I've lived in it, lived in the community. I watched them make it, I watched them use it and everything from putting it on babies, to using it as a cooking oil, to putting it on cuts and bruises and you know, pretty much it was an all-purpose product you use it for everything.

And I saw that what they were making was very different from what I experienced in the US. When I would purchase a product from that had Shea in it, it wasn't the same.

Cameron Laird

The end product.

Rahama Wright

Yeah, it wasn't the same product and they weren't making money from it. And it just shocked me, honestly. I was like, why? When I can buy Shea Butter in the US for like $30, $20.

Why are these women unable to afford 25 cents, afford something that costs a dollar? And so that just kind of took me down this path of wanting to learn what more, right. Because it was shocking. And as I started to learn more, talk to more women, and just kind of connect the dots between the challenges they were having locally and how that translated into, you know, the global Shea Butter supply chain.

I saw so many disconnects. I saw so many issues around training capacity, building around access to processing centers and production equipment, quality, and really training them on quality metrics. And also to access to capital - how are they going to take these amazing raw materials and transform them into a value-added product?

And so, as I started learning about the issues on the production and the start of the supply chain, I then recognized that a lot of women, even when they make Shea Butter, they're unable to get it into the market. For a variety of reasons. Largely most Shea Butter we see in the marketplace is not even made in Africa, even though the raw material grows exclusively in Africa.

And so through, throughout the course of that experience of really identifying the key issues these women were facing. And then when I moved back to the US I moved to DC I wanted to do something. I wanted to connect the dots and help these women take their raw material. Turn it into a great product and then connect that product to consumers.

Cameron Laird

Fantastic. Let's, it's such a great story and it's just so it's so empowering what you've done. And going back to when you were growing, you know, or, sorry not growing up. But when you were living with these communities, you mentioned how well at the start that the, you know - do you man care that the woman is, were earning more on use?

Absolutely not. It's refreshing. It takes the load off, it's it? It alleviates the pressure. Can we just talk a little bit more about - did you see that being the prime example and what was your experience about the relationships of these families that you were, you know, living in the community with?

How did you know - money kind of exist within the community? How was it perceived? 

Rahama Wright

Yeah, no, that's a great question. And what I observed is that for the most part, the women that were in the communities and in the cooperatives that we were partnering with were head of household. There is a common practice of polygamy.

And so even though they might be married their husbands might not be living in the homes, but them because they have multiple wives. And, and also the financial burden of caring for multiple families. So I honestly saw a frequently a woman would be in charge of her household.

She'd be the one taking care of the kids and trying to figure out, you know, how to pay for their needs. And so part of the reason too is this issue, or this misconception that, you know, men are going to get upset or, you know, have jealousy or not want their wives to make any money - I just never saw that.

And I'm sure it exists. You know, of course, I don't know every single family, I'm sure it exists, but for the ones that I saw firsthand, I did not see that challenge or issue. And so when you talk about this relationship with money and how it shows up in the community, the other reality is when women have increased access to income, it's been proven by studies that it improves the entire community.

And so there's this very special relationship and opportunity to address systemic issues. By financially empowering women. And so, you know, that relationship is, is closely tied to when a woman has money. She's 100% investing that money in her children. She's trying to figure out how they can get to a better school, how she can pay for better nutrition for them, and give them access to health services.

And I will also give an example of how the women in our cooperatives, they call them Susus, and essentially it is a community savings and lending program. And so that increased income also trickles to other people in the community. And so if you're a part of the Susu and you put money into the pot, it rotates in terms of who actually has access to that pot.

And because the communities are so small there's a responsibility to deliver, so you can't take money from the pot and like not pay it back when you're supposed to. So there's a certain level of trust already that is built into that community. And so when we see our women in the community, in the cooperatives that we work with, when they get that five times multiplier, it's not only affecting their household but affects other households in the community.

Cameron Laird

That's amazing. It's such a beautiful system as well, and brilliant. And I suppose going back to Shea Yeleen, obviously, things are mental at the moment. As you've told me Christmas, coming up - two pop-ups. Congratulations on all your success.

What are your plans? You know you know, back in Africa in terms to, to grow, you know, the source of your product and what do you look, what do you hope for in the future in terms of the work that you are doing at personally back in Africa?

What's the plan. 

Rahama Wright

Yeah. So, I mean, I do have to say we're emerging, not emerging. We're still in the midst of all the issues and challenges of COVID-19 and we certainly, you know, we're a small business. We have not escaped the impact at all. We actually lost about 70% of revenue - almost overnight because of a lot of the retail, I didn't talk too much about how we sell our products, but we do sell our products through retail partnerships. Macy's, Whole Foods, MGM - we had a retail location at a, at an airport right outside of DC. And prior to COVID-19 almost all of our sales were generated through in-person. And so meaning we were doing a lot of demos, do you know, MGM, they were using it in their spa. And so they were using it, for manicures, pedicures, massages, et cetera.

So everything that required seeing someone physically. And with COVID of course, you know, the travel industry was impacted. Entertainment was impacted. So a lot of those channels were shut down and it affected us a lot. And then of course, with travel bans and closed their borders for a few months and issued mandatory shelters in place to protect their citizens and to make sure the virus didn't spread.

And so that meant, you know, we were impacted on the supply side. We were impacted on the market side. So our revenue dipped tremendously. And so we're building back from that, you know, I survived. The business survived, I should say, through. PPP loans. And I applied to so many programs last year it was just like survival mode. Like how can I keep it afloat?

And so we're kind of still in the midst of figuring all of that out and, and, and building back. And have been very fortunate. We got a phenomenal grant from Anastasia Beverly Hills which is a very large beauty brand based in California.

And they supported us with a grant. We also got some local grants in Washington, DC through the economic development office. And so that kind of put us in a position, or I should say me in a position to really think strategically long-term what kind of impact can I make with this brand? How are we able to grow from the communities that we work in to not only in Ghana but other places in Africa, on the continent.

Cameron Laird

Yeah.

Rahama Wright

And so that made me realize that one brand can only do so much. However, if we have many brands with the same ethos and values around women and economic development and improving and building ethical supply chains that means we can work in more communities. We can work across countries. We can work not only in one supply chain, we can work in others. So other plant-based skincare ingredients.

So to answer your question, I know this was a very long way to get to your answer to your question.

Cameron Laird

No it's beautiful.

Rahama Wright

What the future holds is creating a community of other companies like Shea Yeleen and in so in doing that, we're able to impact more lives through our supply chain.

So for example, if I can help other people create 10 Shea Yeleen's, right - 10 brands like failing, that means collectively we can build more sustainability within our supply chains. And so I, I think COVID-19 really, you know, made me realize that this is the work of many brands and I, because I've been doing this for so long, I'm actually in a, in a really great position to lead other brands to really think thoughtfully about how they make their products - and thoughtfully about the impact within their supply chains.

So I'm developing a community here, it'll start in, in DC, and we're actually building out a shared manufacturing facility where it will prove out it will provide technical support and assistance to early-stage beauty brands, providing them access to all the things that they need.

So that they can build out brands similar to Shea Yeleen so that we can do more impact together. And I'm really excited about this. We're working with the DC government through their economic development office. They gave us a $640,000 grant to build out this idea. And we have other funding coming down the pipeline to help us launch and hopefully scale and open up next summer.

Cameron Laird

That's hugely exciting. Well, congratulations on that. And the continued success that you're having with Shae Yeleen. Usually, we have a lot of entrepreneurs on and I always ask the question, you know, what advice would you pass on from your own experience with being an entrepreneur? But I think I'd like to tailor it a little bit more.

I mean, what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who wants to be part of your shared manufacturing facility? So someone like yourself, who's, who's done it from you know, all the way from Ghana to, to here now - other people that want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give? 

Rahama Wright

Yeah to be part of this community, reach out, reach out to me, reach out to me via LinkedIn, shoot me a note through, through our website.

And the advice I would give is start thinking about social impact now. Don't think about it 10 years from now, 15 years from now - think about it today. I think that's really important because so many people. Yes, building a successful sustainable, profitable, profitable business is important. Knowing, you know how you're going to make money all of that is important, but sometimes I think people have this assumption that being a social impact business. It's something that you do after you're already successful. It's not something that can become successful from day one. And I disagree.

I think that social impact businesses are not only the business models of the future, but they're the business models of the present.

We need as many social enterprises as possible because businesses have an incredible responsibility to use their power for good. And not after they've made a hundred million dollars or IPO at 1 billion or whatever it's today. And so that's my advice and we're ready to build that. We're ready to build the community that has the same ethos and value.

And instead of competing on social good. I believe that working together, we can create more good.

I think that if COVID-19 and the experience that the global community has had collectively for the, for one moment in time, we were all experiencing the same thing. Every human on this planet.

Cameron Laird

It's crazy to think that.

Rahama Wright

And I think what that means to teach us is our survival depends on each other. Literally, we've seen it and we have to let go of the old way of thinking that in order to be successful, you have to be competitive. I believe in order to be really successful, you have to work together. You have to meet each other and have similar values.

And those of us who have the same values partnering with each other is just like a no-brainer. And so we can't get to a world that reflects our values if we are not doing it hand in hand. And that is kind of my awakening that I want to commit the next, you know, decade to building. And the beautiful part of it is that it's no longer just about one brand, but in building better brands who have that same ethos, we're now going to be able to impact the lives of thousands of women.

And that gets me so excited because that's why I started Shea Yeleen to begin with.

Cameron Laird

Everything you sent was so well put and it’s so refreshing to see such a successful businesswoman like yourself. Like you said, being able to talk about business in such a selfless way and in such an inclusive way as well. It's just, it's beautiful to hear.

If people are looking to get in touch and, you know, join your shared manufacturing facility, or just learn more about you and Shea Yeleen in general, what's the best way to contact you? 

Rahama Wright

Yup. So they can go to our website, www.sheayeleen.com. So it's sheayeleen.com and all of our social platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn is all Shea Yeleen and they also can reach me via LinkedIn - Rahama Wright. I have an Instagram and Twitter as well.

Cameron Laird

That's fantastic. Listen, Rahama. I really appreciate you joining me. I know that you're very busy with your Christmas period. So really appreciate the time that you gave us here today, and I wish you all the best for this Christmas, but also the future of Shea Yeleen in general.

Rahama Wright

Yes. Thank you so much for having me. We didn't even go into the benefits of Shea Butter, but that means I need to come back so I can talk about what's so amazing about this product. 

Cameron Laird

Absolutely we'll do it. We'll do a second episode when the madness has died down.

Outro Monologue

Really interesting to hear about Ghanaian family life, the familiarity of polygamy, and as a result, women being the leaders in the households. While men can have numerous families, women are in charge of their own and in charge of the household. So Rahama empowering these women by paying them properly for the work they do allows these women to have a happy house, and therefore have a happy community as well. There's a beautiful domino effect.

Also, love the Susu concept as well! An informal loan club where a member or a household contributes money every week or month and then, you know, each member or household will on rotation receive a lump sum as well, so it's not so much that there are some paying more than others - you're contributing what you contribute, and you get it all back in a lump sum!

So a great way to take care of each other, but also really smart as well.

And Rahama, rightly so, called me out on my lack of questioning on the actual benefits of her product, the Shea Butter itself. I was so obsessed with her story and how she got there, that we didn't actually dive into the butter itself. 

But that is indicative of the conversation we had and the amount of that we didn't cover, like her being on the Presidential Advisory Council of Doing business In Africa, her numerous TV spots, and you know she was on MSNBC pitching Shea Yeleen as well on television - I thought that was pretty cool. And, as you can tell from her eloquent and confident way of speaking, she's a very talented public speaker.

But we'll have her back again, she agreed to touch base after the Christmas madness - in 2022 I’ll take her up on her offer and I'll get to chat to her on all the things I wanted to talk to her about. 

So hope this episode was enjoyable for you as it was for me. I love doing this podcast and speaking to people like Rahama. It's the beauty of podcasting. Educating others through natural conversation and at the same time the beauty of being the host is being able to educate yourself as well. 

So that's it for this week. As per usual, give us a like, follow, subscribe, comment, review. Please get in touch via email if you want to talk about the show or come on the show. We'd love to hear from you.

And of course, we'll see you again in 2 weeks. An until then, take care.