Rahama Wright, a first generation Ghanian, was no stranger to the difficulties that encumber women's lives in Africa. Growing up, her mother would tell her stories of how different her childhood was versus Rahama's in upstate New York. “She wasn't allowed to got to school because she was a girl," Wright reflects, “and her parents wanted her to marry very young."
Off the back of her mother's history, Rahama decided her future would be in Africa, but didn't know what that would look like. She then interned in Burkina Faso for the U.N, and joined the peace corp out in a rural village in Mali. It was there where she first truly understood the realities of work for women in Africa, and how crude the conditions were in comparison especially with the U.S, and how little the pay was for the tremendous work load they bore.
Having realized during her internship in Burkina Faso that Shea butter originates in Africa, she saw a gap in the market and an idea came to fruition as she entered the peace corp - “I began formulating my ideas for the business during my time in the peace corp," a business that would come to centre around the women of Ghana and giving them a means to live, comfortably.
“I always knew I wanted to do something in Africa but didn't know what exactly"
“As a peace corp volunteer I started doing research about how women make money," she remembers, “I was so fuelled by this desire to do something to help these women." With that, and a very shaky business plan in place, Wright began her non-profit. “The benefit of being young was not thinking things through - I just dove in. I Initially structured Shea Yaleen as a non-profit and would talk to anyone who would give me the time of day."
Wright's work ethic and brazen approach to business would come to serve her well over the next eight years, but having utilized “all of her resources" there was a worry that all of her hard work might not pay off. “It wasn't until i realized that someone in their twenties could not get foundational support that I start looking for other means of investing. I did a pivot and start looking at impact investors."
She had taken a long look at her work and decided to her the company into a for-profit. On this, she says“For anyone that wants to start a business you have to look at your idea, see where the weak points are and pivot," and readily admits, “it's been very beneficial to turn it to a for-profit."
It was then that her product was picked up by grocery store giant Whole Foods and things began to change for the brand - “8 years after i started I got my products into whole foods and then into MGM resorts." Surprisingly, having approached those 8 years with little to nothing but a youthful mind and a dedication, it was after she landed these big accounts that “doubt started creeping in later on when things were actually working - not in the early days."
“I want to transform the lives of the women we work with"
The process of production centers around women - “we work with women in northern Ghana giving them a living wage." Shea Yaleen is pivotal in these villages for women. They can afford a health card, menial groceries that were unattainable before. Wright attributes this development to what she saw on the ground - “you can't change anything in life if you're not willing to experience someone else's life." This is another element of Wright's mission whereby she hopes to change the perception of African culture in the west - “we want to transform what we believe what can come out of Africa. Too often we have all of these negative stories coming out of there."
Wright is no stranger to her production plants in Ghana and travels there plenty of times throughout the year, but also has three main points of contact on the ground who are trusted with the day-to-day maintenance of production.
Looking forward, Shea Yaleen hopes to expand its ingredient base, and Wright looks to the Ivory Coast and Senegal for further expansion of the brand. And After having reaped the benefits of her partnership with MGM, she is also looking to further her presence in the luxury skincare market.
“For us to do a pivot and be in a beauty panel, where people are coming to treat themselves, and they're using a luxury product - that's where we need to be." She aims off the back of this success to see her products on the shelves of Nordstrom and Sephora.“Then we'd want to do a line extension that is more mass market looking at Target - another price point where the customer is only looking to spend 10 dollars. That's about two and a half years down the line right now." In the meantime, her focus is the luxury market, and global expansion. She has seen growth in their Canadian and British consumer base, and will look to further their international presence in the coming months.
SWAAY asked Rahama how she thinks the current political climate might affect the brand, to which she was admittedly worried, “the administration has already made it quite clear they're going to penalize companies that import products and the main ingredient to all of our products is an imported ingredient."
However, she chuckles, “the only caveat is that we are under a congressional trading agreement called the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, which was renewed under Obama we have a bit of protective coverage because all ingredients that are part of AGOA come into the U.S care free."
Wright's devotion and emotional attachment to not only her product but the place behind it and her roots there, makes Shea Yaleen a uniquely special brand. As with most entrepreneurs, the drive for success is overwhelming here, but also the drive to place her workers within an environment where they can flourish is extremely prevalent. It's clear that the women in Ghana have a lotto be thankful for having Wright as their boss, and we at SWAAY are very much looking forward to what Wright and her female troops will go on to do next.
New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.
Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:
"I didn't think you'd come back."
"You must feel so guilty."
"You missed a lot while you were out."
To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.
Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.
It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship
How to be a good Momtor?
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.