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.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."