People 27 March 2017
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.
6 Min Read
I live the pain and stress of being black in America every day: I am a black woman, the mother of a black son, sister to black men, and aunt to my black nephews. I remember what it was like as a young girl to be afraid to go to Howard Beach for fear of being chased out. I know what it's like to walk on Liberty Avenue and be called "nigger" and being so young that I didn't understand what the word meant, I had to ask my mother. I know too well that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a police car pulls up behind you and even though you know you haven't done anything wrong you fear that your life may be in danger from what should be a simple encounter. Like all African Americans, I am tired of this burden.
African Americans have a long history of having to fight for our humanity in America. We have had to fight for freedom, we have had to fight for equality, and we have had to fight for our lives. The fight continues to go on. I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight." When I say this to my white counterparts it can sometimes be uncomfortable because it's clear that they just don't get it. They view it as melodramatic. But it's not. It's part of the black experience, and it is the part of the black experience that black people don't want.
I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight."
While I was out yesterday, passing out PPE and talking to people, a woman asked me, "What is it going to take for this to change?" I told her that I think peaceful protesting is a good start. But it's just the start. We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
This injustice, inequality, and inequity will not spontaneously disappear. It will take bold, outspoken, and fearless leadership to eradicate the systemic racism in our country. We must address the violence at the hands of a police force paid to serve and protect us. We must address the recurring experience of black people being passed over for a promotion and then being asked to train the white person who was hired. We must address the inequities in contract opportunities available to black businesses who are repeatedly deemed to lack the capacity. We must address the disparity in the quality of education provided to black students. We must address the right to a living wage, health care, and sick pay.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system. One that works for all of us. I am running to become the mayor of New York City because I can't assume there's another person who has the courage to do the work that needs to be done to create a fair and just city.
We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
There are some things we may not be able to change in people, but at this moment I think that whether you are black, white, purple, or yellow we all should be looking internally to see what is one thing that you can do to change this dynamic. Here's where we can start:
If we want change, we need a total reform of police departments throughout this country. That is going to require taking a hard look at our requirements to become a police officer, our disciplinary procedures when civilian complaints are filed, and a review of what and how we police. No one deserves to lose their life based upon the accusation of carrying counterfeit cash. We also need to hold police officers accountable for their actions. While it is their duty to protect and serve they should not be above the law. Even at this very moment, police officers are overstepping their boundaries.
If we want change, we have to build a sense of camaraderie between the police and community. A sense of working together and creating positive experiences. We have to be honest about the fact that we haven't allowed that to happen because we have utilized our police department as a revenue-generating entity. We are more concerned with cops writing tickets than protecting and serving. Even during these moments of protest we are witness to the differences made when the police supported the protesters and stood hand in hand with them or took a knee. It resulted in less violence and more peaceful protest. People felt heard; people felt respected; people felt like they mattered.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system.
If we want change, we have to be willing to clean house. And that means that some of you are going to have to step up to the plate and take roles of leadership. In my city alone, there are 35 city council seats that are term-limited in 2021. There are some that aren't termed but maybe their term should be up. Step up to the plate and run. If nothing else it will let our elected officials see that they need to stop being comfortable and do more. We don't need you out in the street taking selfies or reporting the problems to us. We need solutions. We need you in a room implementing policies that will ensure that these things don't continue to happen.
If we want change, we need to support grassroots candidates that are not in corporate pockets, who are not taking PAC money, and who really want to make a difference to their community. We need candidates that know first-hand and can relate to the experiences that many of us are going through.
We are at a pivotal moment. It is inspiring to see people from all races and backgrounds in the streets protesting, standing up for justice, and wanting to see change. We must seize this moment, but we must also be mindful that change requires more.
People often ask me why I decided to run for office? I am running for me. I am running for the little girl that was called nigger on Liberty Avenue. For the woman who has been pulled over for no reason. For my nephew who was consistently stopped during the era of stop and frisk. I am running for your son, your brother, and your nephew. I am running so that the next generation will never have to say, "All my life I had to fight." Because although we won't stop until we see justice and changes that address inequality and inequity effectively, this fight is exhausting.