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.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.