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.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.