ll archives: Shea Yeleen International's Rahama Wright
Through her beauty brand Shea Yeleen International, social entrepreneur Rahama Wright works to promote sustainable economic development and empower women in rural West Africa. Through organizing and training women owned cooperatives to produce, market, and sell high quality shea butter, Shea Yeleen International provides women in rural sub-Saharan African communities opportunities to be self-sufficient.
Current location: Washington, D.C.
Where are you from? Upstate NY by way of Tamale, Ghana.
Education: BA in International Relations from SUNY Geneseo
Business & Formal Title: Shea Yeleen International, Founder and CEO
What is Shea Yeleen International and how did it come to be? My vision is to give thousands of women in rural West Africa the opportunity to benefit from their labor through the production and sale of high quality shea butter. I was inspired to create Shea Yeleen International, Inc. (SYI) after witnessing a woman in a Malian village crying over her baby after learning he was gravely ill and she was unable to purchase medicine to treat him. I was 23 years old and struck to my core. I began to research income generating activities for women living in rural Africa. I identified shea butter production as a potential leading income source for women because it has become a mainstream product within the international body care industry. The mission is two fold: to promote sustainable economic development and empower women in rural West Africa through organizing and training women owned cooperatives to produce, market, and sell high quality shea butter and educate consumers in the U.S. about natural body care products and fair trade. Initially I started Shea Yeleen as a 501c3 nonprofit in 2005, and in 2012 I launched Shea Yeleen Health and Beauty, LLC a for profit sister organization.
What did you do before? I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa serving as Community Health Educator. I spent most of my days at the community health center helping to weigh and vaccinate babies for their monthly check ups. I also started a cooking class for women visiting the health center to make nutritious porridges for their weaning babies. These cooking classes were a fun way for the women to spend time while they were waiting to get their babies checked out. During my Peace Corps service I started learning about shea butter production and was inspired to create Shea Yeleen when I returned back to the US. I worked a full time job at a consulting firm in Washington, DC while I started Shea Yeleen. In my role as a Research Assistant I helped to evaluate foreign assistance programs in the education sector for the US Agency for International Development.
What did you think you’d be doing now whenever you were 10? When I was 10, I wanted to grow up and make a difference in the lives of others, and I thought the best way to do that was be a lawyer and fight for people’s rights. This was based on watching too many Matlock episodes with my grandparents.
Is Shea Yeleen International your dream job? If not, what else is in the works? Absolutely! Everyday I get a chance to wake up and put all my energy into work I truly believe in. I recently returned back from a site visit in Ghana where I met with the shea butter producers we work with. Hearing stories of women tell me they made enough money to send their kids to school and take care of themselves is what keeps me going. I wouldn’t change my job for anything.
What does your daily routine consist of? I have long days. Most business owners do not have a traditional 9-5. I work 7 days a week. During the week I put in 12-14 hours of work. On the weekends I try to reduce it to 6-8 hours. I am responsible for each area of the company including marketing, sales, product development, and West Africa operations. Since I have a small staff of 1.5, I work with a lot of independent contractors and consultants who help me to manage everything from my website, social media, PR, Communications, and sales. Every day has it’s own set of challenges and issues, and I never have a boring day. I could start the day talking to a cooperative leader in Ghana, and end the day doing a store visit in Boston! I find that I do a lot of work in transit and can’t live without my smart phone or laptop. My office is my laptop!
How do you balance work and life and is that actually even possible? Right now it’s very hard for me to balance work and life because Shea Yeleen is in a major transition. We recently received investment funding from a small fund in NYC the Pan African Investment Fund. The fund is supported by Richard Parsons and Ron Lauder and has given us enough funds to really grow and expand the business. Of course with new opportunities come new challenges and I have been spending a lot of time leading our transition, which includes product expansion, staff expansion, and wider sales and distribution. Needless to say there are few moments of rest! I hope that as I hire 3 more people over the next few months I will have more time on my hands for R&R. When I do have extra time on my hands I like spending it with close friends by doing dinner or catching a movie.
You have to do it and you hate it – what is your least favorite task to do at Shea Yeleen International? My least favorite task is working on the website, and in the past has largely been due to unprofessional web developers. However, I recently found someone who is awesome and I think this task will start to become more enjoyable.
Top 5 favorite cities? DC, Seattle, Dakar, Vancouver (BC), Montreal
Red, White or Sparkling? White (Riesling all the way!)
Tell us the best place to eat in your city. If it’s your kitchen, share your favorite/best recipe. My favorite restaurant is Creme on U St in D.C. (recently moved to Capitol View on 14th). The cuisine is American style, simple yet very flavorful. My kitchen serves up some pretty yummy dishes as well and I love cooking and hosting friends for dinner. Some of my popular meals have been mac and cheese, paprika roasted chicken, and arugula salad with home made raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.
Words to live by: Many people believe that following your dreams somehow makes your life more difficult and its better to follow a more traditional path in life because it’s safer and easier. I have learned that life in general is challenging, nothing is easy, and there is an up and down rhythm to life. So why not follow your dreams? Why not listen to the voice to follow your passion or hearts desire? What do you gain by always playing it safe? Nothing is promised in life and time is the greatest gift, so live the life that makes all the challenges and ups and downs worth it!
In five years you’ll be: Running a 10 MM global health and beauty brand that is recognized for selling high quality products while supporting and paying a fair wage to women cooperatives in sub-Saharan Africa.
On being a woman entrepreneur: I will never forget going to a business counselor for help on my business plan. He was much older and after I explained my business dreams, he said, “Don’t you want to get married and have kids? Running a business will take a lot of time”. I thought to myself, “If I wanted family planning advice I would ask my mom or gynecologist”. I left that meeting very frustrated, but that experience made me even more determined to pursue every single goal I outlined in that meeting. Four years later, my business is thriving and I am glad I never let anyone’s opinion determine how far I could go with my dreams and desires. Moral of story, never give up!