Rahama Wright (Part II): You can’t wait for perfect

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In Part I of our interview with Rahama Wright, Founder and CEO of the beauty brand Shea Yeleen, Wright shares her personal story about how being prepared opened doors and how persistence landed Shea Yeleen in Whole Foods.

In Part II, Wright focuses on the importance of a comprehensive marketing strategy and offers encouragement for budding African entrepreneurs.

What role does social media play in your marketing strategy?

Social media is incredibly powerful. I’ve watched brands use it to gain a strong and dedicated following, to reach customers in real time and to build partnerships with other entrepreneurs.

For us, it’s honestly been a very difficult nut to crack because of the amount of time you need to invest. I’ve spoken with several social media consultants and everyone has their theories on how to build a following that leads to sales. I’ve found many of the suggested tactics didn’t work.

I don’t think there’s any shortcuts to building a social media following. It requires time and effort. A lot more time than people know or admit. It’s a balance of finding which platform you enjoy and more importantly which platform  your customer enjoys.

We’re still trying to figure it out – how to build a strong social media presence and how to utilize it to gain access to the right consumer and the right ambassadors who will talk about our story.

Who has been your most supportive market so far?

Surprisingly, Shea Yeleen’s top customer is white women. I say surprisingly because Shea butter is an African product and many companies exclusively focus their marketing on black consumers or the ethnic market.

Our product placement in Whole Foods Markets and other natural independent channels gave Shea Yeleen access to a consumer based that is mostly comprised of white women with an average income of about  $50-60K who live in suburban and urban areas.

Of course we love and embrace all our consumers and did not purposely target a specific demographic. It just so happens that the way our products were brought to the market attracted a specific customer.

There is a lesson to learn in this. My advice is don’t put yourself in a box. Just because you are selling an African-made product or something that is loved by ethnic communities doesn’t mean you have to restrict your target market to any specific ethnic group.

What you have to do is figure out what value you are bringing to market and which type of person is seeking your type of product.

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Shea Yeleen body balm and shea nuts

What’s the hardest thing about marketing Shea Yeleen?

Shea butter has been a beauty staple for a while. Our  biggest challenge is presenting a product to a customer that believes they know everything there is to know about your product. People say ‘oh shea, I use shea’. In reality, the average consumer doesn’t realize that the majority of shea products in mainstream markets does not contain pure natural high quality shea butter.

Most shea products on the market are chemically refined and contain fillers. Additionally, there is a disconnect between these shea products and the women in Africa who are an important part of the supply chain.

There is not one single Shea product that is not impacting a woman in Africa; it doesn’t matter whether it is made in China, France, the U.S., a woman in Africa is an important part of the Shea butter supply chain.

How do you source for raw materials?

Over 90% of Shea that leaves the continent is in the form of raw material, it is shipped out in seeds; very similar to cotton. Cotton is shipped out in bales, t-shirts are made in China, and then it is shipped back.

Resources and materials are not manufactured locally and that is one of the biggest challenges to economic advancement in Africa: we need to advance manufacturing in Africa if we want to see more people move their way into the middle and upper middle class.

There must be more to Shea Yeleen than just raking in profits. Tell us about your mission.

My mission is to create living wages for women in rural sub-Saharan Africa. That’s what gets me up in the morning, that’s what I’ve dedicated 10 years of my life to. Still, some of my customers might be driven by another reason. Some customers don’t care about this narrative.

They say, ‘I just want to have something that will moisturize my skin, I don’t need to hear about the 90% and all of that’. If a customer says ‘I just have dry skin, I just have eczema, can you help me with that?‘;  I need to deliver a product that meet their needs. Figuring out the balance between selling the mission and the benefit to the customer is a constant challenge.

On that note, is Shea Yeleen manufactured in Ghana or is that done in DC?

The unrefined Shea butter that is the base of all of our products and our black soap is completely manufactured in Ghana. We package our products in California.

Eventually, we want to build capacity to create a packaging facility in Ghana. It is not an impossible goal, but one that will take some time.

What’s the easiest part about marketing Shea Yeleen?

Telling the Shea Yeleen story is the easiest part. The story reveals to the customer that there’s a lot about this product that they don’t know.

Sometimes when I speak directly with customers I see their faces light up or they say “oh, really?” and it becomes a product they’re excited to try and support.

shea yeleen

What’s the newest, freshest, exciting marketing strategy you are using right now?

Partnership development is one thing we are toying with and really want to grow in 2016. For example, this past holiday season, we worked with an organization called The Ban Against Neglect and they work with women in Ghana to make bags from local fabrics and recycled plastic.

We want to do more partnerships with like-minded organizations and nonprofits to bring interesting products to market. The Ban Against Neglect works on income generation and employment in a different way, but Shea Yeleen champions those issues and we were able to make a bigger impact through the collaboration.

What next skill or knowledge set as it relates to marketing do you want to add to your repertoire?

Social media is a skillset we need to build within our company. Our following is growing but we haven’t really tapped into the potential to introduce the brand. We need to build sales through social media and we haven’t really tapped into our customer base. Be sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages.

Are you interested in marketing Shea Yeleen to African women on the continent?

Absolutely, yes! Introducing our products to emerging markets on the continent is in our plan. I think the African market will be a place of growth and where we’ll be able to truly make an impact.

The challenge is infrastructure development; how to create distribution channels in places with no or limited infrastructure: lack of street names, lack of roads, difficulty finding addresses, how to get product to consumers. I’m committed to finding solutions so we can get Shea Yeleen to African consumers.

In 2014 I was appointed to serve on President Obama’s advisory council on Doing Business In Africa. Through the council I have had the opportunity to travel on a trade mission with government leaders and meet with US Commercial Officers. The exposure to the right people and learning more about infrastructure and the consumer market  in different countries in Africa will help us get our products into the right retailers.

For some time now, there has been an increasing advocacy for more African women entrepreneurs. What’s your take on that? How are your encouraging entrepreneurship on the continent?

We not only need more women entrepreneurs, we need more African entrepreneurs! Before starting your own business, work at a company in your industry and learn the ins and outs.

I have spoken to entrepreneurs interested in starting African-made or African-grown food businesses. Bringing a skincare product to market is very different from bringing a food product to market. There are many entrepreneurs on the continent who want to bring their products to the American consumer, whether it is coffee, tea, or dried fruit.

For someone interested in your kind of venture, how would she go about it?

In order to be successful these entrepreneurs need to understand the regulations that govern food exports. The Food and Drug Administration website would be a good place to start. With food products, retailers like Whole Foods require you to use a distributor. This is not a requirement for skin and beauty.

If you’re starting a food business, a distributor to research is United Natural Foods. They are one of the largest food distributor in the U.S.

Were there challenges? How did you overcome them?

Because I was willing to try and learn and I was willing to fail along the way, I’ve been able to move Shea Yeleen along progressively.

Is everything working perfectly? Am I achieving all of my goals on a daily, monthly, or quarterly basis? Of course not. But we’re progressively moving in the right direction.

How would you advise a young woman looking to starting something of her own?

Too often, we wait to have everything or we wait for someone else to give us permission. But honestly,  ladies, we have to go out and do it out ourselves.

When you’re ready, start your own enterprise. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect business plan, or the million dollar investor. Don’t wait for any of that. I didn’t wait for any of that.

If any of your readers want to reach out to me with a specific question, I am more than happy to help.

Read part I of Rahama Wright’s interview here.


Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

My mentor helped me learn my worth & start my business

It was the worst of times–I was jobless, broke, and in despair. Then I met a woman who told me to own my skills and know my worth, in that order. She is now one of my amazing mentors, and an inspiration for my organization, The Fairy Godsister, Inc.

Mentorship is significant to career success and personal advancement. Mentoring is a relationship between two individuals, in which a more experienced person imparts insight, wisdom, and guidance that can be leveraged to help a less experienced person progress in their professional, personal, or academic development.

In my career, I have had an opportunity to meet wonderful women who have empowered me to accomplish great things. As such, I have always enjoyed networking as a fantastic way to expand the cache of individuals in my rolodex. But simply increasing your number of acquaintances is not enough.

 

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Join a Network

There are networks whose primary purpose is to help match you with a mentor that is the right fit for your goals and ambitions. Do some research, and identify a few that are of interest to you. Then, reach out!

Here’s a tip: Before you begin your search, define a few goals that you would like a mentor to help you accomplish. This exercise will enable you to quickly filter out organizations that do not provide mentors that speak to your needs.

Affiliate networks

If you already work at a company, find out if there is an affinity network for women. If so, join one or five, and engage with the members in the network. Find someone who is more senior than you, whose position you may one day like to have, and ask that individual out for coffee to discuss their experiences.

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This is an organic approach to developing an advocacy relationship with someone at your workplace.

Leverage your network

The good thing about networking is meeting people; the bad thing is not following up. To avoid the pitfalls of this, make it a goal to find one potential mentor at every opportunity where you meet people. Set relationship building as a priority and find individuals from whom you can learn.Image result I have developed relationships with individuals simply because I reached out to follow up with an email to ask for a phone call or coffee after an event or upon reading their  LinkedIn profiles. A coffee, two dinners, and a Facebook/LinkedIn later, you now have a healthy relationship with someone who you will learn from and can leverage to your advantage.

Final tip

Mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship, so before you reach out to someone, consider how you may be able to assist them as well. In our organization, we have found that many of the mentors report great benefits from their roles.

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They learn things about themselves through their relationships with their mentees. So, when considering finding a mentor, be prepared to be a teacher as well as a student.

In conclusion, the relationships that are built through networking opportunities are seldom maintained beyond a few follow-up emails, resulting in a wasted resource. You need to build relationships, and most importantly, identify an advocate who will become a mentor.

Yet, I know that finding the right mentor is not always easy.

In fact, studies indicate that historically, women have reported greater challenges in finding mentors than men. This has led to the development of a number of networks and programs who aim to connect women with female mentors. The Mentoring Women’s Network, and The Fairy Godsister  are two such groups.

 

Rayana Edwards: I had to figure out a different model

Rayana Edwards fuses culture and clothing to empower women through her business Harem Clothing and her project Sari for Change. Harem Clothing focuses on creating modern modest dressing for women of all ages. Sari for Change trains unemployed women to reproduce new garments from donated saris. Upon completion of the Sari for Change training, the women are encouraged to launch their own businesses. They also continue to receive mentorship and have the opportunity to partner with Harem Clothing. Through both endeavours, Rayana not only dresses women but creates employment opportunities for them.

Rayana aims to promote sustainability within needlecraft and manufacturing industries, and incorporates the ethos of sacred economy into her business and her project. She is currently exploring the concept and process of township economies, which she is excited about  introducing all over Africa.

I caught up with the South Africa-based entrepreneur and life coach via email to talk about her work.


Tell us about yourself

I am a mother to 5 daughters ranging from age 6 to 26. I have this absolute love affair with culture and travel. My fashion story started when I was living in Kenya; I was so inspired by the raw talent there.

People were curious about me and my sense of style, as I often fused items from various cultures. I could wear a scarf from Ethiopia, sandals from Kenya, and a jalabar from Morocco, and blend it all in a way that made it effortlessly stylish and interesting.

This was not new to me as being from Cape Town, we enjoy a heritage of rich cultures fusing into each other. I would travel and often shop for 20 different people, working with endless lists. Soon, I opened my first boutique in Westlands, Nairobi called Cape Connections.

Tell us a bit more about Harem Clothing – what is it and why did you decide to start it?

Harem Clothing literally means a sacred space for women. I started Harem Clothing in Johannesburg after having my last and most unplanned daughter. I was studying for my life coaching diploma while waiting for her to arrive, and really became so obsessed with our inner realities.

Questions like: why the need for retail therapy? what makes us happy? and why are we here? seemed to be topmost on my mind. This journey allowed me to give birth to Harem. I needed a space where I could dress women but also give them the tools to feel good inside.

Harem was that space where you could come in for floaty feminine clothing, coaching on the self and emotions, and a bit of culture in terms of décor and artifacts that I sourced on my many travels globally.

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What steps did you take in starting Harem Clothing – in terms of fundraising, production, marketing and distribution strategies?

Harem was 100% self-funded. I sold my property and the proceeds of the sale allowed me to start Harem.

Most of the production was sourced in India and Vietnam at the time, and I focused on a niche market, namely modern modest.

Starting out as an entrepreneur is difficult. You are faced with challenges ranging from breaking into the market to having a constant stream of revenue. What key challenges did you face when you started out, and how did you deal with them?

When sourcing stock, the bulk of your money lies in what does not sell as eventually it ends up on a sale rail at cost price. The biggest challenge was making purchases based on clients needs.

It so easy to get distracted by a ‘must have’ only to find out it might not be appropriate for your client. The point here is to know your clients and their needs really well.

As a serial entrepreneur who has also failed, I learnt to build and improve and always redefine by going back to the drawing board. Looking back now, I see it all as a stepping-stone and preparation to start digging into the more meaningful and relevant issues we are challenged by today.

What kept you going in those early days?

Exactly on the point above. I literally personalized each purchase overseas as I knew it had to be sold the minute it landed. Once the stock arrived, it was the greatest joy to see the correct design to client matches.

I am also blessed to have a very supportive family, and my daughter Mishka, shortened her gap year overseas to assist in the business. She has been one of my first mentees and today she owns a successful store catering to her age group called Me and You Clothing Boutique.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when Harem Clothing was starting out?

Financial planning was my weakness at the time so I would often ignore what I least liked. I now know to work on converting a weakness to a strength.

I also have an exercise I do with everything, and that is the SWOT analysis. What are the strengths, where are the weaknesses, and I identify the opportunities and threats.

You are also the founder of Sari for Change, what inspired this project?

I started to source production locally and realized what a difficult process it was both in terms of skill and costs of fabric. I am a very tactile person and my idea of having fun is to be able to walk through a fabric store or market, and feel and smell the fabric.

This was mainly how I learnt fabrics in the early days. With a sari, I realized there was all of 6 metres that could be used for fabulous garments as saris came in rich colours and silks, crepes and satins.

As entrepreneurs, we are very close to our businesses and the business depicts what we are feeling. For me, it was about giving back, and wanting to work with women who mattered around me.

Paying homage to an old adage…charity begins at home. With this is mind, I had to now had to figure out a model. I believe you have to do something different for a different result.

Sari for Change newspapers
Sari for Change newspaper bags

How do you select the women that participate in it?

They must be motivated and aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Passion and commitment are the qualities we look for and they must really want the change for themselves, holistically.

I surround myself with women that understand that we are more process driven than outcome-based. Selection processes normally start with a creative workshop I call “tapping into the inner creativity.” It is an all day workshop with many processes systematically in place that allows someone to really hone in on all of their senses.

What kind of support in terms of training, design, equipment, production and marketing, do you offer the women when they join Sari for Change and after they start their own businesses ?

They are able to train or continue their internship with Harem. Once they start up on their own, we ensure they become one of our suppliers in production. Basically, we try to create a diverse structure in sourcing for every part of needlecraft.

We further expose them to our networks and allow them to scale their products to market. We also raise funds for equipment needed as a startup. Our intern fashion designer assists in the patternmaking processes.

They are expected to come up with their own marketing plan which we then support. I often profile them on our networks and social media pages.

Afro Amour, A Sari for Change partner
Afro Amour, A Sari for Change partner

What difficulties have you have faced in the Sari for Change journey? How have you tackled them?

The difficulties were mainly with funding or the lack thereof. However, after a bit of self-funding and many attempts at crowdfunding, the value came when I started working with good networks.

For instance, The Art of Living initially endorsed our project as a charity or service project. This means that their members were able to donate these saris and allow for unemployed women to get skills.

I am a director of Meaningful Change, an NPO that focuses on bridging the gaps in society. This collaboration was needed to ensure that Sari for Change became a reality.

You are working towards building a model within the needlecraft industry that aims for sustainability. You had mentioned that Sari for Change speaks to this. Could you tell us about this?

Sustainability in this sense means increasing the capacity and well-being of the people and communities behind fashion. The first concern was around women traveling far distances, leaving their homes at very early hours, to get to their workplace; transport costs would be where the bigger part of their wages would go to, and the infringement on the family and quality of life is huge.

Thus, we started the township economy and encourage our entrepreneurs-in-training to open up businesses nearer to where they stay. We also provide a meal to our trainees as we realize that most of them would come to work hungry.

We encourage them to make clothing for themselves first as this gives them a better sense of what they are producing. The main vision though, is for us to be significant contributors in this industry and for the women to be able to pay it forward in both skill and entrepreneurship learning.

Could you please tell us what a sacred economy is?

A sacred economy is where you have like-minded people supporting a common purpose. We all do our part in ensuring we all succeed. It’s not about accumulation of wealth but rather sharing in it, and ensuring that we are building a community of ambassadors for each other.

Sacred is anything that is of God, and we are working with our talents and creativity which is God-given.

How have you been able to incorporate the ethos of a sacred economy into Sari for Change?

One of our fashion designers is currently on a UN youth leadership programme. The seamstress she employs is filling in for her so we ensure that she is able to understand what is done on a production line.

We share the learning and when we outsource our bigger orders, it goes right back to our entrepreneurs. When there is an urgent need amongst our mentees, we rally together to ensure a solution. We recognize each other as a resource and work together.

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The women of Siri for Change

How does Harem Clothing fit into this economy?

My own modest modern line is produced in-house but most importantly, each entrepreneur has a chance to work and produce for Harem. Our new website will include all entrepreneurs and Harem will become the central online marketing platform.

They also have the opportunity to work at Harem exhibitions, events and stores, and are often left to their own design and direction.

What steps can aspiring and current entrepreneurs take in order to contribute to a sacred economy?

Share resources or space – often this is the biggest challenge. Consider the power of collaborations. Promote each other and talk about your products on social media. Buy local and appreciate the products being made.

The African narrative is so essential at this level as our focus is on slow fashion rather than mass-produced goods that are continuously dumped in Africa, enslaving yet more consumers.

Become conscious of who made your clothes and what their conditions were. Surround yourself with like-minded people and form little groups of interest.

You had said that you are currently exploring a township economy. Could you please define what that means? What does it entail?

By township economy, I refer to a need that is filled by a community-based enterprise. At present, we have street vending, taverns, spaza shops, hair salons and child-minding. The closest to what we do would be the traditional tailoring shop.

In South Africa, we have huge shopping malls which have also crept into our townships – Maponya Mall, Cosmo City Mall – to name a few. They have seen the gap and yet entrepreneurship has been alive in our townships forever.

Why are we not offering new solutions? If we are able to shift consciousness to support each other in business, we can be part of building each others businesses to this level.

So we encourage entrepreneurs to start producing what they sell and to build a better capital base within their own communities. My challenge to our boutique owners in Cosmo City is – if there are 40,000 women living in this area and should 1000 of them spend R50 each month at your store, that means a turnover of R50000?

What do you need to do? It’s as simple as this – you can achieve sustainability and profitability with a good plan as the masses are based in the townships.

How can entrepreneurs and people invested in empowering women, in particular, contribute to this?

I would really like for this grow out of South Africa and would love to hear from fashion designers and creatives in this industry to start up more groups in Africa.

A synergy between entrepreneurship, emotional wellness, and skill development is needed. We need to develop key partnerships that ensure holistic growth from the ground up.

What is your ultimate vision for both Harem Clothing and Sari for Change?

For Harem Clothing, our vision is to be able to mentor and coach more women into sustainable and profitable businesses, and to collectively build a proudly African brand that depicts all of our cultures and diversity, creating an identity that we are proud of.

At Sari for Change, the notion of creating beautiful garments, accessories and décor items made from recyclable elements becomes a stronger reality in a consumer-driven world. We also have a vision of seeing our products in European and American markets, rather than stripping ourselves of our creative talent by buying secondhand garments from them.

Let’s reverse it! So right now our store in the township of Cosmo City is busy producing a kaftan range using the saris for a new online store in Gothenburg, Sweden. Our ultimate vision here is to replicate our township model throughout Africa.

Lastly, where can our readers find Harem Clothing and Sari for Change products?

On our new website. We are also in stores in Naivasha Avenue, Cosmo City; Northcliff Corner Shopping Centre, Johannesburg; and Ravats Persian Carpet Gallery, Pretoria.


If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

The fork in the road: Choosing the right business structure

Once you have decided to start your new venture, it is imperative that you choose the right business structure for your company.

Do research to find out if you should register as a sole trader, a limited liability company, or a partnership. Don’t rush to the Corporate Affairs Commission to register an LLC because your friend did and their business is profitable.

If in doubt, this piece will help you to make the right choice.

Sole proprietorship (“the lone walker”)

 A sole proprietorship is owned and managed by one individual—the owner. The owner is liable for the business’s financial obligations. For example, in some jurisdictions, as a sole proprietor, your business profits and losses are included in your personal tax returns.

Consequently, if your new venture experiences losses, such losses may offset your income from your “day job.”

The drawback of this structure is that you’re liable for your new venture’s liabilities. Which means is your personal assets (houses, cars, jewelry etc.) are on the line if you fail to repay a debt or run into financial trouble.  

If you love working alone and do not mind being personally liable for your business, this may be a good option for you.

But note that raising funds for your business as a sole trader will be difficult.Banks and institutional investors tend to shy away because of the risk of losing their investments if your business goes south.

Partnership

A partnership is appropriate if your new venture is owned by two or more individuals. Partnerships are named differently in different jurisdictions and vary in structure,  which dictates you and your partner(s) liability.

For example, under a general partnership, you and your partner(s) are responsible for the financial liability and daily operations of the venture. 

On the other hand, a limited partnership constitutes a general partner and a limited partner. A general partner owns and assumes the liability of the partnership, whereas the limited partner is the investor (the limited partner only provides the money!). The limited partner does not participate in the daily operations of the new venture and is not liable for the new venture’s debt.

Generally, a partnerships have a better chance of raising funds from banks and institutional investors than sole proprietorships.

More on partnerships

Thoroughly review the different partnership structures in your jurisdiction and determine what works best for venture, then if necessary negotiate with your business partner(s) and sign a contract. Even if your partner is your best friend.

Have these questions at the back of your mind when drafting the contract:

  • What is your business continuity plan if your partner leaves or dies?
  • What role will each partner play?
  • Do you want only one partner taking decisions on behalf of the company (e.g. taking out loans)?
  • How will you resolve conflicts between partners? (Stay away from litigation!)

There is no better time to agree on the terms of the partnership than during the early stages when everyone is excited about the venture. Sign the agreement during the honeymoon phase as it will be extremely challenging to agree on anything during the divorce phase.

Corporation

Like partnerships, corporations vary from one jurisdiction to another. Nonetheless, corporations are generally separate entities from their owners, and personal assets not at risk. However, there are some exceptions where a court could pierce the corporate veil and make make owners liable.

As with partnerships, banks and institutional investors are more likely to consider issuing loans or making investments. Corporations also have the benefit of raising funds by issuing stocks.

Limited Liability Company

A limited liability company has one or more partners (depending on the jurisdiction) and combines elements from partnerships and corporations. For example, all partners in a limited liability company can all participate in the daily operations of the business, but partners are not personally liable for the venture’s debt. What’s more, LLCs can raise funds from institutional investors and get bank loans.

Nonetheless, this veil of protection against liability is lifted if you personally guarantee the venture’s debt. 

You want to keep a clean slate? Here’s how to do that…

Once you have chosen a business structure, it is imperative that you register it with the relevant regulatory authorities. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Lagos Internal Revenue Services can track your Lagos-based business if your business fails to make relevant tax payments. 

Moreover, you do not want to give potential investors the impression of one who evades regulatory processes.  

Some practical steps to registering your business

1. Choose a name for the business.

2. Check with the Corporate Affairs Commission that the name is still available. In some jurisdictions, this search can be conducted online.

3. If it’s available, register the name or reserve the name (some jurisdictions allows for name reservations for 30 days).

4. After the name is confirmed, draft your legal documents e.g. Partnership Agreements, Memorandum & Articles of Association, etc. The Memorandum & Articles of Association should enumerate the purpose of the new venture, the name of the partners and their percentage ownership, the office address etc.

5. Register your company with the relevant tax authority and get a tax identification number.

6. If applicable, apply for a business permit/license.

In sum, the business structure you choose determines the extent to which you will be personally liable for your business debt, your tax liability, your responsibilities as a business owner as well as the required regulatory filings.

This is one of the most important early stage decisions you will make as a business owner so think through it carefully and decide what works for you!

In the next segment, we will discuss legal considerations when raising funds for your new business.

Have a question to ask? Write to us! We are listening.

Follow this series with Part 1 of Efe’s Legal Corner on The Best Way To Resign Your Job To Start Your Business

Diarra Bousso: It’s hard to be taken seriously in the beginning

Diarra Bousso

Diarra Bousso is making significant waves in the global fashion industry with her bespoke luxury brand Dakar Boutique Group. The brand houses DIARRABLU and Diarra Bousso target swanky and contemporary consumers. Her work has been featured in The New York Times and The Huffington Post among others., and was showcased at New York Fashion Week.

Diarra has gained recognition and acclaim from the global business community. She was a panelist at Harvard’s Africa Business Conference last year where she discussed the evolution of Africa’s consumer growth story. We caught up with her to talk about her journey.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal and moved to Norway at 16 to finish high school. Upon graduation, I moved to the States where I attended Macalester in Minnesota for a B.A. in Maths, Economics, and Statistics., before moving to New York and starting a career on Wall Street.

Two years later, I resigned and returned to Senegal to found Dakar Boutique Group, a luxury holding company that celebrates ‘Made in Africa’ through my various brands: Diarra Bousso and DIARRABLU.

The Dakar Boutique Group – what does it do and why did you decide to start it?

I always knew I was going to end up in fashion and for me. And it only made sense to do it in Africa, because I wanted to also focus on development and rebranding the continent.

Dakar Boutique Group is a luxury holding company and basically owns other companies such as Diarra Bousso and DIARRABLU. Each subsidiary has a particular focus but they all share the ‘Made in Africa’ signature.

Diarra Bousso focuses on premium leather goods whereas DIARRABLU focuses on womenswear in geometric cut. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.52.16 AM

Coming up with an idea is the first step. What did you do next?

My next step was to raise awareness. We launched at a big party on a private island and followed it up with a traveling fashion show in June 2013 titled African Voyage.

This allowed us to get a lot of attention, both in Senegal and abroad. It also marked our first appearance in the media.

Talk us through the first 6 months of starting up DB. What were your priorities and how did you determine them?

My main priority was visibility. I was focused on the African Voyage event production and PR and put all our energy on it. I have no background in fashion but I definitely knew that I needed to set a high standard for the brand’s image.

For me, the best way to achieve that was through a high profile original event.

What were the key challenges you faced when you first started? How have they evolved over time?

I think it’s always hard to be taken seriously in the beginning, especially when you are not trained in the industry. I was always confident about my vision and so I didn’t let anything discourage me.

I focused a lot on communicating aggressively on social media and sharing the essence of my brands in a very transparent manner. I believe this makes you more credible and engages your audience.

You’re a fashion designer but you also run a fashion business. How do these roles interact? Is there ever a conflict?

The two roles compliment each other very well actually. My background is in finance so business comes naturally.

That said, I spent all my free time growing up daydreaming, drawing, painting and designing. This job now allows me to align what I learned in school and what I am naturally good at, which creates the perfect balance.

In the fashion business, making beautiful clothes is one thing, getting them to your customer is another. Tell us about your distribution strategy

We are available online on the main website, www.dakarboutique.com, where customers all over the world can shop at their convenience.

We are currently working on a few in store placements, especially in New York, and will be announcing that very soon. Our strategy focuses on distributing to areas we have customers.

You created two lines DIARRABLU and DB . What was the business rationale of creating two separate labels?

I wanted to reach two different demographics:

DIARRABLU is a very trendy womenswear brand priced under $500. The brand focuses on daydreams which is something accessible to everyone and suits the bold, fun and modern shopper in major cities such as New York, Lagos, Paris, Rio etc. It is therefore only natural for us to aim for distribution in such places.

Diarra Bousso is more exclusive and focuses solely on leather accessories. Everything is limited edition, so the customer has to find us, create a relationship, live the experience and then get their bags made to order. It’s a completely different business model as well as a different customer.

How have you funded your business growth and what was the fundraising process like for you? Any specific tips and tricks for startups out there?

We have been self-funded so far which has been challenging and rewarding at the same time. I think it is important for startups to first try on their own and show what they can deliver before approaching investors.

It’s a good test of the viability of your business and definitely makes you more credible when it’s time to raise capital.

Can you talk to us about some of the specific marketing strategies that you have used?

We have a very strong marketing team that’s very focused on the digital space. Our customer is modern and online, thus it is important to focus on high quality images alongside strong social media fluency and transparency.

Lifestyle marketing has also played an important role, and we achieve this with the African Voyage concept which we share on social media through photographs and videos.

You’ve managed to get over 12,000 followers on Instagram. What role does social media play in your overall strategy? How have you grown your following?

We have grown our following in a very organic manner. I think our audience likes to see our progress and feel like part of a movement. They like to tag their friends, use our hashtags and share our posts which creates a channel for more followers.

Instagram is a major tool today for brands and plays a very important role in our strategy. It has allowed us to find great partners, sponsors and influencers to work with.

Finally, your clothes are absolutely beautiful. How can people from our community get their hands on them?

You can order online at www.dakarboutique.com and in stores in New York at Bene Rialto starting April 1st – 13 W 38th St, New York, NY 10018.


Tell us what amazing entrepreneurial things women are doing in your communities here

Business incubation hub in South Africa focuses on women

she hive participants she leads africa

Statistics indicate women-owned micro enterprises in South Africa currently experience higher barriers to success relative to those owned by men. This trend is unsurprising given the country’s predominantly patriarchal culture and history of exclusion of women in the work place. Thankfully, more effort is being directed towards correcting this injustice by both the government and civil society. Among key interventions is the growing number of business incubation hubs.

These hubs differentiate themselves by levels of support, entry requirements and industry focus. At their core, they aim to help early stage businesses thrive amid the incessant challenges new business face.

One recent entrant is the newly founded 1Accord, located in the East of Johannesburg, an industrial perimeter that has been hollowed out by the closure of manufacturing plants in the country. Founded by Mduduzi Dladla, an upwardly mobile businessman, the hub prioritises women enterprise support through a special program called the ‘Women Entrepreneurship Accelerated Program (WEAP)’. WEAP is aimed exclusively at women entrepreneurs at various stages of their business journey.

Though he had all the traits of a street-savvy black youth, Mduduzi Dladla or Mdu, 26, as he is affectionately known, carries himself with a level of seriousness that’s rare among his peers. He sees himself as the new face of South African business: ambitious and well educated with a developmental approach to business. With his passion and drive, he’s on the way to being a business leader in South Africa.

An accountant by profession, his first taste of entrepreneurship came while working full-time. For two years, he juggled his job and the start-up. When he did decide to go entrepreneurial route full-time, it was not without challenges, ranging from lack of finance to competitors. It was with this in mind that he developed 1Accord Innovation hub to provide business support, skills transfer, and linkages between small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) and corporations.

Mduduzi decided to dedicate a full program to women because, 21 years into South Africa’s democracy, the odds are still stacked against female entrepreneurs, especially in the mainstream sectors of the economy. “Women entrepreneurs have dominated the ‘softer’ sectors like catering, events managements, the beauty industry and the informal economy in this country,” he said. “Due to this fact, there is a growing need for structured programmes to get more women into previously male-dominated industries.” In his opinion, such a programme must provide support encompassing access to finance, markets, supply chains of large buyers of established businesses and the government, and assistance with developing business systems. “For women to learn and grow – especially those at the early stages of business – they need to learn from established women-led enterprises,” Mduduzi said. “This is key because women have a better appreciation of the subtle and not so subtle challenges women face in trying to establish their businesses.”

WEAP provides support in the following areas:

  • General information and business educational programs
  • Financial assistance through access to finance granting institutions
  • Mentoring and coaching programmes, and
  • Support for networking structures.

The program has been especially designed to help women entrepreneurs take charge of their journey and empower themselves. Participants are provided with expertise to enable them achieve both business and personal success. They are exposed to tools that will help become effective communicators and networkers. They also have the opportunity to upgrade their by learning finance and sales as it applies to small business. 

Participants also have access to a network of successful women entrepreneurs. This network provides support, guidance and links to the mainstream of the economy.  Women in the program take part in business, strategic and financial workshops that accelerate their preparedness to run successful businesses. The ultimate goal is to ensure that participants leave the programme as confident, competent and motivated business women.

The emphasis on ‘self-awareness as the basis for sustainable business success’ sets WEAP apart from other support initiatives. The intention is to empower women to overcome their internal inhibitions and rise to the challenge of entrepreneurship without mimicking their male counterparts, or losing what makes them successful in the many other complex roles they fulfil in society. 

Launching WEAP during the African Union’s Year of the Woman was vital. With the right support and access to opportunities, women have demonstrated their resolve and ability to run successful enterprises that add value to their communities and shareholders. And in the entrepreneurship landscape for women,  1Accord is a welcome addition.

Beyond handmade: Looking past Western obsession with handmade African goods

Sisi King, cofounder of the accessories brand ZikoAfrika, writes about her challenges developing a business model that allowed her to tap into efficient technology and ramp up scale while responding to growing demand for handmade African goods. Sisi King raises important questions about responding to short term market demands against long term growth opportunities.


Two years after the collapse of a garment factory that killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh, the race to the bottom in the fashion industry may finally be slowing. Consumers are demanding products that have been made in a socially responsible manner, and brands, both large and small, are responding. With this increase in authentic goods with a social impact narrative, made-in-Africa products are gaining significant traction. Handmade items from the continent are especially in high demand; they are being carried across the retail spectrum, from low to high end luxury retailers.

ZikoAfrika Artisans

While this interest in handmade goods is to be celebrated, Africa is unable to compete with the high volume, low cost goods from China and India. The change in global consumer spending trends presents both unique opportunities and challenges for African production. If we buy into the hype of handmade in Africa, we ignore the bigger picture of working towards sustainable socio-economic growth for a quick marketing fix.

The Story of ZikoAfrika

Co-starting ZikoAfrika, a locally produced accessories brand in Kenya, I absolutely believed in the power of small-scale community focused production as a driver for fair employment opportunities. However, we were unprepared for the huge challenges we would face, producing a consistent high quality product at a price buyers were willing to pay.


“Handmade goods have the powerful draw of connecting the consumer with the producer, providing a sense of meaning and transparency in a world awash with amorphous goods and murky supply chains.”  

Still, this is what consumers are largely unaware of: a lot of handmade production takes place in the informal work sector, which is unregulated and outside the bounds of government set minimum wages and conditions. Furthermore, the process is slow and quality is inconsistent. These issues present significant barriers to scaling.

Learn to Grow Your Business

Manufacture in Africa

In our case, these challenges made it difficult to meet timelines and low costings set by wholesalers. It became clear that to have a viable business, we would have to centralise our operations in a formal workshop and mechanise parts of the production line. As such, we explored the idea of finished by hand, not made by hand. This process involved re-evaluating our materials, designs and production line.

We replaced natural materials such as bone and horn whose supply are inconsistent with perspex, a low cost and readily available plastic. This changed enabled us to utilise lasers to cut components that were then sent to an audited workshop for assembly and polishing, eliminating a huge degree of uncertainty in our production process.

Available for hire in downtown Nairobi, lasers enabled us to cut high volumes of our material in a couple of hours with a 0% rejection rate. This task previously took at least a week, with up to 30% rejections. The change in production meant the opportunity to fulfill larger orders on time and with no rejection. For the workshop, it meant getting the pieces out faster, enabling employees to take on more work.


In harnessing cutting edge technology available in our city, we combined two disparate worlds and broke through some of the barriers inherent in manufacturing by hand with a low-skilled labour force.

 The Challenge with Alternatives

Being able to significantly increase production capacity, efficiency and quality was extremely exciting and motivating. However, on informing our main international client of the changes in our manufacturing process, we were told under no circumstances would products that were not 100% made by hand be accepted.

At a crossroad, we had to decide whether we should continue to produce exclusively by hand, securing the short term survival of our business, or commit to a long term vision we believed had greater potential for both our business and our producers.


A larger conceptual issue also loomed – is the largely western vision of the romantisized artisan and new obsession with handmade actually limiting development and fair growth in Africa rather than enabling it?

ZikoAfrika Jewelry

To a large extent, I would argue that the obsession with handmade African goods limits development and fair growth opportunities. The global demand and value for fashion provides countless opportunities for product and market diversification. But to take full advantage of the potential for design industries to drive socio-economic growth, our products must meet quality standards, volumes, price-points and lead-times consistently. This requires some element of a mechanised production line, as well as significant investment in centralised manufacturing units that can be well managed and monitored.

This is not to say that artisanal handmade production do not have a place in socio-economic development. It does – particularly in rural areas with limited money generating opportunities, or in the preservation of unique cultural handicraft techniques. However, without significant growth in the formal manufacturing sector, Kenya cannot grow from a low skill, low capital economy to a medium income one. Formalising and investing in fashion production units that utilise modern technology to eliminate bottle necks while continuing to retain an element of hands on production provides a viable hybrid to intensive industralisation. This hybrid enables our products to be competitive in international markets.

Asking Ourselves the Difficult Questions

As brands producing in Africa, we have a role to play in this emerging narrative. The handmade label has strong marketing currency – it is personal, the very antithesis of fast fashion and sweatshop labour, and it’s what the world wants now.  But, we need to ask ourselves: is it viable? Are artisans actually making a living wage, are they working in conditions that are safe, are they working fair hours? Is what we are doing scalable and sustainable?

For some it will be, particularly those in the luxury goods sector who have the working capital to invest in and equip small, highly skilled production units. But for many of us, it may simply be limiting the long term growth of our businesses and by extension our continent.

 

Mildred Apenyo: Creating a safe space for women’s health

mildred apenyo she leads africa

Mildred Apenyo set out to create a warm, supportive and safe space for women when she started FitcliqueAfrica. The women-only gym, the first of its kind in Uganda, offers a wide variety of classes including; aerobics, African yoga, dance, kickboxing, strength training and personal safety. The Kampala-based startup is focused on the overall wellness and safety of women rather than attainment of the elusive “ideal body.” By so doing, it aims to provide women with the tools that they need to empower themselves both physically and psychologically.

Mildred wants women to be able to workout without harassment, discrimination or any restriction. Through FitcliqueAfrica, she hopes that women will be inspired to own their bodies and their spaces. I caught up with the fitness entrepreneur, who is also a writer and human rights activist, to talk about her experience and her unique venture.


Tipping point

Mildred didn’t start out in the fitness industry. After graduating from university with a degree in Mass Communication in 2012, she worked in advertising. Her office was located in Kamwokya, a neighborhood she calls the hub of street molestation. Having to navigate this environment daily caused her to experience anxiety. Running became her coping mechanism. “It helped me learn how to inhabit space,” said Mildred. “It made me feel like I owned the streets. It made me feel like I owned my body.” Mildred broke her leg and had to stop running, then decided to join a gym so that she could workout.

Her gym experience was awful. The trainers did not pay attention to female clients unless they were in the aerobics classes. Mildred, who was interested in weightlifting, was dismissed by some of the instructors. The people who paid attention to her instead were lechery men. While working out one day, a man threw a dumbbell at her because she refused to give up the exercise equipment she was using. “I vowed never enter a mixed gym again,” she said. It was then that she decided she wanted to create a warm and supportive space for women.

Two months after the idea solidified in her mind, the first draft of Uganda’s Anti-Pornography Bill was released. The media and the minister of ethics and integrity turned the narrative it into an anti-miniskirt campaign. As a result of this, there were many women who were undressed and violated on the streets. This enraged Mildred. “The only thing that presented itself to me was that nobody cared about the safety of women,” she said. “Not even the men who society says are the protectors.” This further fueled her desire to pursue her idea. She realized that she had to find a way to ensure that women become stronger and have more agency. “While rage will be the spark for an idea, the building of the idea depends largely on how you can begin to channel this energy to something practical, something that people will come to,” said Mildred. “That is how the space and the gym happened.”

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Building blocks

Mildred’s plan was to start with a Facebook page where she would discuss body ownership and self-love. She wanted people to able to talk about bodies and women enjoying activities that are typically reserved for men in regular gyms. “I wanted it to be that kind of space online and offline,” said Mildred.

She first had to come up with a name for this space. The naming process varies from one startup to the next. It takes anywhere from several hours to months. The key is to pick a strong name that adequately represents the ethos of your brand. As a copywriter, Mildred could have come up with a name utilizing the same process she used for her clients. However, she wanted it to be a community space, and as such sourced for name ideas from her friends on Facebook. Solomon King, one of her friends, suggested the name Fitclique256. “It got the most likes,” Mildred said. “I decided to call the space that.” In March 2014, the fitness movement officially began.

Mildred decided to quit her job so as to fully focus on and dedicate herself to Fitclique. “I said to myself, ‘How can you be seated here writing copy about products that you don’t care about when women are out there being undressed on the streets?’” she said. “FitcliqueAfrica hit me in the soul and demanded to be started.” With two salaries saved from her job, she embarked on taking the open and safe online space offline in the form of a gym.

The first order of business was securing gym equipment. Mildred, aware of her financial limitations, had to get innovative so as to do this. Having done her research, she knew that there were people who had bought exercise and fitness equipment in the hopes of working out but ended up not using them. She started a campaign where she traded training for equipment. People would be able to get a personal trainer to work with them for a certain duration at a reduced cost if they gave Fitclique their equipment. The concept excited people and they responded positively. There are also those who simply ended up donating their unused equipment. Mildred was able to significantly drive down costs using this strategy. The gym has grown since then and is now able to buy its own equipment with the money it makes.

Then Mildred had to find a physical space for the gym. She approached a gym  she had worked on a marketing campaign for while at her advertising job. They agreed to let her hold one class for an hour in their space. “It was a yoga class that was massively successful,” said Mildred. After a while, the owner pulled out of the agreement because the classes only had women. “He asked, ‘Why yoga? Why only women? Are you witches? and added ‘I don’t want this to happen anymore,’” she said. Mildred had to go back to the drawing board, a practice that is not uncommon in the entrepreneurial journey.

Sheila Afari: Mistakes and hardships were my best teachers

Sheila Afari is a young pan-African entrepreneur who launched Sheila Afari Public Relations at the age of 26 after recognizing the opportunity to promote African brands across the globe. Sheila wants to create one of Africa’s leading boutique agencies, and with clients in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, she is well on her way to pan-African domination. In this piece, she shares with SLA her entrepreneurial journey and some advice on how startups can develop a public relations strategy that turns heads. 


You resigned from a marketing manager position to start your own business. How were you able to make the transition from a steady job with a guaranteed paycheck to the uncertain world of entrepreneurship?

Having been an entrepreneur before taking on the marketing manager position, I was aware that I was able to create something from nothing. The plan was to work to get more business skills and leave. Fortunately for me, I had no debt or people dependents, so I was fearless and able to make the transition being comfortable with my odds in the risk vs rewards scenario. I also had a degree to fall back on as well as invaluable skills to offer if things have not worked out for me. And since I had no large monthly overheads/expenditures, I was able to offer my services for free and do jobs at low paying rates to build a portfolio and show my worth.Sheila Afari By Xavier

What are the branding and marketing tools that you have used to grow your company and differentiate it in the marketplace?

From day one, I decided that I wanted my PR agency to take on a bespoke approach to the clients we service. With that in mind, growth came from referrals as clients were happy with the services they were receiving. Word of mouth is known to be one of the most powerful marketing tools, so I go out of my way to ensure that every client is happy. I’ve spent the past 3 and a half years very hands on in shaping the business and overseeing the work done for each client.

I believe my agency stands out in the marketplace because of the below reasons:

  • We have a continental focus and reach outside of South Africa
  • We work with traditional and non-traditional media platforms
  • We incorporate a social media drive to all campaigns and projects
  • We have a bespoke approach to each client
  • We have a strong brand development focus
  • We operate under unconventional business hours
  • We believe in ethical business practices; integrity, honesty, exceptional service and team work

Sheila Afari PR LogoAs a lot of our clients are entrepreneurs and don’t operate with an “8-5” mindset, there’s a need for an agency that can keep up with them and service their needs in “real time”, which is what we do. We are available 7 days a week and after hours for our clients.

From a branding perspective, I’ve stayed behind the scenes and that has positioned the business as somewhat exclusive. People won’t often see me unless it’s business related and they’ve done their homework. The work we do is better known than me or the company’s name, so if clients haven’t come via referral then they have done their homework and sought us out.

My 2016 approach to branding and marketing will change somewhat as the company has grown. I’m tackling different industries, and there will definitely be a concerted effort with B2B marketing and advertising/visibility in key industry platforms.

Sheila Afari By Xavier

What advice would you give to startups that are looking to develop a PR strategy but don’t necessarily have the funds to hire an agency to work with them?

1) Draft a PR Plan. Even if it is just a one pager, you should be able to answer the below:

  • Who am I/Are We?
  • What am I trying to achieve in the market place?
  • Where do I want to be in the next couple of months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?
  • What do I want to be known for?
  • Who are my competitors?
  • Who do I strive to be like?
  • What is my unique selling point? i.e. What do I bring that is different from my competitors as well as different from who I strive to be like?
  • How can I get my message/service/talent across authentically?

Then take a blank piece of paper and understand that your PR plan is a blank canvas that you can do anything with. Don’t try copy your competitors or the people your strive to be like. Pave your own way. Come up with fresh creative ideas and map out a way to get there.

2) Get online! Make sure that you have a strong online presence. With the digital age, and Google being one of the first platforms people go to search, you need to make sure you have a presence online and can tell your story the way you want it to be told.

To start off with, get on the below platforms (may vary slightly for different industries):

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Soundcloud
  • LinkedIn

3) Identify 5 people or platforms you deem important/relevant to giving your brand publicity and start making your way through the list.

4) Understand that contacts aren’t necessarily secret and content is king. Pick up a magazine, call the telephone number there and ask for the contact details people relevant to your field that you need to get in touch with. Also understand that media platforms need content, so “pitch” your story with an understanding of who their target audience is and how your story will be of interest to them.

5) Don’t give up. You will need multiple interactions in order to build your brand. Every attempt you make at building your brand’s presence all adds up and you will surely see results even if they may appear barely visibly.

Sheila AfariWhat is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when Sheila Afari PR launched?

I wish I knew that mistakes and hardships would be my best teachers. I spent so much time “playing it safe” out of fear of not being perfect or not keeping clients happy, that it took me quite a while to learn a lot of the things that have helped my business grow exponentially. Had I allowed myself to make more mistakes at an earlier stage, I believe my company would have been where it is now about a year or two ago.

Rahama Wright: No is a pathway to yes, eventually

Rahama Wright she leads africa

Young African entrepreneurs have turned their sights to manufacturing on the continent with new fervor. Just as the world has come to know China for its manufacturing prowess through the Made in China brand, many young Africans look to do likewise with finished products from the continent.

To provide insights and effective strategies for aspiring young entrepreneurs and professionals, we’ve turned our gaze to African brands pioneering their Made in Africa products to the global market. Rahama Wright, Founder and CEO of beauty brand, Shea Yeleen, is one such mogul. Wright says what others see as ready baked success is a 10-year journey of persistence and openness to failure and learning.

Wright’s work is influenced by her mother’s story and those of women in Northern Ghana and Mali where she worked and volunteered right after college. In 2005, Rahama Wright founded Shea Yeleen International, a social enterprise with a mission to provide living wages to women shea butter producers in West Africa.

The enterprise’s profit arm, Shea Yeleen Health & Beauty LLC, was founded in 2012 and manufactures and distributes shea based products to international markets. Foot to the pedal and consistent hard work has brought Shea Yeleen to more than 100 Whole Foods Markets and independent stores. It is worth noting that Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 global supermarket chain.

Shea Yeleen Producers

In Part 1 of this feature, Wright unveiled the secrets of her marketing sauce that has landed her coveted product placements and press features. She shared how using one’s personal brand can position you for success. Wright told her story better than anyone could and it is her openness and commitment to sharing her insight with all aspiring entrepreneurs and marketers that left a lasting impression.

So to start, some questions on getting Shea Yeleen to market. How were you able to get your products into Whole Foods?

This is the advice I would give to someone who is just starting out and trying to get their products into retail: Be persistent! I pitched 3 times before I was able to get my items into Whole Foods. One thing I have learned is that NO can be a pathway to YES, eventually.

Of course, you should get feedback and understand why you are getting the NOs; don’t write it off as a rejection but as a way to improve for the next pitch. The primary reasons I was rejected 3 times was because I was talking to the wrong buyer and I needed better packaging.

I upgraded my packaging including putting the soaps in boxes instead of sleeves, and used the space on the packaging to share our community development story and the benefits of our ingredients. I also created packaging that would pop off shelves by comparing my packaging to brands that were already on the shelf. This helped me better position my products. In short, if you want to get into retail, first pitch, adjust your pitch and product based on feedback and keep pitching until you get a yes!

Also, if you are not getting traction in one area, move to another area to get in front of the right buyer. I wasn’t getting traction in one Whole Foods region and moved to another region. Getting in front of the right buyer required identifying someone who was looking for and thinking about products that Shea Yeleen was offering.

The [final] thing is start small. For some retailers, you have to pay thousands of dollars to get your products in and if you don’t do well, they kick you out, which will cost you more money. Understanding the differences between big box retailers is really important.

Shea Yeleen Product Images

In terms of strategy, did you employ different methods getting into the local retailers like the mom and pop shops than you did the larger retailers like Whole Foods?

They are almost the same but Whole Foods is a bit more corporate than the independent stores. A mom and pop shop is more accessible, because you can schedule a meeting with the owner or buyer and say, ‘would you give me a chance and bring my products in?’ and that’s literally what I did.

I’ve learned about working with sales brokers, and there is a whole industry around sales brokers and distributors that’s a part of retail, and I made the mistake of relying too much on sales brokers who just did not deliver. Early on in your business you are the sales person. I wasted thousands of dollars on the wrong sales brokers.

Even though it is hard and takes a lot of time to go door to door, you need to build your business initially until you get to the point where you can attract the right talent to manage that business. The region that is our best region, I opened all of those stores; I literally went door to door and was able to cultivate a really great relationship with the regional buyer.

Shea Yeleen Product Images

We also brought two of the shea producers from Tamale, Ghana here to the U.S. and they toured the stores with me, which was an incredible experience for the customers and the shea producers, who could now see where their shea butter ends up. This is an important part of the Shea Yeleen mission.

It is not just about getting an African product and selling it. It is really about opening the doors for women producers of that product to understand the global supply chain and what they are a part of. Although the women come from rural communities, they can still be global leaders in the marketplace.

What about other distribution channels? I know that you were recently in the subscription beauty box, Curlbox. Do you plan on doing more subscription boxes?

We’ve done 2 subscription boxes and the verdict is still out. I believe that these subscription boxes are geared towards brands that are more well-known than smaller companies.

My advice is don’t do a subscription box if it is just about getting a sample in a box. You should have an entire marketing strategy around getting into a box that employs social media, couponing, and driving traffic to your website. You have to be very strategic about giving away free product because it costs you money.

It is probably more valuable to give products to potential buyers than to do a box. If I am giving away 5000 free samples, I’d prefer to give them to buyers in stores so that they can give samples to their customers. This level of store support is much more beneficial than just giving free product to a box that may not convert to customers.

If you decide to do a box, try to get some analytics. Participation in a subscription box might not convert to customers but being able to get data on your potential customers may be beneficial for future marketing tactics.

You have received wonderful press, from Oprah to Black Enterprise to Women’s Health Magazine, how did you attract those press product features?

The Oprah feature happened because of a leadership program I applied to with the magazine and an organization called the White House Project. Even though I didn’t know if Oprah was going to be present, I made sure to be prepared. I came with 100 handmade gift boxes.

I brought enough for everyone who was attending, including beauty editors and writers. Since I was the only person who brought a product, I was able to stand out. A direct result of my preparation was a spotlight in the beauty section in Oprah Magazine a few months after the leadership program!

Is print press an important tool in your marketing strategy? Do you consistently reach out to press?

We do reach out. Print press won’t give you sales conversion but what it will do is give your brand credibility and help to open doors. Getting into Oprah Magazine was something that I could reference when I was pitching my products.

People tend to think if you get into a magazine feature, all of a sudden you are making millions of dollars. That is not necessarily the case. It is about creating brand presence and credibility that allows you to get access to other resources and tools.

Are there other tools or strategies that you have found allows you to connect Made-In-Africa narrative with local brands and retailers in the U.S.?

Doing speaking gigs has been an important tool to getting my story out. I have spoken at various events from the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and several universities. I’ve traveled to 6 embassies throughout Africa as a guest speaker on issues around women, entrepreneurship, youth development and these opportunities have opened doors and built credibility. Additionally, it’s a way to tell your brand story in your voice.

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If you do nothing else for your business, you have to tell your story. I think this is lacking when it comes to African products. Either someone else is bringing our products to market or someone else is telling the story of that product. Although shea butter has been in the U.S. market for decades, in 2015 people still do not know where it comes from, or what the raw material looks like.

They think it comes from a calabash because that is how they see it sold at farmers markets. When we are talking about African branding and as we bring our products to market, it is all about sharing the true authentic story of where these products are coming from.

You just mentioned this in your last answer, but just to be clear, how has your own personal brand helped with your marketing strategy with Shea Yeleen? You mentioned speaking engagements, but are there any other ways your personal brand and work has helped with marketing the company?

The fact that I have direct ties has been really important. I think there has been a huge shift over the last few years around Africa in general. I definitely remember when people wanted to be very separate from the continent, when it wasn’t cool to be African or come from the continent. I believe that is changing and it is changing because Africans are beginning to tell our own story.

When I talk about our producers, I talk about Joanna and Gladys and Tene. They aren’t just vague numbers or statistics, they are people. I think this has been the difference when it comes to Africans creating our own companies and bringing products to market. We have a greater connection to our products and I think people want to be more open and connect to these stories and products.

I did Peace Corps because I genuinely wanted to learn more about the people that I have direct connection to. I’m African, I’m Ghanaian and this has been a huge part of why I created Shea Yeleen.

Would you recommend that founders establish or connect more directly with their companies? I know that the narrative has changed from founders being on the back-end to, with more recent brands and companies, hearing more about the personal narratives of the  founders. Would that be your perspective?

Absolutely. People don’t simply buy things; they buy from people. Founders shouldn’t become obsessed with themselves in anyway but it is important that people are able to connect with whoever is behind that brand or product, whether it’s the founders, the team members, or the producers.

I think more and more, especially with the millennial generation, people care about where their products are coming from, they are becoming more inquisitive and that’s why you see these large brands coming out with corporate social responsibility divisions 50 years after they have created the company.

Social responsibility should be the core of your company from the beginning. And I think that’s why more of us are creating companies that are impactful, and telling the story from day one, and that’s important.


Want more of Rahama Wright’s story? Stay tuned for Part II where Wright shares gems about social media and bringing her brand to African markets.