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.
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.
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.
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.
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.