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.
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.
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.
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