Many people ask how and why my father and I started our business. And to be honest, it was by accident.
About two years ago, my father returned home from a trip visiting family in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After picking him up from the airport and unloading luggage, he handed me a gift— a custom, handmade leather messenger bag. Immediately, I fell in love with my new gift and sported it everywhere. From work to dinner to weekend trips, I toted my new bag all around the world. And soon after, friends, family members, and strangers started asking, “Where did you get your bag? I love it! Can your dad get me one as well?” For months the questions and requests kept coming. Even my father told me he had been getting the same questions, and suggested, “Hey, I think we have a business here. Let’s start a leather bag business!” Shortly after, the birth of UnoEth began.
Starting a business from scratch is a fun creative process, where brainstorming sessions let your mind run free with ideas and opportunities for your business to grow exponentially. But as with any business, the road to success is never a straight line up. There are dips, curves and encounters with the unknown. In addition, it can be a lot of work. On the bright side, there are benefits to running a business with family.
A family member as a business partner can be extremely beneficial— especially my dad. Having an equal partner with a long history (my whole life) and blood ties helps solidify communication, trust, and dedication to succeed. Neither partner wants to let the other down. From day one of creating our new business, I felt unbelievably confident in our new venture because my dad and I shared the same vision and passion for our budding brand.
In addition to trust, communication, and dedication, working with family also means splitting responsibilities. As we both grow our business around our full-time jobs, we wish there was more time in the day to juggle responsibilities. We split outstanding tasks, which alleviates the stress and workload on both of us.
Communication is key to maintaining strong relationships with each other, our vendors, shipping counterparts, business partnerships and most importantly, our customers. In the development of UnoEth, we’ve learned to communicate promptly to avoid creating a bottleneck in our business. Thanks to apps like Viber, we’re able to communicate easily internationally via wifi and all stay on the same page— just in different time zones.It’s incredibly important to maintain a positive, can-do attitude with a goal always in sight. As mentioned before, the road to success is never a straight line. Every business experiences road blocks and obstacles, which can deter most individuals from starting a business in the first place.
But with an optimistic, focused, and goal-oriented outlook, one can overcome the temporary downfalls, cross the finish line and push on to the next stage. At the end of day, one must ask, “How bad do I really want to be successful?” And then simply just go for it!
What are your thoughts on starting a business with a family member? Enjoyed Xiomara’s story ? Share the UnoEth story with your network.
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.
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.