If you think you have to run a billion-dollar company to make a difference in the community, think again. In a nod to this past Women’s Entrepreneurship Day (November 19), Black Enterprise caught up with two women trailblazers for their best business advice.
Rahama Wright is a member of President Obama’s Council On Doing Business in Africa and CEO of Shea Yeleen, a unique social enterprise and a commercial entity that sells high-quality, unrefined shea butter products, available at Whole Foods Markets.
The traditional career or business rule you’re glad you didn’t follow.
Climbing to the top of the ladder usually requires having advanced degrees and years of work experience. I broke all the rules by launching a social enterprise in my early 20s with little business background, mediocre funds, and a tiny network of friends and family. My wild idea to start a company that directly benefited rural shea butter farmers in West Africa was driven by my desire to support a better future for women and their children. My lack of experience did not factor in because what I lacked in skill I made up in heart and persistence. I was also fortunate enough to meet people with the right skills who believed in my vision and led me in the right direction.
Of course, my journey was a slow process. I call myself the 10-year overnight success! It took about 7 years before I was able to get my products into retail and adequate funding to scale the business from a strictly e-commerce platform to over 100 retail locations, including Whole Foods Market. If I had chosen a more traditional career path, I know for a fact I would not wake up every day enjoying the work that I do!
When you first started in the business as a women entrepreneurs, what was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Shea Yeleen offers a premium shea butter product. We create living wages by supporting women-owned cooperatives in Northern Ghana to make a value-added product, the unrefined shea butter, instead of harvesting the seeds at a much lower cost and much lower profit. To succeed, we needed to get our products in major retailers, which presented several challenges.
When I made my initial pitch to Whole Foods Market our products were not ready to be in a major retailer. I soon learned that pitching was only part of the process and rejection was the other! After each rejection, I would take feedback and readjust and pitch again. The entire process required updating my packaging, securing investment funding, and ensuring that I had enough inventory to scale. The process was well worth it! Shea Yeleen is now sold in over 100 retail locations along the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, with new stores in the pipeline.
Many trailblazers find themselves making their own rules. What have you discovered you’d do your own way?
Starting my business at such a young age required me to always make my own rules. Probably being the eldest of five kids had an influence in my take-charge attitude that has served me well as I have developed my enterprise. Knowing early on that I was not going to follow a traditional career path required me to be a proactive problem solver, and I learned along the way.
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