Rahama Wright is a Ghanaian-American social entrepreneur who embarked on her journey beginning in her early twenties. She says it was at least 7 years before she was able to first get her business off the ground.
“So seven years of rejection, seven years of sending proposals, seven years of doing business plan competitions. I applied to various program … no no no”
But those early ‘nos’ didn’t stop her from going after her dream and getting her “yes”.
“In the beginning, my entire perspective around Shea Yeleen was, I’m going to do this until I die. I know that sounds scary but that was the level of commitment from the beginning.”
The idea of starting a business selling African Shea Butter came to Wright when she was a volunteer in the Peace Corps, supporting the development of the first shea butter cooperative in the village of Dio in Mali. She then looked for ways to bring change to these communities by starting a business that could help create jobs for African women.
Wright says her company’s motto, “transform your skin, transform a community” is about having a vision with a purpose, and it’s that purpose that has motivated her throughout her career.
Now, 10 years later, Wright sits in her Washington, D.C. office as a proud business owner who’s been featured in national magazines and with her products selling in more than 110 stores in the U.S. and online.
Wright says her goal of empowering women in Africa doesn’t stop with Shea Yeleen. In 2014, she was appointed to President Obama’s advisory council on doing business in Africa to advise the U.S. government on ways it can strengthen commercial engagement between the United States and countries in Africa. Recently she travelled to Nigeria and Rwanda with U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, to meet with private and public sector leaders.
Wright also chairs the council’s marketing outreach subcommittee that drafts recommendations to help create a more inclusive business environment.
“When we talk about being more inclusive, the role of women, the role of young people. How to do a better job of engaging from the legal stand point, creating laws that don’t prevent women from being able to open up their own bank accounts. These are laws in Africa for example. Laws around land ownership, a lot of African women don’t have access to land. Women are involved in every aspect of society. They’re just invisible in a sense. So how can we change that?”
With her appointment on the council set to end this summer, Wright says she has bigger plans ahead for Shea Yeleen and herself.
“The goal now is to expand from our Whole Foods and independent channels to really look at other opportunities for getting our product into more stores. Not just the natural category but what are our opportunities for example with Target? What are our opportunities with other big box retailers? So that’s what we’re working on in 2016, it’s really growing our distribution”.
Wright says she’s learned valuable lessons along her journey, and that in the end, it’s about being perseverant when faced with rejection.
“How do you take rejection? How does rejection affect you? If you get 50 no’s is that going to make you quit, if you’re the only person who believes in your idea will that make you give up? And I think that’s the advice I have … for an individual to spend the time really understanding themselves from the perspective of how easily deterred are you.
Are you in this for the long haul or are you in this for the short term and I think that definitely is the most important question to ask yourself before you start anything. Ask yourself, if it’s gonna take me 10 years to be successful, am I willing to start today. Because then it doesn’t become a matter of whether or not you’re committed or whether or not anyone will be able to influence you to not do what you’re doing. Because from the beginning you’ve committed yourself to that.”
After dedicating so much of her time to her business, Wright says she has one more goal for 2016.
“Work life balance. I love what I’m doing, I’ve never woken up and said to myself I’m like, punishing myself doing this. I really, truly genuinely love the work I do but I do think in life there has to be balance. So I think personally, one of the things I want to do this year is really focus on self care, maybe picking up a hobby, who knows?”