A conversation Rahama Wright founder and CEO of Sheayeleen.com, a social enterprise that is dedicated to empowering women in West Africa and the United States through the production, sale and use of shea butter products. Her story is amazing filled with challenges and successes including:
- The story behind their products and online store
- Why they chose to use WordPress and WooCommerce
- The challenges they have experienced with their efforts behind online marketing
- How they have found social engagement to be not as easy as expected
- Why they chose to produce their products themselves
- What she feels is important when empowering women through her business
Why did you decide to move to WordPress and WooCommerce?
Bob: Right. Now I want to kind of get more into that, but we’re gonna get the tech stuff out of the way in the beginning. Then we can get back into the fun stuff. I know that you, at one point, decided to use WordPress and WooCommerce. Can you tell me if there was any particular reason behind that?
Rahama: Yeah, before I moved to a WordPress/WooCommerce platform, I was using Magento. My developer created a Magento site for me. They suggested it because it would give me the functionality I wanted in terms of being able to run granular data on my online customers, as well as do things like send out coupons, like buy one/get one, buy-one-get-one-half- off, etc. And it would be a more robust platform for me to operate my eCommerce business.
But when they handed it over to me, it was very overwhelming for me to manage it myself. The backend was very confusing. It was not very intuitive. So I talked to a couple of people, and they convinced me that a WordPress platform would be much better and utilizing WooCommerce would give me some of the same functionality I wanted with Magento, but it would be a lot easier for me to manage on my own.
So about two years ago, I transitioned to a WordPress/WooCommerce platform for my online business. It has been, for the most part, fairly easy. I have the ability to go back in the backend and make some minor tweaks and adjustments. I do have a webmaster that I work with on a monthly basis to do things that I might not be able to do myself, but it’s been pretty easy to manage.
There have been, however, some glitches every time an update happens, I notice there might be a formatting issue on a page or some sort of glitch. So we are making sure that we stay on top of when updates happen because it does affect, I wouldn’t say the functionality, but it does have certain things happen on the site that we need to go back and fix.
Bob: I totally understand that because that is a constant challenge in WordPress. There are always going to be the little tweaks and things. I’ve been pretty lucky. Of course, I don’t have quite as an elaborate site as far as having to run an online store, but there is that challenge.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you started your online store?
Speaking of challenges, kind of moving away from that tech part of it, I know when we talked before, you had mentioned a couple of challenges you’ve had, and maybe you might want to talk a little bit more about those. I know one of them was the online marketing. What did you face as far as some of the largest challenges when you started or actually as you grew the site, when it comes to online marketing?
Rahama: Definitely. I think there’s this huge misconception that to be successful in social media, all you have to do is create your platforms and then all of a sudden all these people will be supporting your business. And it’s not like that at all. I work with a couple of various ‘digital marketing experts.’
I think that the challenge with online marketing is figuring out who your target audience is, and then ensuring that you have the content that’s going to appeal to them. I think that this is where people mess up because they put up things that they think look good, but are not necessarily appealing to a specific target or the audience that you’re looking for.
So I spent quite a bit of time kind of doing A/B testing, figuring out who our target is, figuring out what images work well, what images don’t, figuring out kind of what our brand persona is online, and then aligning that persona to a very clear audience.
And over the last nine months, we’ve been able to see increased engagement across all of our platforms, but mostly Twitter and Instagram. Facebook is still a hard nut to crack because of their algorithm as well as they have this pay-to-play model, where you just have to pay to get the exposure that you want.
It definitely requires a lot more strategic thinking around how to create content that will attract the right audience that cares about the things that you care about.
What have you found particularly challenging about social media engagement?
Bob: Speaking of that, I know that the second challenge, which you’ve already touched on a little bit is the social media engagement. I know myself that it takes a lot of work to get people engaged on social. What have you found particularly challenging around your efforts?
Rahama: In terms of engagement, I think it goes back again to making sure you’re content is aligned to the appropriate audience. I personally don’t work with online influencers because for a small brand there’s this additional misconception that influencers can help you grow and sell your business.
Last summer we did a test where our interns curated a list of 500 beauty influencers that have 10,000 plus followers. We reached out to each one, introduced the company, introduced the work that we’re doing. And it was like this huge range of a sponsored post, the lowest was like $300 all the way to almost $10,000 for a sponsored post.
And what I found was that a lot of these influencers, especially the ones who might not be as popular, I noticed when a photo of a product was put on, it got very little engagement. But if it was a photo of that person, that got a lot of engagement.
So I caution small businesses who think social media influencers will help them grow their business, and it’s important that you spend some time on that person’s platform before you start working with them. I’ve adjusted my strategy instead of working with influencers, to focusing more on developing the right content and curating the right content for my brand.
It’s less expensive, and it goes further than working with an influencer because that only really gets engagement when they’re putting pictures and photos and videos of themselves and not necessarily of a product. At least that’s what I’ve seen on Instagram. The Vlogger world, you know the YouTubers, I really haven’t explored that very much.
Tell us more about the actual creation of your products.
Bob: That makes a lot of sense. Now I want to switch back over to the story behind your product. Basically your product, because I’m impressed that you create your product. Can you just tell us a little bit more about that? I’m gonna let you just kind of take it and run with it and tell us more about the actual production of the product.
Rahama: A lot of people use shea butter. It’s a mainstream ingredient in many hair care, skin care and eye care products, but a lot of people don’t know where this product originates from. I didn’t know either until I served in the Peace Corps and started living in a rural village and seeing women making shea locally. I realized that there was a huge disconnect between what the women were doing in their local villages, and what was being brought to the global marketplace.
So one thing that really important to understand about the shea butter supply chain and value chain is that the bulk of what is brought to global market is actually not even made in Africa, even though the raw material grows in Africa. So even though the tree only grows exclusively in Africa, it’s a seed that’s contained in the fruit of the shea tree, so it’s an agricultural product.
Over 90% of shea that enters the global marketplace is actually being chemically refined and processed in Europe and Asia. Large brokers and seed oil companies buy the shea seeds and ship them off to these large industrial facilities that then process the shea and that becomes what is used in a lot of these consumer goods companies.
So, I’m not gonna name any, but when you go into a CVS or a Rite Aid or a Nordstrom or wherever you may go, and you see a product with shea, that supply chain is very different from the Shea Yeleen supply chain or how we bring our products to the market.
We operate in the less than 10% of the market that is shea butter being made by women in Africa, being handcrafted by women using a traditional process that is handed down from mother to daughter and is culturally respected and known as one way for women to generate income.
We help women organize cooperatives. We help them with access to capital. We help them with access to production equipment. We give them training on basic business practices and improvements to their production, so that they can create a high-quality product.
We work hand-in-hand with the women, so we start from when the fruit is being harvested from the tree all the way to the extraction of the shea seed, all the way to the extraction of the oil that’s contained in the seed. Then putting it onto a freight. We use sea freight to bring the shea butter to the U.S. It’s cleared from our customs. It’s then sent to a co-packer that does all of our packaging and formulations of our product.
Further finishing happens in the U.S. because in the villages that we work in, there just isn’t that capacity to make all of our products. There are issues with getting access to jars, caps, labels, etc., so we do that part here in the U.S. using a co-packer that is a non-GMO-certified facility that only specializes in making natural and organic products.
We then have our products warehoused. We sell our products in select Whole Foods Markets, primarily on the East Coast, and all of our products are shipped to those stores from our warehouse. And we recently, last December, launched a spa line with MGM Resorts International, and so we have body scrubs made out of a base of sugar and shea butter as well as massage balms and massage creams.
Bob: Wow, fascinating. It boggles my mind.
Rahama: Yeah, there are a lot of steps.
What does empowering women, especially women in third world countries, mean to you?
Bob: The strength of your business is empowering women with small business startups. What does this mean to you and how does it happen?
Rahama: Bob, you’re totally right in terms of what is the core foundation of our business model, which is women’s empowerment. I want to be very specific as to how we define that and the philosophy behind Shea Yeleen because there are a lot of different ways people look at empowerment. We define it as creating living wages for women.
When a woman has access to sufficient income, she has access to making a better life for herself and her children. The number one expense that women put their increased income towards is sending their children to school. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a boy child or a girl child, across the board in the communities that we work in, that is the number one thing women are putting that money towards.
I know there are a lot of different models. There are like buy one/give one models. You buy something, we give it away. Or you buy something, we make a donation to a nonprofit. You buy something, we do some sort of community activity or event. Our philosophy is that if you give people living wages, they are their own active actors in the changes they want to see in their own community. And they can invest that money in the different things that they prioritize in their own community. That’s how we define empowerment.
So what does that mean? Over 60% of the population of people who live in northern Ghana, live on less than $2 a day. That $2 a day is actually the Ghanaian minimum daily wage. So by giving women a living wage, which is five times that number, we’re helping do things like send their kids to school, buy food, buy medicine, by going from making less than $2 a day to $10 or more.
To put it in perspective, to send a child to school for a month in Ghana costs about $3 a month. To have access to a health insurance card for an entire year it costs about $15. So you can already see that jump in income really means financial independence, and we’re seeing women do things like rehabbing their homes, buying property, investing in other income generating activities.
So that’s really the core to our business model, so when you buy our product or your wife or your listeners buy our product, that is what you’re investing in. Not only better skincare products for you, better body care products for you, but also giving women financial independence.
Now in terms of the advice I would give to anyone who wants to do something similar, and it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to do that in the U.S. or somewhere else in the world. I think it’s really important to first start by spending time in the community that you want to do work in and really learning the intricacies in terms of the challenges and the issues that community members are dealing with, so that you have a clear sense of how you can address those issues.
For me, it was by volunteering. It was by living in a village, spending time in my community, seeing a lot of the issues and challenges. But also seeing opportunities and possible solutions. I think it’s really easy to talk about problems, but we don’t talk enough about sustainable solutions, and there are sustainable solutions.
But it requires spending time. It requires learning. It requires maybe doing something outside of your comfort zone that can give you access to the real clear sense of what those challenges are. And from that, you can probably figure out some tangible solutions.