From Peace Corps Volunteer to first-time entrepreneur to creator of a makerspace facility for beauty businesses: a conversation with RPCV and Shea Yeleen Founder Rahama Wright.
By Tiffany James
Rahama Wright founded Shea Yeleen, a social impact company that creates living wage jobs for women-owned shea butter cooperatives in Ghana, in 2012. She served as a Volunteer in Mali 2002–04. Serving in the Peace Corps had always been part of her plan thanks to her father who met her mother while serving with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso in the 70s. Before going to Mali, Wright did a 10-week internship at the U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso with the intention of becoming a Foreign Service officer. However, what wasn’t part of her plan was becoming a thriving entrepreneur and change-maker in the beauty and skincare industry.
She spoke with Tiffany James, Associate Director of Strategic Communications at National Peace Corps Association on January 31, 2023. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
Rahama Wright (Mali 2002–04) received Technical.ly’s 2022 Invention of the Year for creating the Yeleen Beauty Makerspace — the first commercial makerspace for the beauty and skincare sector in Washington, D.C. — expected to open in late 2023.
Tiffany James: So I’m curious what fueled your shift from wanting to become a Foreign Service officer to starting a business that uses shea butter to make change?
Rahama Wright: If you look at my background, I studied international affairs and [political science]. I was going to take the foreign service exam after the Peace Corps. That was the goal: to become a diplomat and work at embassies all around the world. When I joined the Peace Corps and started my volunteer experience, it was my first time living in a rural environment in Africa. Even though I have African heritage on my mom’s side, I never experienced living in a small village that had infrastructure issues and challenges around access to health. It really changed my perspective on what I felt was work that could have a direct impact on people’s lives.
As a black woman, I was uncomfortable with living in an environment, when I interned at the American Embassy, where all the folks who look like me were in positions of servitude — the drivers, the guards, the gardeners, the cooks.
I had the comparison of working at the embassy as an intern where I was in the capital, living in gated communities. It was a very lavish lifestyle; you have these big homes, you have drivers and cooks. It was very cushy from my perspective, especially when you compare it to living in a small hut in a village. And I felt disconnected from the community. As a black woman, I was uncomfortable living in an environment when I interned at the American Embassy, where all the folks who look like me were in positions of servitude — the drivers, the guards, the gardeners, the cooks. It just made me super uncomfortable. I was like, “Yeah, do I want this to be my career? Going all over the world and definitely living a very cushy lifestyle being a diplomat?” But then seeing so many of my people serving versus when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in the community and having a more connected experience, where — even though I was being paid the average income the Malians would make, which was slightly more than what a lot of the women or community members were making — I felt there wasn’t as big of a disparity. I was more in the community, experiencing things similar to the people in my community. That felt more like my pace, and I felt more comfortable with that. And I also felt I had a much better sense of what types of contributions I could make.
When I interned in Burkina Faso, for the very first time, I learned about where shea butter came from. I did not know that it came from Africa. I was that girl who loved going to the mall and spending all my money at Bath & Body Works. I would spend all this money not realizing that shea butter came from these communities and that [the sourcing of the ingredients for] a lot of the products are coming from these indigenous, agriculturally based communities. Seeing women make shea butter for the first time, learning about the tree, and seeing what the tree looked like, I was like, “Does anyone else know about this? If they’re making this and I’ve been buying it in the U.S., I know other people who will buy it.” There’s a disconnect here that needs to be fixed. All I knew was these women make this great product, and let’s figure out how to get some work. So that kind of propelled this entire 15-plus-year journey of figuring out how to create that bridge and how to make that connection between women in their communities and the marketplace where people can buy a bar soap that has a direct connection to an African woman.
James: During a podcast interview you did last year, you talked about the importance of Shea Yeleen being mindful of avoiding the power dynamic of foreign entities coming in to save and make changes. Can you tell me about how you considered that power dynamic when creating the Shea Yeleen business model and how you still consider it today?
Wright: We recently had one of our shea producers here for four weeks. She was here to participate in the U.S.-Africa Business Forum and present in front of global leaders about her story, her journey, and the work that we’re doing in her community. How I, to the best of my ability, try to address the power dynamic is by being as inclusionary as possible — providing opportunities that allow women in the cooperatives we work with visibility and a voice in anything that we’re doing. I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m not a shea producer. I know how it’s made. I know the process. But I’ve never made shea butter before. My company uses this ingredient. So who better to represent the sector than a woman who actually does the work, a woman who’s using her knowledge passed down by her mother and her mother’s mother to take this natural resource and make it into beautiful products that we — because I’m here in the U.S. — can bring it to market, can make the products and get it into a Whole Foods or MGM.
Rahama Wright working with shea butter producers. Photo courtesy Rahama Wright
I know what my contributions are, and I think that power dynamics can have a negative effect when people don’t recognize that there’s an entire ecosystem that needs all of us to be in balance. It requires me to bring my resources and my talents and combine them with their resources and their talents. So it’s easy to kind of put yourself on a pedestal, or at least I’ve seen it where people can put themselves on a pedestal because they’re not acknowledging their privilege. And that’s where the power dynamics I think can be harmful. If you’re the only one telling the story, you can tell it from your lens. That’s why I work so hard to have our community members tell their own stories, and not just with us, but on global platforms. I’m trying to work on shifting how we think about a product that comes from Africa, how we think about women in the supply chain, and remind people that these systems that we see are not the natural order of things. We can create something different that brings more balance, more equality, and more equity into our relationships and into our supply chains and value chains when it comes to the continent.
James: I want to talk about your appointment to the Obama Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, and how that experience shaped your entrepreneurial journey?
Wright: It happened many years after I’d already started. Imagine building this business being very hyper focused on agribusiness, but from a very grassroots lens, working with rural areas and rural communities. I never had in my business plan to be on a Presidential Advisory Council. It was never a part of the goal. I didn’t even know those things existed to be quite honest. But I believe the reason why I was selected was due to my work of supporting communities of people who aren’t typically prioritized, in my opinion, when it comes to policies. Usually, it’s the larger companies that are selected — we don’t have a lot of space for highlighting and acknowledging people in the informal economy.
Even here in the U.S., street vendors are part of the informal economy. There may be controversy over this but in Baltimore, it’s the Squeegee Boys. Or people selling water on the street who are just trying to get by, trying to figure out, trying to make good decisions, not bad ones. They are not captured enough or even acknowledged. It’s the same thing with these women. They’re in isolated communities; no one’s really checking for them. Their local leaders aren’t really checking for them. And because of that: 1) we don’t have enough data and 2) we’re not developing policies that are inclusive of them. So I think because it was the Obama administration, and because it was the very first time that a U.S. president and a U.S. administration were looking at the continent from a lens of trade versus aid, which had never happened before, they were trying to create a council that had a diversity of voices — including the work that I was doing which was very much focused on the informal economy, focused on women, cooperatives, and rural [communities] vs urban or semi-urban. So I think that’s why I got on the council. It’s been eight years now. I was reappointed four times.
Then, I realized that they might know more than me in some areas, but they don’t know more than me about shea butter. They don’t know more than me about the women in agriculture in Africa and this particular supply chain and how it can be refined and improved to elevate the role of women.
But in terms of how it shaped me, it’s made me understand the intersection between government and business that I never really understood before. And the importance of any business of any size to engage with the government. And that’s why I do a bit of local engagement with the D.C. Mayor’s office, and I attend hearings. But before that, I wasn’t really politically engaged from a business perspective. But that’s important, and you don’t have to wait until you are a huge business to engage the government on the policy side. You can do it at any stage. Ultimately, as you grow, you become a contributor to the tax base, and you become a local employer.
It’s also helped me fine-tune my voice. I remember the first time I was always so nervous. I still get nervous. I’m sitting there and the Secretary of Commerce is there, we went on a trip meeting all these heads of state, and I was just the youngest member running the smallest business. I forced myself to speak at every single meeting and not be quiet because it’s intimidating. Then, I realized that they might know more than me in some areas, but they don’t know more than me about shea butter. They don’t know more than me about the women in agriculture in Africa and this particular supply chain and how it can be refined and improved to elevate the role of women. So I just kept leaning into that anytime we would have some sort of dialogue or conversation. I would always bring it back to women and to rural [communities]. I would always try to contribute something that related to what I knew and felt needed to change. I do think that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, and it’s okay not to know everything. You can still be a leader and not know everything if you’re willing to learn and be open and be curious. And then I started getting better even doing what I knew I could do because now I was doing it in a different environment on a different platform. And then because no one else was talking about this issue, I became the person that people want to hear talk about the issue.
James: What advice or insight do you wish you had received when you first embarked on your journey as a black business owner?
Wright: I think it’s really important for people to understand what is a normal part of the process and what isn’t. Sometimes we get really upset about something that’s normal because we look out into the world, and we see everyone else is being more successful than us. On Instagram and social media, everyone’s just having the best time, and you’re out here struggling, trying to figure it out. So you start to internalize the sense of I’m the problem or something is wrong with me or everyone else is having a much easier time, therefore, I’m making a lot of mistakes or I’m not doing something right. And the minute I fully understood that this is part of the process, it allowed me to accept where I was in my journey because now it’s not abnormal — it’s actually part of the process. When you realize that as part of the process, you can now start becoming more patient and recognizing [you] just have to get through this part of the process to get to the other side.
I will give you an example. I was applying to so many programs, trying to get more funding, and I was getting rejected left and right. And I’m not talking about getting one or two rejections. I was getting tens of rejections — over and over and over again. I realized some of the things I was applying to weren’t actually a fit. I had to take a step back and ask, “Am I aligning with the right programs? Am I aligning with the right funding? Am I even thinking about the right funding resources? Or am I just throwing everything out there and seeing what will stick?” I took a step back during COVID because [it] just flattened everything. It was scary. At the beginning of COVID, I lost 70 percent of my revenue. I was like, Okay, what am I doing? Why and I doing it? Am I going to give up? I had to take a step back, look into the world, and be very strategic about what I was putting out there, what I was seeking, and what I was trying to accomplish. Honestly, when I redid my business concept and my strategy for growth, everything has just been falling into place — just like that. Raising money wasn’t a challenge. Finding the right partner. I had to go through that season. And now that I’m through it, things are in alignment.
Now we’re building the first commercial makerspace for beauty businesses in Washington, D.C., opening later this year.
Who could have imagined when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village that I would be building a manufacturing facility in our nation’s capital? That wasn’t in the vision, it never even crossed my mind. But when I really took a step back and had that hard conversation with myself, I realized I was not in alignment. In terms of the vision I was trying to achieve, it wasn’t just about getting into another retail store. It wasn’t just about, trying to get as many accounts as possible. My goal is to make an impact on as many cooperative members and shea producers. That’s my goal and in order to do that, I have to work with other businesses. It can’t just be about my business, just my consumer facing brand. And if I can build manufacturing, I can manufacture for other brands as well. Now we’re building the first commercial makerspace for beauty businesses in Washington, D.C., opening later this year. I never would have even gotten there if I hadn’t had to go through all that rejection and all that process because it made me stop.
James: Does this makerspace have a name? And will you create some type of program where the cooperatives that you work with in Africa?
Wright: Yeleen Beauty Makerspace. So let’s say you want to create a scalp treatment. Instead of going to YouTube to try to figure it out, you can come to a facility that is up to code, that has the equipment, that has a chemist, that has a production line where you can trial and error, test things on a very small scale batch, work with an expert who can help walk you through that process and go from start to launch in a facility that will allow you to do that. We will have a list of ethically sourced ingredients from a few communities. Our supply chain is connected to manufacturing from the vantage point of essentially having a consolidator of raw materials that you know has social impact. Instead of these women only working with one business, now they’re working with 10, 20, 30, 40, 100 businesses. And that is the goal— when I was thinking about building Shea Yeleen, it was always about community level impact. There are 12 million women in Africa just in this one supply chain. Even if I wanted to, I can’t impact all of their lives. However, I can create a structure and a new manufacturing process over here that allows for maybe 200 new businesses to grow, sourcing from these women. So that goes from working with a couple of hundred [women] to working with a few thousand.
Then, what happens in the U.S. is that we’re focusing on black and brown founders, who historically have the hardest time getting their businesses to scale. The average female black-owned business in America generates less than $35,000 a year — that’s a JP Morgan statistic. So our businesses aren’t even healthy. McKinsey, in a 2022 report, showed that addressing racial inequality in beauty is a $2.6 billion opportunity, just addressing inequality. Black and brown founders continue to be left behind. Why? We don’t have our spaces, we don’t have access to capital, we don’t have access to markets, we don’t have the know-how, and we don’t have the tools and equipment. Our startup costs are high, but our startup funding is low. All of those things are why it takes us so much longer to get to scale. So now I have a business model that’s tying into this African supply chain and working with rural communities. I also want to create jobs locally here, working with underserved community members and teaching them something that’s been in our community for decades. But as you know, when we think about Walker’s legacy and we think about these businesses from the 60s, 70s, 80s, those were all black-owned businesses. But they were bought up by the large conglomerates. So now we’ve lost manufacturing within our community. To address that inequality gap that McKinsey talks about, we have to start with bringing back manufacturing within our community. And we want to start in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, I want to have these centers all over the country and strategically located in underserved communities.
Tiffany James is Associate Director of Strategic Communications with National Peace Corps Association. Write her here.