I've always wanted to work on African related issues especially focused on women. Initially, my plan was to work for the Department of State after I finished my Peace Corps service, but my career path changed during Peace Corps. I felt compelled to start a social enterprise after seeing many financial challenges facing women in my rural Malian village. Launching Shea Yeleen was my attempt to address rural poverty by creating natural organic shea butter products handcrafted by women shea producers in West Africa. Today, I help Ghanaian women bring high-quality organic shea butter products to the global marketplace while providing them a source of living wages.
Surprisingly, I did not have any fear when I started Shea Yeleen. I was 23 years old with absolutely no business experience and I had no idea what I was doing. I was driven by my belief that all women shea butter producers should benefit from their hard labor. When I reflect on my 23-year-old self I see a young woman who did not even consider failure and who was confident in her abilities. It wasn't until my idea actually started manifesting that I started to have doubt! Shea Yeleen finally got into Whole Foods, I received my first round of funding, and we are growing our distribution through new retail accounts. Seeing things come to fruition made me start fearing that I would mess something up! My guiding thought throughout this process has been my absolute resolute belief that women shea butter producers should benefit from their hard labor and should be financially independent.
Working in the shea butter industry focused on economically empowering women at a very grassroots level has many challenges. For one, I am up against very large multi-billion dollar companies that are not ethically sourcing shea butter and have more resources than Shea Yeleen. Sometimes I feel my work is a small drop in a huge ocean, and it can be daunting. However, the advantage I have is that I am tapping into a consumer base that cares about the skincare products that they use, and also care about making a positive impact with their consumer power. I love that I am able to give my customers that choice! I also love standing up for what I believe in everyday with the company I have built.
I’m free to be creative with my work as well. I don't think I would have this much freedom working for another company or institution. I also love working with creative people and value the creativity my team members bring to our work.
Regardless of how difficult a situation can be, if I stay focused and take things one day at a time eventually I will have a break through. This is why I truly believe in not giving up. Persistence really does work!
I was making a pitch to a man about Shea Yeleen and sharing my goals and vision. He interrupted me and asked "don't you want to have kids one day? everything you are talking about will take a lot of work and you have to think about whether or not you want kids." I was speechless. I didn't know how to respond but I was infuriated that he couldn't even fully listen to my pitch because he was focused on gender roles. I have several similar stories, and for that I 100% believe being a woman in business is tougher than being a man. Of course, adding the fact that I am a black woman doesn't make it any easier. Although, I recognize that I may have unique challenges based on gender and race, I never allow either to prevent me from doing what I believe in. Other people can decide to limit me because of who I am, but I will never limit myself.