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Behind The Dream: Shea Yeleen in DC

Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hardworking and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.

Growing up, DC business owner Rahama Wright had no aspirations of becoming an entrepreneur. After college, she joined the Peace Corps and envisioned herself joining the State Department upon her return to the United States. But her assignment to a health center in Mali changed her entire trajectory. 

Wright found herself in a support role at the health center, helping to serve a community of 1500 people in a small village. Since she was not a nurse, she would spend time brainstorming about ways she could be impactful within her role. She noticed that many of the visitors to the health center were women seeking prenatal and postnatal care. With long wait times before they were able to be seen by a medical professional, Wright began to execute cooking demos. She would make porridge, so that patients could be better prepared to feed and sustain their growing families. While Wright used milk during her cooking demos, she quickly realized that not everyone had the resources to afford these simple ingredients. If women were to have access to resources that allowed them to make money, that opportunity could be life-changing.

She began researching revenue generating activities for women within the region, which is when she was reintroduced to shea butter. Like many of us, Wright was familiar with the product and often associated it with self-care and beauty. But what she didn’t know was that traditionally the harvesting and production of shea was respected as women’s work. Upon diving in deeper, she quickly realized there was a huge disconnect with the global market.

“Any product with shea butter is impacting a woman in Africa. They are the first point of the sourcing process. Ninety percent of shea leaves Africa in the seed form,” Wright explained. “You can’t build economies without some level of industrialization.”

So, in 2005, Wright first launched Shea Yeleen as a nonprofit focused on helping women in Africa with organizing, training, and gaining access to more resources. Over the next seven years, Wright learned that focusing on an ecosystem to create the product was just one of many challenges. Her desire grew to figure out ways to help women get their product into the global marketplace. In 2012, she launched the profit arm of the enterprise, Shea Yeleen Health & Beauty LLC.

She wanted to create a brand that connected the dots between the source, the product and the community. Until living in Africa, she never really understood how socially impactful businesses have the power to be. “Businesses are huge in their ability to change the world,” Wright said. “All business models should shift to see themselves as change makers. All businesses should be social impact businesses. If you create business models where you put people first, you can still be profitable.”

Wright acknowledges that the entrepreneurial journey can be a challenging one, admitting that she was “completely broke” well into 2009, sleeping on a mattress on the ground of her friend’s apartment. “People have an obsession over rapid success. There is the assumption that if you’re struggling, then you must be doing something wrong or that no one wants your service or product. It can take decades to build a great brand.”

When asked what continues to motivate her throughout the most challenging times, she replied: “Purpose keeps you focused. Those moments sucked. They were hard and make you question what you’re doing. People in your life lose interest and enthusiasm after awhile. But your purpose will keep you focused and motivated.”

And that it did.

Shea Yeleen products are now carried in 128 Whole Foods locations, The Spa and Salon at MGM National Harbor and within dozens of local, independent businesses in the DC area including Dawson’s Market, Steadfast Supply and Shop Made in DC. And while the company has a global footprint, they remain headquartered on H Street in NE, Washington DC.

Rahama Wright also recently joined us as a panelist for the our Yelp Biz Hours: Behind The Dream where we went behind the scenes to showcase the stories of first-generation immigrant and minority-owned businesses in DC. Read more about that here.