Two months ago, Naa-Sakle Akuete, a Harvard Business School graduate and Wall Street analyst, launched a body cream product line Eu’Genia Shea, named after her mother. For Akuete, who is 28, starting this business had very little to do with money and everything to do with love, family, and passion.
In 1979, Akuete’s parents fled Ghana because of a coup that had caused instability and unrest in the country. They sought asylum in the U.S., taking odd jobs–ranging from newspaper delivery to security guard positions–to earn enough money to send their children to good schools. Akuete herself flourished, attending a good New England boarding school, Wellesley College, and eventually one of the best business schools in the country. Then, in 2000, Akuete’s mother moved back to Ghana to take care of her ailing grandmother. “She’s been there for 15 years and I miss her so much,” Akuete tells me. “She happened to come back to the U.S. for a few months for medical treatment, and it hit me how much I miss her.”
Akuete racked her brains to find a way to connect her life to her mother’s in a more intimate way. It occurred to her that she could start a business with her mother importing Ghanaian shea butter to America. In Ghana, shea butter is considered a valuable substance with healing powers for the skin. It is harvested from the nut of the African shea tree. Akuete’s grandmother had used it in her practice as a midwife for decades, as it is known to help pregnant women with stretch marks. It replenishes moisture in the hair or face and can be used to help skin recover from recent scarring or surgery.
While brands like The Body Shop had popularized shea butter in the West, Akuete was sure they had only just scratched the surface of shea butter’s usefulness and that there was still room in the U.S. market for products that contained high-quality shea butter. Thus, Eu’Genia Shea was born. Akuete differentiates her company from other Western shea brands because her products use at least 95% shea content, while her competitors use less than 25% shea–if they disclose how much they use at all.
It seemed like a beautiful idea, one that would allow Akuete to manage the U.S. operations, while her mother could find shea producers in Ghana. Akuete was also willing to invest her own savings into this project so she wouldn’t have to rely on external funding.
But in practice, there were plenty of challenges ahead: Akuete and her mother would have to work with shea farmers, import the product to the U.S., develop packaging, and market the butter to Americans. In short, they would have to understand the intricacies of their supply chain.
Akuete’s mother explored sourcing. As she spoke with shea farmers and pickers, she discovered that large companies tended to care more about keeping prices low than ensuring that workers had a decent quality of life. She eventually found a co-op of female pickers in northern Ghana that provided sustainable wages and training to their employees, and decided to rely on them for the company’s supply of shea, sending large quantities to her daughter to turn into individual products. “I think of this business as an opportunity to give back to my country,” Akuete says. During this knowledge gathering process, Akuete’s mother became an important resource in the shea wholesale community, eventually landing the position of president of the Global Shea Alliance, and advising governments and NGOs about the working conditions in shea plantations and shea quality control.
Once they had secured a supply of fair-trade shea butter, Akuete had to think about creating a product that Americans would want to buy. A big part of this process centered around the packaging design, which needed to look beautiful and luxurious. Akuete turned to Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company that connects people to manufacturers. She developed a powerpoint presentation with the specifications of a tin that she believed would be appealing to American consumers, and sent it out to potential manufacturers she’d found on the site. “The process took about a year,” Akuete remembers. “There was a lot of back and forth.” While Alibaba is a valuable resource to American entrepreneurs, lowering the barrier to entry to making products, it also comes with its challenges. For instance, it took a long time for Akuete to find suppliers who spoke enough English to understand exactly what she wanted. It can also be hard to know how the suppliers’ workers are being treated.
Eventually, she received a massive shipment of tins, designed exactly to her liking. Given that Eu’Genia Shea is still a small operation, Akuete has had to do a lot of product assembly herself. She mixes large vats of shea butter with high-quality essential oils on her kitchen table, then transfers them to the tins. Throughout this process, she needs to adhere to rigorous safety standards, since the FDA does not regulate cosmetics and companies themselves are legally responsible for ensuring the quality of products. As orders come in on the website, she has to pack the boxes herself and take them to the post office. “It’s a lot of work,” she says. Akuete still has a high-powered job with an investment bank, so much of this work happens late at night and on weekends. “It’s quite literally a labor of love,” she says.
Of course, it’s also hard work getting the word out about Eu’Genia Shea. Akuete has had to build out the company website and spread the word on social media. Instead of hiring a PR firm, she’s reached out to the media herself. She hopes that American consumers will be drawn to the brand’s emphasis on social responsibility and family values.
But in the meanwhile, through all the hustle, Akuete and her mother find pleasure and satisfaction working on this venture together. It means regular phone calls for strategy discussions and chats about the future of the business. After all, this close relationship with her mother was Akuete’s primary reason for starting the business.