“I really do believe that a jar of cream is not just a jar of cream. It can change the world.”- Funlayo Alabi
Besides passion, a common reason often given by entrepreneurs when asked why, or how they started their businesses often entails discovering a gap in the market, which is often in the process of trying to solve a problem of their own. The background story of Funlayo Alabi, CEO of Shea Radiance, is not any different.
Mrs Alabi currently runs a multi-million dollar skin care company from her kitchen, one she started by chance. Her son was suffering from severe eczema, so she sought a more natural alternative to deal with it. “We had him on steroids. I thought to myself, “This boy is going to live on steroids if I don’t find a more natural alternative,” she told Inc. Alabi who hadn’t been a fan of shea butter as a kid, reluctantly called her mother and asked her to bring some on her next visit to the States.
Found in the tropics of Africa, and only recently discovered by the West, the benefits of Shea Butter have been known to Africans for centuries as it has been used through generations. In Nigeria, it is not uncommon to have someone prescribe the multi-purpose butter which contains unique healing properties to you if you have any skin or hair issues. The site africansheabutter.org provides a long list of conditions shea acts a remedy for including dry skin, rash, blemishes, wrinkles, sunburn, chest cold, and dermatitis.
Once Alabi put the shea to use, her son’s skin got better and felt better, plus it had a “beautiful, warm glow.” The woman soon realized the value of what she had on her hands and the largely untapped market that exists. This was about seven years in 2008. So she got right to work, mixing and making shea butter lotions and shampoos in her kitchen. “I have always had a business mind and knew that we could develop high-quality shea butter products and sell them.” Thus, her company, Shea Radiance, was born in Ellicott City, Maryland.
Samples of her products given to friends and family got rave reviews, and she was soon running out of inventory. That was when she began her search of a steady supply chain to grow the company. Months later, her research led her to shea communities in northern Nigeria where she discovered that the process of shea extraction is not complete without the input of a woman. “We came to realize that every product that had shea butter in it involved one woman, often with a baby strapped to her back, walking through the fields and collecting each fruit on the ground, one by one.”
Although her original intent for travelling was to get a better understanding of the extraction – production process, and to establish a good supply chain with excellent quality shea butter, Alabi’s eyes were opened to a deeper issue – poverty amongst women. She was surprised by how hard the women worked, yet how little they gained. “… What was really amazing was the fact that multinational companies were buying huge quantities of shea, but the women were still poor. The money just wasn’t making it into their hands,” she said.
Right there in one those communities, she and her husband decided that they would make an impact, no matter how little, on the lives of the women. According to her, it was a defining moment for them, and their company. The purpose for their business was no longer profit driven, but change driven. With some help from the state government and an NGO – GIZ, Shea Radiance organized these women into cooperatives where they established more refined production practices. In 2010, these women produced 22,000 pounds of raw shea was shipped to the U.S. The huge supply bolstered the production and sales of Shea Radiance products the US.
Establishing cooperatives and buying shea butter from these women gave them a much needed economic access to support their families. Alabi hopes to do more work with women in agriculture in West Africa. According to her, when women are economically empowered, it affects the family, which in turn affects the community. Today the company has a range of over 20 products for hair and skin distributed across the US, and in Europe. Based on current growth, it is predicted that product sales will gross tens of millions by 2020.