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One Woman's Journey From Finance to Full-Time Social Entrepreneurship

Leaving a high-paying, full-time job in finance to start her own business wasn't easy, but Naa-Sakle Akuete says she wouldn't have had it any other way.
Founder, mater mea
EU'GENIA SHEA
NAA-SAKLE AKUETE
MEMBER SINCE 15
October 25, 2016

Eu'Genia Shea may have a new tagline on its hands: "We stop traffic."

“If you look at my Instagram there's actually a picture of like—what is it, 5,000 pounds, mom?" founder Naa-Sakle Akuete asks, looking over at her business partner and company's namesake for confirmation. “There were 100 boxes of shea butter all over the street out front."

As Akuete recounts just how 5,000 pounds of shea butter wound up blocking traffic in front of her Brooklyn brownstone apartment-turned-company headquarters—the delivery truck's lift couldn't handle a top-heavy pallet—she laughs. It might not be how she envisioned her first month working on her company full-time, but she's been going with it.

Launching a Global Partnership

Akuete launched the line of shea butter creams in the spring of 2015 while she was working at a job in finance. It's a decision she says she wouldn't have been able to make without the sacrifices her mom and dad made years ago. Akuete's parents and two brothers fled their native Ghana to seek asylum during a military coup in 1981. "They couldn't find the same socioeconomic level of jobs here that they had there, so [they] were starting from scratch," Akuete says. "They did everything that they could to make sure that we all went to good schools, so I could have the ability to say, 'I don't want to work [here], I want to start my own business.'"

Eu'Genia Shea Butter; Naa-Sakle Akeuete; OPEN Forum

Eu'Genia Shea founder Naa-Sakle Akuete left her steady job in finance to pursue her own business. 

Akuete's mother Eugenia returned to Ghana in 2000 to take care of her ailing mother. That same year, Eugenia started Naasakle Ltd., a bulk shea butter company that has since become a major player in the industry, selling 100 tons of shea butter a year. (Both mother and daughter named their companies after each other.)

“She had this really high-quality product and these women she cared a ton about," Akuete says. “But a lot of the people she was selling to either didn't care about the well-being of the supply chain or weren't willing to pay up for the quality of the product. That's what happens a lot of times when you are selling to bulk providers."

Akuete, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 2014, was aware of the shift in consumer spending happening in the States. “Consumers actually do care where the product is coming from," she says. “They care about the people along the entire chain, from the farm gate to the store. [I thought] there might be an opportunity for us to sell directly to consumers." Along with selling a high-quality product, Eu'Genia Shea would pay its shea suppliers in Damongo, Ghana, what Akuete says is 20 percent above the country's median income and donate 15 percent of its profits to an educational fund for those workers' children.

Eu'Genia Shea Butter; Naa-Sakle Akeuete; OPEN Forum

To formulate Eu'Genia's high-quality products, Akuete sources ingredients from her mother's bulk shea butter company in Ghana.

Her mother's business would provide the shea, and Akuete would process and ship it to customers in the States. Entering a transatlantic business relationship with a 15-year industry vet made for a steep learning curve, she admits. “At first, anytime she spoke, I would be madly writing notes. She'd just want to have a conversation, and I'm like, 'No, no, no, no, stop! I need to get my computer out!'"

Any available minute in between and after work went to Eu'Genia Shea. Akuete shipped the product off at night with her husband and sent emails to Chinese manufacturers she found on Alibaba during her 10-minute lunch breaks.

Leaving Stability to Pursue a Dream

In the company's first few months, it had already received the type of press that small-business owners crave.

“I was in this weird position," she says. “I was excited about the growth, but also trying to tamp it down a bit because I worked 12 hours [a day]" at her job in finance. As Eu'Genia Shea took off, she had to make a decision: “Can I do this full time? Can I leave security for the unknown?”

The answer to each “what if" was a resounding yes—and in August 2015, she left her job for good. Finally, Akuete knew it was time to go all in.

From shipping to transportation to foreign transactions, I rely on my American Express® Card all the way.

—Naa-Sakle Akuete, founder, Eu'Genia Shea

"When thinking about leaving a job, especially a job in finance where you're making a fair amount of money, there are no financial models I could put together to make it completely make sense at the time. It was almost entirely an emotional decision," Akuete recalls. 

“I was a little bit nervous," she admits now. “I was making a solid salary, I had a 401k, I had a boss who told me what to do."

Eu'Genia Shea Butter; Naa-Sakle Akeuete; OPEN Forum

Most “shea butter" products, claim Akuete, have less than 25 percent pure shea butter in them due to cost—Eu'Genia Shea products have over 82 percent. 

But, while leaving the security and structure of a well-paying job was hard, the idea of letting down Eu'Genia Shea's employees and their children back in Damongo was even harder. “A mother not being able to send her kids to school is so much more important to me than a hedge-fund manager not exactly knowing whether he wants to invest in a given stock on a given day," she says.

Now that she's fully committed to her shea butter business, Akuete says the bulk side of the business has tripled its revenues.

"It's like pedal to the floor, ‘Let's go,’” she says. “In one year, I went from running the business at night to a full-scale operation. From shipping to transportation to foreign transactions, I rely on my American Express® Card all the way.”

Sustaining a Business—and a Community

These benefits, plus Akuete's full-time commitment to the company, have also helped give her time to do outreach and educate the market—while some communities are already familiar with shea butter, others aren't. (“Is it peanut butter?" is a common question.) And of those who are familiar with the product, they may not realize they're getting a watered-down version of it: Most “shea butter" products have less than 25 percent pure shea butter in them due to cost, claims Akuete—Eu'Genia Shea has over 82 percent. Akuete's courting retailers both large and small who will appreciate Eu'Genia Shea's natural ethos and social mission.

eugenia-shea-profile-akitunde-openforum-embed4

Akuete's social mission is ingrained in her business model. Eu'Genia Shea's sales help fund the education of her suppliers' children.  

Back in Akuete's basement-turned-production center, the smell of shea butter envelops you as soon as you open the door. There are framed photos of some of the children Eu'Genia Shea has sent to school hanging on the walls. Akuete met them and their mothers during her first visit to the production center in Damongo—a trip, she says, that “unearthed a multitude of questions" about production and growth for Eu'Genia Shea.

“Each question prompts many more," Akuete says, “but the one thing that was constant and clear as I sorted nuts and stirred butter with our workers—and even more clear as I delivered tuition money to the recipients of our Education Fund—was that the work we're doing creates tangible benefits to the community."

Looking to the future, she's already planning to build a new factory in Ghana to hire more employees and handle increasing demands for next year. While growth plans may be big, it's those small tins of shea butter that continue to drive Akuete and her mother's ambition for the company.

“That little container," Eugenia says, “makes a difference for the women and their children."

As usual, moms know best.

Real Card Member aware her story may be featured by American Express.

A version of this article was originally published on November 20, 2015. 

Photos from top: Eric Ryan Anderson (4); Jehangir Irani (1)
Founder, mater mea