The Queen of Fair-Trade Skincare

By Robin Tolkan-Doyle, Beauty Editor

PC: Shea Yaleen

Back in 2003 before “indie beauty” or “fair-trade” were the trendy terms they are now, Rahama Wright went to Africa with the Peace Corps where she was first introduced to the magical ingredient of Shea butter. That experience inspired her to create Shea Yeleen, a popular, award-winning skincare brand, and one of the first companies to hire me as their publicist. I basically hit the lottery.

PC: Shea Yeleen

I remember speaking with her on the phone for the first time and thinking, my God, this woman is brilliant. Her story of how she connected West African shea butter producers to consumers and created a skincare brand that helps almost one thousand women build a life for themselves and their families was so inspiring, it made me feel incredibly insecure and reconsider what the hell I’ve been doing with my life all these years.

PC: Shea Yeleen

For some reason, when Rahama told me she was the eldest of five siblings born, I wasn't surprised. She's got this natural leader energy about her that just makes you listen to anything she says. I can only imagine the impression she left on her little brothers and sisters. Raised in a middle-class suburb in upstate NY, Rahama’s childhood was colored with an internationally-focused education and loads of independence. Her parents met when her dad volunteered with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, West Africa, which borders Ghana, the birthplace of Rahama’s mother.

The contrast between her mom’s sixth-grade education and her dad’s master’s degree along with her own good ol’ American opportunity to follow her dreams, just never sat well with Rahama: “[My mom] wasn't allowed to go to school because she was a girl. So even though she was super smart, her family wanted her to marry young and become a mother.”

Rahama is the first to admit she was a “very serious child” who was always fighting for the underdog: “If I saw a kid being bullied, I would step in and say, 'Stop treating that person like that. I initially wanted to be a lawyer, so I could fight for injustice. When I was 10 learning about apartheid, I just remember being very angry, even though I didn't fully understand it. It just seemed so unfair.” Do you get a sense of where I'm going with this?

PC: Rahama Wright

By the time middle school rolled around--when most people her age were reading Bop magazine and crimping their hair--Rahama was already making post-college plans to join the Peace Corps herself: “I always just had this very clear sense that I would be doing something related to Africa.”

As soon as she received her degree in international affairs in political science, Rahamaeagerly boarded a plane to Mali to devote two years of her life toward creating real change. Before she knew it, she’d be introduced to something that would change her life forever… the shea tree.

“The amazing Shea tree thrives in the Sahel part of Africa and it doesn’t grow anywhere else in the world,” says Rahama. “It’s also one of the very few natural resources known as women's work.”

PC: Shea Yeleen

Despite Africa’s male-dominated agricultural industry, and the grueling labor that comes with harvesting Shea, it’s culturally tied to the women’s lives. Shea is not only used for the skin—it’s the first thing that's put on a baby when its born—it’s used in cooking as well. Just like how coconut oil has become so mainstream, shea is what they fry up food in.

PC: Shea Yeleen

Shea butter is liquid gold for your skin. It’s the actual fat extracted from seeds of the shea tree. Rich in fatty acids and vitamins, shea butter is an amazing anti-inflammatory and makes a thick luscious moisturizer. It’s been used in cosmetics for ages, but surprisingly, the history behind this powerful nut is still not common knowled