Startup founder says her best business lessons came from her worst mistakes

  • Eu’Genia Shea supports female shea nut pickers in Ghana and sells high-concentration shea butter to US consumers.
  • CEO Naa-Sakle Akuete and her mother, Eugenia, are the company’s only employees.
  • The No. 1 lesson Akuete has learned about entrepreneurship is the importance of failing fast and failing often

Naa-Sakle Akuete currently has thousands of containers of shea butter sitting in her basement. They’re relics of a mistake she made early on in her career as founder and CEO of Eu’Genia Shea.

Akuete, 31, is a Harvard Business School graduate who worked on Wall Street prior to launching the company. Yet she confessed, “There are a lot of things I learned in business school that in practice I didn’t do.”

Case in point: Akuete knew that if she wanted people to buy her shea-butter products, the packaging had to be pretty. So she worked hard to draft up a design and ordered thousands of units to sell.

Then she started getting feedback.

“Your lids don’t stay on.” “This part of your story would be better told a different way.” And so on.

Looking back now, Akuete said, “If I had slowed down and spent more per unit on the packaging and gotten a smaller total number of units, I probably would have been better served.” Instead, she had to create new versions of the packaging and ditch most of the original inventory.

Akuete used classic business jargon to explain the mistake she made: She didn’t fail fast or often enough.

Eu’Genia Shea has streamlined the shea-butter production process, ‘from the tree to customers’

Eu’Genia Shea’s mission is to harness the power of shea butter to, in Akuete’s words, “support as many women as possible, as holistically as possible.”

The story starts with Akuete’s mother, Eugenia Akuete. She was born in Ghana, left for the United States in 1979, and then returned in 2000, which is when she rediscovered her love of shea butter.

In Africa, shea butter has been used for years to reduce the appearance of stretch marks, soothe rashes, and as a cooking oil, according to the website for Naasakle International, the company Eugenia founded to import shea butter from Ghana to the US.

Yet Eugenia also recognized that there were women throughout sub-saharan Africa supporting the shea industry who weren’t getting appropriately rewarded for their work. Many were illiterate; they didn’t have access to technology; and they were geographically fragmented, Akuete said.

Fast-forward to today and Akuete and her mother have landed on what Akuete called a “complete vertical integration” of the shea-butter process, “from the tree to customers.”

The company partners with roughly 5,000 registered shea-nut pickers in Ghana and pays them at a 20% premium to the market rate.

Once the shea nuts are processed into shea butter and imported to the US, the resulting products that Eu’Genia Shea sells are at least 80% pure shea content, Akuete said. That’s compared to much smaller concentrations in most other brands of shea butter.

In 2017 (the first year Eu’Genia Shea was profitable), the company allocated 15% of its profits toward education funds for the pickers’ children and retirement funds for the pickers.

Eu’Genia Shea, whose only employees to date are Akuete and her mother, markets the shea-butter products both online and in brick-and-mortar retailers like Anthropologie and Credo. Akuete and her mother still package every single tin themselves in Akuete’s Brooklyn, New York apartment.

“The social mission of the company is the origin of the company,” Akuete said.

Akuete has learned that entrepreneurship isn’t just about technical skill — it’s about learning to advocate for yourself

As her entrepreneurial career developed, Akuete struggled with some of the non-technical elements of running a company.

In an email, she added: “When I first started, if someone offered to help me — whether it was to make an introduction or join my production line to meet tight deadlines — I would assume they were just being polite and say ‘no thanks’ because I was afraid of inconveniencing them. I’ve realized though, that most people don’t offer to help you unless they mean it. Never turn down free assistance!”

That favour “probably doesn’t mean that much to them, but it can absolutely change your trajectory,” Akuete said.

Another lesson she’s learned is the importance of talking yourself up. “In my normal life, I don’t hype myself much. I’m just a normal person who feels weird talking about herself,” Akuete said. “But when it comes to business, you have to highlight the good things about you because that gets other people excited and wanting to get behind your story and your brand.”

For women entrepreneurs specifically, she has a single piece of advice: “Don’t be shy about being confident and hyping your company as much as you can.”



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.