Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to the start of 2021.
How did you get into this business?
We officially started our business in 2009, but the ideas and situations that led us to the business began way before that time. Our young children had very dry, eczema-prone skin... and we were looking for a natural solution, something outside of cortisol that the pediatrician was recommending. We started racking our brains and that's when memories of our childhood, the solutions our parents and grandparents used on us growing up... we started having flashbacks about how shea butter was used. We asked my mother to bring some shea butter with her on her next visit [from West Africa] so we could use it on the kids' skin. She brought a five-pound blob of shea butter and we used it religiously, and within a couple of weeks we could actually see the difference.
We were like, "Wow, this is amazing." We have not only found a solution to dry skin, we have found the perfect base for beauty products, and that's really what inspired us to start mixing lotions and potions in our kitchen and going out to the farmer's markets on weekends to see if we could get someone to buy them. Farmer's markets were where we were really able to build a following and begin to transition into the natural grocery store business like Roots Market and, later, Whole Foods.
Giant Food recently agreed to stock Shea Radiance in about 200 stores across the mid-Atlantic. Why was now the right time to move ahead with that deal?
In 2019 we had already started our conversations with Giant, we were getting things ready, there were a couple of other opportunities that were opening up and we were really excited going into 2020. And then the pandemic happened, and we were like, "Woah, should we move ahead in getting this new space in Laurel to grow into and expand? Should we pick up the new equipment? Can we afford to complete the rebranding of our product line that we had started?" We had all these questions about, should we play it safe and just call 2020 a wash and then pick things up in 2021?
But my husband and I talked about it and we were like, you know what, we're people of faith. We walk by faith and not by sight. Let's go on with this plan and somehow we're going to figure out how to make it through. And I'm so glad we didn't put anything on hold because during the pandemic grocery stores were doing very well, and this was a grocery store opportunity, so we were ready and able to have everything that Giant needed right on time.
2020 has been a very challenging year, but it's also really been a year where we have just seen the benefit of holding on and keeping the faith.
How has the new manufacturing space in Savage Mill worked out?
Before, we were operating out of a really small space. Where we are right now is 3,100 square feet, so I would say three times [larger than before]. But we have actually already outgrown the space. Finding a space was not an easy task. We had an amazing realtor, Clare Berrang, who kind of beat down the doors to help us get into this space. Right now we are racking up, we are looking for pallets to push things up so we can have more space on the ground. We want to be really smart about where we are, and if we are actually bursting at the seams, we will have a conversation with the landlord to see if he has some larger spaces that we can move into.
Have you, like many retailers, seen online sales grow this year?
We saw tremendous growth in our online sales, of course because people were home, but I have to say that what happened with George Floyd over the summer really brought about a shift in how we see ourselves as a Black-owned business and how our community is beginning to show a new appreciation for us as business owners of color. I think customers who maybe would not have purchased from us before are trying out our products. I think people are now realizing... even if we are not the same nationality or color, we can benefit from the different innovations coming from different communities, and I think it's obviously expanded our market.
We have always been very out there in terms of who we are. We are a Black-owned business, we never put that on the back burner. And especially since we are immigrants too, and we source our key ingredient from Africa... that part of us has always been there. What we're seeing is that perhaps a white person may have come to our website or looked at our social media and said, "This isn't for me" — because people do make that split-second decision. But the ones who normally wouldn't have given us a second look now say, "Maybe I could try that too." I think that this summer, people really started being a little bit more aware and conscious about, "Why did I pass this brand up? Is it because I don't think they are making stuff that I can use as well?"
You source your shea butter directly from women-run cooperatives in Nigeria and Ghana. Why is that important to you?
When we started trying to find sources of our raw ingredients... we realized that part of our purpose and part of our brand was going to be the fact that we source sustainably from women-run supply chains, and our success was tied into our ability to do business right. For that reason, we knew we wanted to build a big business that was meaningful and would have impact on our customers, giving them the results they wanted, but also on our supply chain partners.