Welcome to Byrdie's series, The Hustle. We're profiling BIPOC women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
For sisters Naana Boakye, Abena Slowe, and Akua Okunseinde, shea butter has been an integral part of their beauty routine since their childhood days in Ghana. Experiencing the nourishing skin benefits of raw, unrefined shea butter firsthand inspired them to launch their skincare brand in 2017. Enter: Karité. The brand offers a range of essentials—including body cream, hand cream, and lip balm—made with pure shea butter and palm oil from their West African homeland.
The sisters have focused on steadily growing their business over the past five years, landing retail partnerships across the United States and Canada. Simultaneously, they've devoted immense effort to social change initiatives (like #SheaforSoles, Black Lives Matter, and Global Shea Alliance) to ensure their brand makes a positive impact. Ahead, Boakye and Slowe discuss what it's been like building a beauty brand and how they are supporting women-led co-operatives in Ghana. Keep scrolling to learn more about Karité.
What role did shea butter play in your beauty routines growing up?
Boakye: We're originally from Ghana, so shea butter was always inherently used to moisturize our skin. The shea butter back home is unrefined and has many amazing antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. But when we were growing up, we always had to melt the shea butter a little bit by rubbing it together in our hands. That wasn't really convenient. We'd also buy lotions and creams and try to make our own creamy concoction. But, a lot of those products have ingredients we didn't understand. That was the reason we decided to come up with Karité. We wanted to infuse the shea butter with more plants and antioxidants to protect our melanin-rich skin.
When did you decide to launch the brand?
Slowe: After becoming moms, we became more aware of what we were using on our bodies. Back in 2013, we started to think about actually making something ourselves. It took a while for the idea to come together because it wasn't something we were doing full time. We didn't officially launch the brand until 2017. During that time, we learned about ingredients, formulating, and product testing.
Can you walk me through each of your roles within the company?
Boakye: I'm the one with the science background. As the dermatologist, I was able to come up with our formulation. We wanted a product that was non-toxic, hypoallergenic, and especially moisturizing for melanin-rich skin.
Slowe: My background is as an attorney, so I spend my days looking at contracts and making sure we have all the operational things in place to run the business. Our other sister, Akua Okunseinde, has a marketing background. She's been able to take on any marketing initiatives we've had. We sort of have the perfect mixture of skills you need to have a business. It's been extremely helpful.
What has been the most rewarding part of building the brand?
Slowe: Hearing the customer say how much they love our product. I think there's nothing more rewarding than that. We've made something we love, but knowing so many other people love it too is the best.
Boakye: I totally agree with that. Getting those testimonials is amazing. I had a patient who asked me to try the hand cream, and she loved it. Working with my sisters is also a blessing. We all have kids, and I hope they see our relationship and have a close relationship moving forward.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned along your entrepreneurial journey?
Boakye: Patience and flexibility. You have to be ready to pivot sometimes. Over the last two years, we've had a lot of changes thrown upon us. You have to be able to be creative and flexible. You also have to realize nothing happens overnight. If it did, everyone would be able to have their own businesses. It's hard work, and you have to keep at it. You will make mistakes, and it can be a little frustrating at times, but you have to see it through. It will take time, but it will be an amazing journey if you believe in what you're doing.
I know you're deeply passionate about supporting communities in Africa. Can you dive deeper into some of those initiatives?
Boakye: We met with the women-led co-operatives who pick our shea nuts in 2019. When we visited them for the first time in Tamale, Ghana, we brought them sun hats. As a dermatologist, I wanted to ensure they protected their skin while picking up these nuts. We also brought them our product to show them that the nuts they picked were turned into our products.
We listened to them while we were there and realized they walked six miles from their village to the field where these shea trees are in slippers. We decided to launch the #SheaforSoles campaign in August 2019 to get sneakers for all of the women. We planned to present the shoes to them in 2020, but the pandemic hit. We finally visited Ghana last year during the holidays and presented the shoes to them.
That's so incredible. I love that you guys are doing that and making it an integral part of your company.
Slowe: Absolutely, we view the co-op as partners. Without them, we wouldn't be able to thrive. We hope to continue our #SheaforSoles campaign and see what else they need. We want to continue to give back to them and their family. We want their children to go to school and remain healthy. I just love that we're able to do this sustainable practice.