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Columbia's Shea Radiance nourishes skin, empowers entrepreneurs

AfricaPersonal ServiceWhole Foods MarketTargetWalmart

To Funlayo Alabi, Shea Radiance is much more than a business. It’s a mission.

Started in their Ellicott City home by Funlayo and her husband, Shola, Shea Radiance sells skin and hair products made from shea butter. Since the company’s beginning eight years ago, business has doubled every year, and Shea Radiance products are now sold in hundreds of outlets, including some Target and Whole Foods stores.

What makes the Columbia-based business more than a moneymaking venture, however, is that raw shea butter -- like Funlayo and Shola Alabi -- comes from West Africa, extracted from the nut of the African shea tree. And the Alabis have made it their mission to teach rural West Africans how to use this valuable natural resource to alleviate the grinding poverty so many of them endure.

The Alabis, who moved to the United States from Nigeria about 30 years ago to attend school, already have made several business-related trips back to West Africa. Most recently, they returned to Nigeria in early March for a conference of the Global Shea Alliance, an international coalition of shea-related companies, where they led training sessions on how to transform raw shea butter into marketable skin- and hair-care products, like theirs.

“We made the decision early on that, as the business grows, we would give back to the community,” says Funlayo, who serves as the company’s CEO. “We wanted our business to have a social side.”

That the couple even has such a business is pretty much an accident. Several years ago, the Alabis’ two sons were suffering from dry skin that local products couldn’t alleviate. So Funlayo Alabi tried the shea butter she had grown up with in Nigeria, where it has been used for centuries for cooking and for medicinal purposes. The cream worked, and a business idea was born.

The Alabis began making batches of shea-butter-based skin cream. They gave it away to friends and family, then began selling it at farmers markets.

“I had this native knowledge of the product, and started testing it on friends and family,” Funlayo recalls. “Once I knew people were open to it, we started looking for a larger market.”¿

Demand grew, and by 2009 the business had pretty much taken over their Ellicott City home. Perhaps happily for the Alabis, the growth coincided with the American public’s growing familiarity with shea butter products in general.

“Seven years ago, people here didn’t know what shea butter was,” Funlayo says. “Over the past three or four years, it has grown in popularity.”

Even in those early years, the Alabis knew they wanted their business to have that “social side.” They wanted to help the people -- mostly women -- of rural West Africa who produce raw shea butter. In 2009, the couple travelled to Africa “to research the source,” Funlayo explains. Three years later, their business expanding, they bought 12 tons of raw African shea butter and had it shipped to Baltimore.

These days, the company is run out of leased office space on Gerwig Lane. In the front are a reception area and an office for Funlayo, who in 2009 left her job in software development to run the company. In the back, the skin and hair products are mixed in industrial-sized vats, bottled and labeled by a small team of workers, which grows in the summer when business is at its peak.

“Everything is still kind of low-tech,” says Funlayo, gesturing to the equipment. “As we grow, that might change.”

The formula for their products, which include various oils and butters besides shea butter, was perfected by Shola Alabi. He has a master’s degree in business administration and some background in science, but used mostly trial and error to formulate the makeup of the company’s line of products. “We experimented, to make lotions that people wanted, products that worked,” he says. “You have to make adjustments.”

Shea Radiance’s growing inventory is outlined on the company’s website, shearadiance.com, where shoppers can browse a variety of skin creams, sugar scrubs, soaps, hair treatments and spa products, including those infused with mineral- and vitamin-rich extracts from guava, baobab and Kalahari melon seed oil, and those scented with lavender, pomegranate, vanilla and chocolate truffle.

Today, Shea Radiance products are available in some Target stores and Whole Foods and in about 400 independent stores. Among the latter are such local outlets as David’s Natural Market in Columbia, Roots Market in Clarksville, and The Spa at Turf Valley in Ellicott City.

“We feel like we’re just getting started,” Funlayo says. “We’re a homegrown startup that is getting some traction. But a lot of people don’t even know about us yet.”

Word about the company is leaking out. Last year, Shea Radiance was one of 15 Maryland businesses honored by the Greater Baltimore Committee with Bridging the Gap Achievement Awards, which recognize successful minority-owned and women-owned businesses.

Julie Lenzer Kirk, executive director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, part of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, has met and worked with Funlayo Alabi at various EDA seminars and events.

A former small-business woman herself, Kirk well knows the challenges Shea Radiance faces, but she praised Funlayo’s savvy and zeal.

“She’s got a lot going for her,” Kirk says. “She’s smart, and she’s asking for advice when she needs it.

“But the biggest thing going for her is her passion,” Kirk adds. “She’s got a huge passion for what she’s doing, and it shows. She’s got a big heart, where she wants to give back.”

Despite their passion and their business backgrounds, the Alabis have found running Shea Radiance a challenge.

“Nothing prepares you for this type of work,” Funlayo says. She noted the long hours and the range of skills needed, from handling business loans to labeling bottles, and plenty in between. “What you learn in business school is management. Entrepreneurship is a completely different beast.”

Still, the couple sees their current success as only the beginning. They hope to boost production and expand into more stores, particularly large chains such as Walmart. At the same time, they want to help boost the global demand for shea butter products and make sure that demand translates into more work and more money for the native producers in Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and other countries where shea trees are plentiful.

“It all boils down to empowering the people and alleviating poverty,” says Funlayo. “I feel we really could bring some economic good to these communities.” 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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