Believing in the Family Business: An Interview With Naa-Sakle Akuete

By Randi Zuckerberg

May 16, 2017 6 min read

I had Naa-Sakle Akuete on my radio show to discuss how she put together a huge, extravagant wedding for only 10K. But soon I realized that the reasoning behind her savvy is because of her smart business sense, which she honed running her own company first.

That's why I support this woman's work.

Naa-Sakle Akuete is the founder and CEO of Eu'Genia Shea, an all-natural shea-based moisturizing line. Naa-Sakle graduated from Wellesley College in 2008 and then spent time during the financial crisis at Lehman Brothers and Barclays Capital. She graduated from Harvard Business School in 2014 and began Eu'Genia Shea soon afterward.

1) When did you realize your calling was in family over Wall Street?

My background has almost entirely been in finance — albeit with a particular interest in (consumer packaged goods). I was in business school when I began seriously contemplating jumping into the shea world full time. And there are a lot of things that went into that decision — not the least of which being the student loans I was busy racking up. I'm glad you phrased the question as it relates to family rather than as it relates to having my own business or just about leaving Wall Street, though, because family really was the deciding factor.

Back in 2000, my mother, Eugenia, started a business that she named after me. It was her heart and soul for over a decade, and its mission was to help empower her female partners in Ghana, our native land. One of the things she encountered was that in a B2B company like hers, oftentimes clients don't care about all pieces of the puzzle, which to us meant appreciating the well-being of the supply chain and valuing the quality of the end product. In short, she had this wonderfully high-quality shea butter — made in partnership with hundreds of female pickers — paid workers 20 percent above prevailing prices/wages and (had) precious few customers who really cared.

At this time, I started brainstorming ideas for a company that sold finished products directly to consumers. I figured as a consumer, I like supporting good causes and theorized that others would, too, especially since our good cause was also a great product. I am an absolute shea convert! When you think about what makes a good moisturizer, doctors note that humectants, occlusives and emollients comprise the key factors. Humectant ingredients attract and retain moisture. Occlusive ingredients create a barrier to prevent water loss. And emollients smooth skin by filling in the cracks between cells. Shea butter is all of those things plus has up to 20 times the healing properties of other seed oils. It doesn't clog your pores. It has natural SPF 6. And with its vitamins A, E, F and K, some also consider it an anti-inflammatory. It seems like many people were aware of its benefits, but looking at the landscape of product options, most had pretty nominal levels of shea content. Consumers were being charged a premium for products labeled "contains shea butter" in big block letters but weren't really getting the full benefit. So for many reasons, a product like ours seemed like a win-win.

When I was getting my master's and toying with all of this, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer (and) then, seemingly immediately thereafter, a mystery disease the doctors guessed was bacterial meningitis, with symptoms including coma, seizures and strokes. I think a lot of children think their parents will live forever. When you're young, they're your whole world, and when you grow older, that perspective doesn't really diminish. In a couple years, this falsehood crashed down around me, leaving me with the question, What do I want to do with this remaining time? My answer was to start a business with her, and that's what Eu'Genia is — a mother/daughter-run social enterprise enriching our lives together as we aim to improve the lives of hundreds of mothers in Ghana.

2) How did your business analyst skills carry over to running your own business?

Prior to Eu'Genia, my career was focused on understanding equity markets, synthesizing what made companies good and projecting my thoughts about them into the future. This all prepared me pretty well for what I hope our company will be in 10 years. I didn't have much experience with startups until Harvard. I would say that my time there was integral to giving me the confidence to believe I could actually succeed, the network to support and advise me, and the more basic skills necessary to build a company from scratch.

3) What is the best part of running a family-owned business?

Family means different things to different people, but no one loves me more, so it definitely compares favorably to all my previous work environments. My mom is also living with me now, so when I'm working on customer orders, she's in the background mixing shea butter and cooing over whatever Oprah and Ellen are doing that day. Many days, it's distracting, but every day, it's hilarious, and I love that I've been able to have this opportunity.

Randi Zuckerberg is the founder of Zuckerberg Media, a best-selling author and the host of a weekly business show on SiriusXM, "Dot Complicated." To find out more about Randi Zuckerberg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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