Four years ago, Funlayo Alabi’s business, Shea Radiance, was riding high — and then it almost went under.
The Baltimore company she co-founded with her husband, Shola, was selling its all-natural skin and hair care products in hundreds of Target stores, in what seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. But the demands of supplying and succeeding in a big-box store quickly overwhelmed the fledgling venture, forcing a reckoning.
Alabi, who is CEO, knew she couldn’t give up. She and her husband made their products using shea butter sourced from women farmers in western Africa who relied upon buyers like them for their livelihoods. So instead of closing up shop, she pulled the products from Target shelves and went back to basics.
“People were depending on orders from us, no matter how big or small,” she says. “We made promises to those women.”
Alabi’s fortitude — and her commitment to those farmers — saw the business through the storm. Though she declined to disclose revenue figures, Alabi says Shea Radiance has done over $1 million in sales to date. And, she’s confident that they finally have a recipe worked out for incremental success.
Along the way, she has also learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurship, and the importance of bouncing back from failure.
Building from the Ground Up
Alabi was born in the United Kingdom, then moved to Nigeria. She was raised there until moving to the United States in 1982, when she was in her late teens. After attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., she focused on her career. By 2007, she was living in the D.C. metro area, married, working in information technology, and raising two sons.
As children, her boys grappled with skin problems. “They were eczema-prone,” she recalls. “The doctors tried everything.” Seeking an alternative, she asked family members to bring shea butter back from Nigeria. Then, she and her husband used it religiously on the boys’ skin — as well as their own. “We saw a remarkable transformation,” she says.
Inspired, she and her husband started developing shea butter-based body products in their kitchen, adding lavender and other essential oils to their concoctions as they got more adventurous. “The more we studied about the benefits of shea butter, the more excited we got,” she says. Alabi then began sharing the fruits of their labor with friends and family and collecting feedback — mostly rave reviews.
In 2008, the couple formally launched Shea Radiance, while also holding down full-time jobs. As they grew their new venture, they set out to learn more about where their namesake product comes from. “We wanted to make sure it was coming from someplace sustainable. We wanted to make sure we understood it,” she says. So they connected with consultants from USAID who focus on alleviating poverty and building infrastructure in shea-producing sectors of western Africa.
When they visited farms in those areas, they were moved to action by women who expressed concerns about being able to provide for their children. “The trajectory of the business changed, even though we were small at that point,” she says. “From that day forward, it became a part of our mission to prosper so that we could help others prosper.”
Back in the U.S., word was spreading and orders were continuing to come in, making it necessary for Alabi to step down from her job in 2009 to work on Shea Radiance full time. But it was a gamble, she says. “The revenue wasn’t enough to replace that income. So, we dipped into our savings and made the investment of our lives.”
In 2011, Shea Radiance grew further, by adding a line of hair care products for women with naturally curly hair — earning them the attention of a broker from Target. At the time, the superstore was building out a multicultural section, and was looking to bring in all-natural brands like hers.
Alabi leapt at the chance, excited for the opportunity to grow. But unforeseen complications awaited — and they would prove to be the ultimate test for her and her business.
The Test of a Lifetime
Shea Radiance first appeared in over 300 Target locations in August of 2012. But rather than heralding a new chapter of growth for the business, things quickly began to go wrong.
“We didn’t have investors. We got funds from friends and family and went into our savings and retirement funds. We still didn’t have a lot of money to support a really powerful marketing effort,” she says. “That was one thing that I think hurt us — not being properly financed for getting into a big-box store.”
The stores also made pricing errors, and would-be customers had difficulty finding the products on shelves, all of which resulted in a less-than impressive debut — not to mention, mounting debt. Just under a year after launching the new effort, Alabi decided the best course of action was to pull out.
“By the time we were through with the ordeal, we were financially overwhelmed and emotionally spent. And our brand had depreciated,” she says. “I knew I had failed.”
In that moment, Alabi was faced with a choice — cut her losses and close down Shea Radiance for good, or rebuild her business. She consulted with trusted friends and assessed the situation with her husband. Ultimately, it was the commitment she’d made to the women in Africa that tipped the scales in favor of pressing onward.
Alabi and her husband re-focused on the two core values of their brand: making a quality product and giving women half a world away access to the American marketplace. “Our commitment to those two things haven’t changed. So we couldn’t quit.”
Alabi enrolled in a business accelerator for six months, where she received a $25,000 cash infusion. And she brought the business back to basics in a bid to get Shea Radiance back on track, reducing the number of products it offered and giving the packaging a makeover.
Today, she and her husband continue to make their products themselves in their kitchen. A small team of eight part-time staffers work on other parts of the business, including social media management, marketing and social-impact initiatives. They have a sales team on retainer and also assembled a group of advisors, including a lead investor.
“We got as far as we could solo,” she says. “To go to the next level, we pulled in a team of people who believe in what we’re doing.”
While reflecting upon her experiences, Alabi has no regrets. She does, however, have new insight into what it takes to succeed as a business owner. “Business is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve been able to look back at what happened as part of a growth process,” she says. “Sometimes, failure is God trying to push you in another direction. If you quit, you’ll never get there.”
A Radiant Future Ahead
Alabi is now testing Shea Radiance’s products at her local Whole Foods location, as well as other area natural grocers. So far, she says customers have responded positively. She and her husband are hoping to get back onto Target’s shelves one day, and are meeting with the likes of Sam’s Club to discuss partnership opportunities as well.
“Getting the brand into mass retail channels is our ultimate goal,” she says, adding that they are particularly focused on stores in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeastern and Southeastern United States. To achieve this, they are doing an investment round.
As for the business’ commitment to female farmers in Nigeria and Ghana, Alabi has gotten involved with the Global Shea Alliance Sustainability Working Group, a nonprofit collaborative of brands, women’s groups, suppliers and others who are working together to ensure sustainability and best practices for shea farmers. She continues to make annual trips to Africa.
Going forward, Alabi is just as motivated by Shea Radiance’s past struggles as she is by those female farmers, using her hard experiences as a guide as she forges a new path for her business. “Challenges aren’t really a reason a quit — they just mean you have to be willing to learn and change.”