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Master Class: Abena Boamah

The former teacher and founder of Hanahana beauty is a lesson in how young brands can have a big impact.

Sharpen your pencils and open your monogrammed Moleskines. Today, Abena Boamah will be leading the beauty industry in a vocabulary lesson.

The former seventh grade teacher-turned-skin care founder is uniquely qualified for the job.

In 2017, Boamah launched Hanahana Beauty: sustainable, accessible, all-natural shea butter products, ethically and transparently sourced from the Katariga Women’s Shea Cooperative in Ghana and created to uplift women of color.

In 2020, these values — sustainable! accessible! women of color! — became the buzziest buzzwords in beauty, a shift driven by the coronavirus pandemic, constant climate emergencies and the social justice movement that ignited after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“When it came time for all these lists, we were hitting those opportunities, which I’m very grateful for,” the Ghanaian American entrepreneur said, referencing the numerous “Black-owned Beauty Brands to Buy Right Now” roundups that Hanahana Beauty topped last year. Beyoncé’s included.

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But as these words become more ubiquitous, Boamah has doubled down on the importance of mission over marketing.

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“If you’re going to say that being ‘accessible’ and ‘sustainable,’ are a part of your values, you have to do some research on how you can actually be impactful,” she said. “There’s so much opportunity in the beauty space. I would rather see Black people being given opportunities than just hearing, ‘Buy Black.’”

It’s an unexpected sentiment from a business owner, perhaps — but Boamah isn’t in it to make money. She’s in it to make change. (And — of course — really good shea butter.)

Hanahana Beauty has gotten a lot of attention over the past year. What does scaling sustainably look like for you?

Abena Boamah: I think it comes down to defining sustainability and evaluating how you’re hitting sustainability in all areas. As a team, we look at sustainability with a holistic approach. We’re a team of Black women who are putting our time and energy into this company not just for a check, but to make a greater impact. We’re continuing to build on the foundation we’ve created, from environmental sustainability through packaging all the way to the producers we work with. [Hanahana pays its producers in Ghana two times the going rate for shea butter.] As a team, we have to think about our price point offerings and how we can continue to make high-quality products that are actually accessible.

Do you think the industry understands that holistic approach yet? That “sustainable” doesn’t only mean packaging, but includes fair wages and company policy?

A.B.: The industry has to understand the holistic approach. There’s a certain level of consciousness and curiosity that’s grown in beauty consumers, particularly in the past year. As a consumer myself, I’m not only interested in the benefits of a product, but the path of where my dollar goes.

How do you navigate pricing to reflect the work that goes into making them versus being affordable? What’s the balance of sustainability to accessibility in that holistic equation?

What I’ve found is that maybe we can’t be accessible through each and every one of our products, but we can be accessible through the information and opportunities we give and the stories we share. We look at accessibility through different approaches: through our Hanahana Circle of Care, our community health care initiatives for the Katargia Cooperative, and also in how we curate learning experiences around beauty and wellness for our community.

The kind of relationship you have with the Katargia Cooperative is rare in the mainstream beauty space.

A.B.: It is, and I didn’t realize that. I remember one of my mentors asked, ‘Wait, so did you actually go to Ghana? Because I’ve worked with brands that say all these things and they’ve never stepped foot in the country they’re associating themselves with.’ I’m coming from a different background. There’s no way that we could’ve created the Hanahana Circle of Care if I hadn’t lived in Ghana. As a teacher, my motto has always been that you can’t create real impact in a community if you’re not near it.

You recently rebranded. How did you approach that while staying true to your foundation?

A.B.: As a team, we asked ourselves: How can we really educate people through our branding in a more strategic way? We elevated the brand presentation so it met the level and care of the work we’re doing. We still use glass packaging but we’ve transitioned to heavier double-walled glass containers with wide-mouth openings, for easier application. We even reassessed all the vendors we source from outside of cooperatives. It was also just time for an aesthetic change. I love color and it felt right to add a color identified with our scents and products. For creative, we did everything in-house, working with Leroy Wadie, a graphic designer in Ghana on a new logo and packaging design. We also partnered with Deun Ivory and Juliet Cangelosi on imagery, who know our team and our brand really well. The best part about the rebrand was working with our friends and community — I didn’t want to ‘elevate’ by pivoting to working with a big branding agency. We were able to elevate the brand while tying in the people who got us here in the first place.

Coming from your background of teaching and therapy, what motivated the pivot to skin care? 

A.B.: I’ve always felt like my purpose in life has to do with creating space for people to feel comfortable learning about themselves. As a teacher and a therapist, I thought that was the best way to go about it. But working within these systems pushed me to find another way to create an impact, and I ultimately found skin care and wellness. Every day we do something that affects our skin, from the products we apply to the food we eat. What happens when we become more intentional about how we take care of our largest organ? We might move differently or think about other aspects — what we’re putting inside our bodies. I hope to live in a world in which people are more intentional about how they think about skin, not just for themselves, but also why and how they treat people the way they do — understanding why you feel certain ways about people with certain skin colors.