In 2017, sisters Naana Boakye, Abena Slowe and Akua Okunseinde decided to launch their skin care line Karité, promoting products that include natural shea butter.
The moisturizer was a large part of childhood in Ghana where the three sisters, now all based in the greater New York City area, are from. Together, the sisters bring their specialities to the table to create a cohesive and seamless family business.
Boakye is a board-certified dermatologist, specializing in the health and appearance of the skin, as well as the chief executive officer. Slowe is the chief operating officer, focusing on the brand’s operations and growth strategy, as well as the resident attorney. Okunseinde is the chief creative officer, focusing on the marketing and growth of the business, including new skus and market research.
In a conversation with WWD, the trio highlighted the benefits of shea butter, the importance of family aspect for their business, giving back to their community in Ghana and more.
WWD: How did Karité get started?
Abena Slowe: We just grew up using shea butter. We’re from Ghana and that’s the moisturizer we used growing up. If you’re familiar with raw, unrefined, shea butter, it’s pretty hard to spread. You have to really rub it in your hands to get it to melt before you use it on your body. We were thinking, “How can we make this more spreadable? More cosmetically elegant?” We would be in our kitchen trying to whip it, melt it, mix it with over-the-counter lotions, and then one day we decided, especially since Naana, as a dermatologist, sees a lot of this in her practice, “Why can’t we make our own cream where it has very limited ingredients?” It’s great for your skin, good for everybody from infants to adults.
Naana Boakye: We wanted to show the world and tell the world about shea butter. It’s not just soothing for your skin, but it’s also anti-inflammatory, meaning it just cools the skin down. The environment inflames you, the foods you eat inflame you. You always need to cool your skin down.
Akua Okunseinde: The three products that we have are the Crème Mains…the hero products of the brand we launched in February of 2017, so almost exactly five years ago, which is amazing to think about how long it’s been. It includes the shea butter, the palm oil, botanicals — super hydrating for your hands, especially in this environment of constant handwashing. A couple months later, we launched our body cream, the Crème Corps, which is a great moisturizer for post shower, and especially during winter. Then, most recently, about this time last year, we launched a lip balm, which has also done quite well.
WWD: How long was this in the making?
A.O.: We had been thinking about this since 2013. Just the concept around making the shea butter more of like a liquid shea at the time. Making it more spreadable and bringing that base, foundational ingredient to consumers. We had the idea, we brought our business plan, we started to think about the formulation companies we wanted to work with. Sourcing all the ingredients we were very intentional about, [as well as] making sure we knew exactly where our ingredients were coming from. Then, sourcing packaging. We were very intentional about thinking about what we wanted the brand to actually look like, making sure it was super clean, and very aesthetically pleasing. All of those elements took some time. So from 2013 to 2017, really, we were in the planning and launching process and launched in 2017.
WWD: What made you decide it was good to start it together as a family?
N.B.: I’m the oldest, and it’s actually been fun. It actually has brought us together even more. What’s wonderful about it is that not only has it brought us together, but we all have kids, and our kids see what it’s like to work as a family dynamic, too. Unfortunately, sometimes when we hear from our friends, “Oh, I can’t stand my sister or I can’t stand my brother,” I’m like, that’s the total opposite with us because we get along so well. We talk to each other like a million times a day to the point that sometimes I have to ignore some of the text messages. But it’s really nice and I think it’s important to instill that in our kids just to see that, you know what, it’s all about family. I think, especially in COVID-19 now, we all realize that is also imperative.
A.O.: I think what’s also nice is we love working together, as Naana said, but then we also recognize we need outside perspectives sometimes. It’s really nice to work with partners that bring different perspectives to the business. We do have our family structure, but then we also make sure that we remember that there’s voices outside of us and diverse perspectives are important to get as well.
WWD: Tell us more about your initiative Shea for Soles.
A.S.: We work with women shea farmers. There are these women co-ops in Northern Ghana, and they pick the shea nuts and all the shea farms are located up there. Just working and using a product that we grew up with and being able to showcase its benefits globally is really important to us. Then, also being able to, in a way, partner with these women and by working with them, we’re allowing them to make money, empower their own families, help the community. Also they’re women and having their own children be able to look up to their mothers and know that they’re in this powerful role, is really important, too. One of the initiatives we took on, we were able to go, pre-COVID-19 in the summer of 2019, we asked them, “What else can we do to help you?”
We realized that they were walking miles a day in flip-flops to the farms and they needed much better footwear. We started this Shea for Soles campaign where we were collecting sneakers that we could bring to them so that they’d be able to just have a much easier time working. We intended to bring it to them in 2020 but we were delayed by a whole year because of COVID-19. Luckily, we were able to go in December and be able to give them the shoes. They were so incredibly thankful, especially because they had just had a pretty tough year with their harvest. They remembered us. They were so happy that we came back and we talked to them about what else we’d be able to help them with to be able to continue to their own business, too. It’s just great to be able to work with women in Ghana where we’re from. It’s really important to us.
WWD: What makes Karité different from other skin care brands?
A.S.: I think one of the most important things is that Naana is a dermatologist and at the forefront of the brands. There are a lot of brands out there that say, “Oh, it’s dermatologist-tested and dermatologist-approved,” but I don’t think there are many brands out there that actually have a dermatologist doing the formulation, someone who’s there who’s truly understanding the efficacy of all the ingredients that are going into the products. I think that’s definitely what sets us apart. Also, particularly in our body cream, we have 30 percent of raw, unrefined shea butter. Shea butter is listed in a lot of ingredients. We don’t know how much is in there, and they may be using refined shea butter, where you’re not getting those same benefits. When you’re using our products, you are really, truly getting the benefits of shea butter in it.
WWD: What have been some of your biggest challenges so far?
A.O.: I guess most recently, it’s been some of the supply chain challenges. I think we were lucky in our timing that we weren’t hit from an inventory perspective, but still, every aspect of the business gets a little bit hit by labor shortages and we get our ingredients from overseas. Things are taking long to ship over and lead times are a little bit longer. There’s definitely been some downstream impacts, but I think we’re lucky in that, I think compared to other brands who may have had retail, storefronts, and things like that, we don’t have that. We sell e-commerce strictly for our own brand. Then, we also sell wholesale to about 40 or so partners in the U.S. and in Canada. I think we’re lucky that those stores largely stayed open and because a lot of them were mom-and-pop shops that only work with smaller brands. I think those smaller brands weren’t hit by supply chain [issues], so all of them were able to continue on with their business. In a way we are lucky, but there have been some challenges with the supply chain here and there.
WWD: In an already pretty competitive industry, and one that still needs more brands owned by women of color, how do you hope Karité contributes to that conversation?
A.O.: That’s a good question. I think, from my perspective, the uniqueness of how we’re curating ingredients from the continent itself and giving back to communities on the continent is so important to us. We have a ton of family in Ghana. We have opportunities of growing other businesses and thinking about other opportunities within the country and the region. I think we want to do our part to make sure we’re holding true to that, and the only way to do that is to really continue to own our operations end-to-end. I think some people have asked us, “Oh, would your dream be to be sold to a bigger brand?” I say, absolutely not because I feel like then you lose that touch to the core of what you want to do with your business. For us, it’s maintaining that directness to Ghana. I think that’s the aspiration for me, at least.
N.B.: Yeah, I agree.
A.S.: Couldn’t have said it better myself.
WWD: What do you hope for Karité in the future?
N.B.: Just being able to continue to empower our new family in Ghana. Every year we try to go back and we try to visit them and whatever they need, within reason, we’re able to help them out. But then also, just growing. There’s also a lot of growth amongst ourselves here being in a business together. Hopefully, we’ll get a couple more skus out in the future, but we just enjoy working with each other and empowering others.
A.S.: Also, we see ourselves not just as skin care, but also wellness. Being mindful of what kinds of products you’re using on your skin, making sure you understand the ingredients that you’re using, and when you are using it to enjoy it. There’s luxury in it. We’re living in a time of a lot of chaos and stress, so we hope that consumers can turn to our products for a moment of peace and respite, whatever time of day that they need it.
A.O.: Something that we’re really excited about is the opportunity to expand globally. We do accept orders internationally, and we continuously get questions from all over the world like, “Oh, do you ship to us?” We want to continue to do that. I think direct-to-consumer, but then also, there’s so many cool retailers outside of the U.S. We’re looking at some in France, some in the U.K., we’re thinking about expanding our reach to Australia. People want our skincare brand and people want shea butter, so why not try to be in those markets where there’s opportunity?
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