More Than Just a BEAUTY BRAND It is an Exploration

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Shea Terra’s journey began in 1999. A lifelong quest for purity and a burning desire to preserve ancient beauty rituals led Shea Terra founder to create the never ending line.

Tammie Umbel shares how she got the inspiration to create Shea Terra.

Ever since I was a little girl I have had a soft spot for human and wildlife suffering. I spent many hours amongst the wildlife whether it was under our Florida trailer collecting garter snakes or in the blackberry thicket nearby our apartment. Television shaped my young consciousness. I often watched programs on endangered wildlife and the threats of dwindling ecosystems. Whenever I could sneak a peek I would watch Feed the Children, a program which showed starving children in underdeveloped countries. Seeing young children with bloated bellies had a lasting impact on me. The mages of parents crying as they held their starving children has stuck with me to this day. My young mind couldn’t understand why Feed the Children didn’t create jobs for these families so that they could feed their own children, and so I said to myself that one day I was going to do just that.

I have always had a fascination with distant cultures. I grasped any and all cultural interactions that I could. My “step-mother” (long story) was from Thailand. I loved visiting the Thai temple, sampling Thai food and learning about their culture and religion. My mother gulfed down any spicy food my “step-mother” had to offer. A special treat for me was when the elderly Polish woman from upstairs would offer me some chrusciki. My best friend was Korean. I used to ride on her back into the Chesapeake Bay because I was afraid crabs would bite me. I spent hours trying to learn Korean from her so that we could fly off to Korea. My mom wasn’t letting me go to Korea. I felt I was 12 and old enough. I think I was the only one in the class that loved the laddo that my friend’s mother from India made. I still say that was the best laddo of any I have eaten since. I remember my first visit to an Indian spice shop. I bought virgin coconut oil and a red hair oil for my hair. I am not sure if the hair oil was supposed to smell like champa, but no one in my ninth grade class would sit next to me.

At 15 I became a Muslim. I doubt anyone saw that coming, even me! I was a former beauty queen. I played Madonna in the school talent show- and it was really me singing by the way. Becoming Muslim opened me up to a whole new world of cultures. Walking down Embassy Row in DC was almost akin to the international expeditions I had dreamed of for so many years. Entering into the large, ornate mosque was like journeying into a new world. I met women from Pakistan to Ivory Coast, from the Philippines to Thailand. Although each culture was unique, they shared some commonalities melded together by ancient Islamic civilizations. It was here that I was first introduced to the intricate work of henna. Each country seemed to have slight variations of how they applied it. The women in Morocco would apply it to the soles of their feet to enhance their eyesight. The women in Pakistan would wear intricate designs on their hands. The Sudanese women would wear their henna black. And then there were the aromas. While I enjoyed the fragrances of mogli and gulab, it was the perfumes of the African women that most caught my attention. As the women would walk into the mosque with their long scarves waving from on top of their head wraps, they would wave onto everyone sitting upon the carpets with a greeting of salam, “peace”. Exotic aromas would waft from their skin. In attendance to several African weddings later I would discover the source of the deep and sensuous aromas. As I assisted in the wedding preparations of the women of Sudan and Somalia I experienced the “dukhan”, the smoking of the skin with fragrant woods of sandal, talih and shafe. I wanted to share these amazing experiences with the world. Without ever envisioning a company of my own, I pondered over how these women could create micro-businesses selling their natural beauty rituals with the world. I realized that if done sustainably, these natural beauty rituals could bring income to rural women while giving them the desire and means to preserve dwindling wildlife habitats.

No, when I was 18 I developed a clothing company. By this time I had visited the village in Pakistan that my husband grew up in. From the moment I got on the plane from Dubai to Pakistan the sights and smells of poverty were overwhelming. I literally broke down crying on the airplane. Seeing the poverty of some of my own family members in Appalachia did not prepare me for what I saw in Pakistan. We set up clothing manufacturing there with hopes of being able to make real monetary differences for some of the world’s poorest people. The company proved to be highly stressful for me and I shut it down a few years later. But what I learned was invaluable. I learned how to import, manufacture and market products. In those days we didn’t have internet so I had to hand make my own catalogs. These survival woman’s skills became valuable when I was ready to launch Shea Terra.

When I first started the company in 1999, it wasn’t a shea butter company at all. I was selling a variety of beauty rituals from different countries. I was selling attars from India, henna from Iran, black seed oil from Egypt, and shea butter from Ghana. My idea was to offer these beauty ingredients at prices that everyone could afford so that I could share these natural gems with as many people as possible. I also wanted for the suppliers to be able to sell more of their good s and make more money. In West Africa the women had mounds of shea butter that they could not sell. The butter was so cheap. A kilo of shea butter could be purchased from middle men for $1.50 a kg. But shea butter in Europe and US was being sold for astronomical prices- $40 for a four oz. jar and about $20 a lb. for bulk. I once met a woman who told me that she purchased a one oz. jar of shea butter for $100 because she needed it for her son’s psoriasis. Customers flocked to us for our incredibly low shea butter prices. We barely sold any of the other items, and so I decided to rebrand the company to African Shea Butter Co. While I was pleased to focus on shea butter for my brand, I was disappointed that I wasn’t keeping with my original vision of working with as many communities as possible. I also realized that in the next three years every big beauty name was going to jump on the shea butter band wagon. I looked for a way to incorporate my original vision while promoting the love of my life, shea butter. I was so excited when I came up with the name Shea Terra. With the name terra, meaning earth, I could incorporate the numerous miracle ingredients into our shea butter line.

When I started African Shea Butter Company there was only one company using the word organics, and that was Aubrey Organics. Aubrey was a very kind visionary. I modeled my products after his all natural formulas. Organic was not really a thing back then. When I rebranded to Shea Terra Organics about two other companies started using the word organics at about the same time. So at that time there was about four of us. Our early products were mostly organic, but this greatly limited us. I had a lady in Namibia, a good friend of mine, who could not afford to certify her marula oil as organic. I decided I would use her oil anyhow and just let everyone know that it was wild harvested, but not certified organic. Over the years, however, organics has become so overused and abused that I have become very disillusioned with the term. There is so much fraud when it comes to organics that I have decided to take the name off our brand.

There are so many. I’ll try to remember a few. When I started Shea Terra Organics “green beauty” was not a thing. It was very, very difficult trying to convince women that their beauty products were not only bad for them, potentially cancer causing, and bad for the environment, but that they could actually make their skin age faster. My biggest competitor was not a natural brand, it was a large chain of bath and body products with nice packaging and a variety of enticing fragrances. I had the challenge of creating a natural line that would appeal to women who were accustomed to artificial skin care. One of the thing that I had to do was to teach women that oils were actually good for their skin. I introduced new oils never sold before in the US like argan oil in 2003 preceded by marula, baobab, mongongo and black seed. When I made my first formulas I realized that if I put a high enough concentration of butter or oil I didn’t need thickeners like stearic acid so I started the whole “NO FILLERS” for skin and body care. I also introduced a lip balm manufacturer to the use of stevia to sweeten lip balms. This is also something that had never been done before. Because I was often the first to introduce new ingredients, the names that I coined have become industry standard- Moroccan lava clay, shea nilotica, and Kalahari melon are just a few. In addition, I started the whole black face care product trend. Several years back we gave 100,000 Rose Hips Black Soap Face Washes to Birch Box. Users were told to use as a mask before washing off. Soon thousands of women were taking pictures with a black mask on their face. This was unheard of. A black mask? Eventually charcoal was used to produce black masks and black soap products, but nothing replaces the original African Black Soap.