Interview with entrepreneur Magatte Wade
Forbes magazine named Magatte Wade one of the “20 Youngest Power Women of Africa.” Magatte was born in Senegal, educated in France, and started her entrepreneurial career in the U.S. Her first company, Adina World Beverages, based on indigenous Senegalese beverage recipes, became one of the most widely distributed U.S. brands started by an African entrepreneur. Her second company, Tiossan, sells skin care products based on indigenous Senegalese recipes online and at high-end boutiques. Magatte was also named a Young Global Leader by the 2011 World Economic Forum at Davos and is a frequent speaker on college campuses.
Kaizen: Where in Senegal were you born?
Wade: I was born 80 kilometers south of Dakar on the coast of the Atlantic, in a small town called M’bour. It used to be a very small town but because it’s a beach village, it’s become one of the main leisure and tourist towns.
Kaizen: The Gambia River runs from the west through Senegal?
Wade: Yes. We are about three hours north of that.
Kaizen: What was your education as a child like?
Wade: I never went to school when I was a child in Senegal. I credit a lot of who I am and my love of freedom to that—to the fact that my grandmother allowed for me not to go to school.
Kaizen: So you were raised by your grandmother primarily?
Wade: Yes, for three or four more years. Instead of going to school, I would spend all of my time playing with boys, going on expeditions, and things like that.
Kaizen: At what age did you go to Europe?
Wade: I was seven-and-a-half or eight.
Kaizen: Where in Europe?
Wade: I went to Germany for two years. After that the family moved to France.
Kaizen: Did you start formal schooling there?
Wade: Yes, right away. I landed in Germany, and I had never experienced cold weather, let alone snow. So I get thrown in there, my grandmother was nowhere to be seen anymore, and I had to go to this thing called “school.” I had to wear shoes—I hated shoes. Anytime you give me shoes I lose one so I don’t have to wear anything. They threw me into school right away. In Germany, the primary schools are private, and my class had two teachers for eight students.
Kaizen: That’s wonderful. So you spent two years in Germany and then …
Wade: The rest in France, all through high school and business school. As soon as I finished business school, I decided to move to the United States.
Kaizen: How old were you when you started business school?
Wade: When I finished business school I was probably around 20 or 21. In France, the way things work is that most French kids have to make a decision by the time we get into what Americans call “high school.” Our high school is the last three years of your high school. So by the time we get there, most of us have made a choice already to decide whether we are going to be in the technical branch or if we are going to be on the general branch.
Kaizen: You decide in your early teens?
Wade: Yes. You have to make this very critical decision. And usually it’s not so much that you make it; your grades make it. The good students continue on to general schools. The bad students are usually pushed into technical-vocational schools where they alternate between school and job.
Wade: Yes. Because I was dubbed a “very good student,” I took the general path. In the general path there are also rankings. The very best of the best go through the scientific path. We take the SGED, the scientific GED. That’s the one I took. The elite of the French students take German, English, and Latin. Those are the foreign languages that you are learning in school. And most of your education is based on math and physics. The lesser good beyond that, but still very good, do the same, except instead of math and physics they do math and natural sciences, biology.
Kaizen: What about the humanities?
Wade: In France, the humanities are like the bottom of a bottle; although, if you are in the humanities, you also have your own ranking. Anyways, I took that general path because if you take the scientific GED, then that’s what they call the “royal path.” If you do that, then you can do anything you want. The best business schools after that are for you; the best universities are for you; and the best engineering schools are for you. So most of the time the best students do the SGED and from there they go to a prep school. Prep schools are usually divided into prep school for business school or prep school for engineering school. From there you move on to those top engineering or business schools. Some business schools, depending on how ahead of the game a student is, will allow you to forego the prep school part. Normally prep school is only one year, but most kids do it in two years.
Kaizen: Regarding language issues. When you were seven and went to Germany, did you know only Wolof?
Wade: I only spoke Wolof. I didn’t know German at all.
Kaizen: How was that transition to education in German?
Wade: It was a pretty tough transition. And the culture was also very different. Imagine the opposites: a very free person from Africa and a very rigid culture in Germany. It was really tough. But one thing my grandmother always taught me, I remember her always saying something like, “They’re only people. They’re like you. There’s nothing mystical or magical about them. Whatever they can do, you can do probably more. So just get to it.”
That’s what I did. Here was a language I didn’t know, but if they can speak it, I can speak it too. So within about six months I caught up. Kids learn very fast. At the same time, my parents had someone come from Senegal to live with us and be our nanny. She came and spoke to me always in French.
Kaizen: The decision in your early teens to go on the business track—was this more your decision or more your parents and teachers?
Wade: At first I would have liked to be more on an engineering path. I thought I wanted to. And soon I realized that maybe I wanted to do that because maybe it would be cool for my dad. You know what I mean? I’d been a tomboy my whole life and I have this philosophy of being a tomboy. I don’t want to be so girly. So the engineering path was a natural. It’s like: “I’m not going to go where all the girls are. I’m going to go where all the boys are.” And wanting to please my dad was in the back of my mind.
But eventually, I’m like, “You know, I’m not excited about doing so much math and physics. That’s really not what excites me.” Also, the students who were in there, the people I was going to have to compete against, I felt like they had a whole side of them that was not really explored. You know how geeks can be like very one-sided? I was not happy with that. I wanted to speak languages; I wanted to do all of that stuff. I saw that actually I wanted to be … I don’t know how you call it here … but I wanted to fly. I don’t know how you say it in English.
Kaizen: Say it in French.
Wade: You know in Top Gun, that type of …
Kaizen: Fighter pilots?
Wade: Yes. Fighter pilots. That’s what I wanted to do—to fly. I hadn’t actually seen Top Gun. It was just my thing. So eventually I decided that with all of the math and the people I was going to have to spend my life with, I’m like, “You know what? That’s not really me.”
Kaizen: How old are you at this decision point?
Wade: Around 14 because French students have to think about it ahead of time. By the time you are 15 or 16, you better have made your decision.
But then I had no choice. In my family you’re going to go the engineering path or you are going to do the next royal path, which is business school. So that’s really all I had left.
Business was okay for me because I knew that I loved sales. I’m a natural sales person. It felt right to me. But when I started looking at all of the classes that we were going to have to take, it didn’t feel right. I don’t know … I’m not going to sit here and claim that I knew back then what was wrong, but something to me didn’t feel right.
Kaizen: In hindsight, can you now say what was wrong from your 14- or 15-year-old perspective?
Wade: Yes. I think what was wrong to me was I felt like things were static. Now with everything that I have seen and being a little more mature, I think it was my biggest problem. It was more managerial and not entrepreneurial. Maybe that’s what felt “static.”
Kaizen: You didn’t want to be a suit in an office, so to speak.
Wade: Yes. For example, one thing I found to be a joke: back then we didn’t have much internet, so I’d look at the brochures and talk to some students and sometimes visit a business school and see what they did. I remember seeing them doing a sales role-play. The whole thing just felt so fake to me. I was only 15, but I was like: “This is weird. This is very strange. I know it doesn’t work like that in real life.”
Kaizen: So you are partly attracted and partly pushed in a more business direction, but you are in a much more rigid, static business environment.
Kaizen: Were you thinking that you wanted to become entrepreneurial? Or were things still too unstructured?
Wade: Back then I didn’t even know the word “entrepreneur” believe it or not.
What I always wanted to do, and what I would always say to my sister, because there were four kids and I’m the oldest—“We are going to have our own company. I’m going to be the CEO.” I had already decided that my second sister would be the accountant. [Laughs] The first sister of mine would be in charge of operations/logistics. You know, because they had a natural knack for those things. And my brother—I didn’t know what we were going to do for him. [Laughs] My family was delighted with the idea; but that’s all I knew. That’s the idea that rocked my mind and my desires.
Kaizen: What led to your decision to go to the U.S.? That’s a huge step.
Wade: Another thing that I learned also while I was in business school that really destroyed me is the fact that people felt that they had to crush each other to make it to the top. To me it made no sense. To me I was like, “Well, if you’re good at what you do, that’s all you need. You shouldn’t need to take people down.” But I could see the stuff in my own school where basically students gave each other fake information or stole each other’s notes.
Kaizen: The worst office politics already starting.
Wade: Yes. And it just felt wrong. But I thought to myself, “If this is going to be corporate … .” The whole idea to me was wrong and I couldn’t tell why, but it felt off.
So I looked at my options. Everybody was sending these letters out and trying to get jobs. My situation was easy in a way, because if I wanted to stay in France, I could have. In business school each student had a mentor who was a CEO of some company or a big position in a big company. Mine was the head of a major, national bank. So through three years of business school, he was my mentor and in charge of me, technically.
I realized that I love numbers but not physics. I love math but not the crazy type of math we were doing in physics to be an engineer. We had decided that I wanted to be a trader because I love numbers and that was the only path.
Well it turns out that the bank is a national bank but they had branches all over the world. Maybe it’s not the same name, but all of these banks have their trading rooms, and we were going to put me on that track. When I was like eighteen, nineteen, twenty, my mentor wanted me to spend all of my summers in Chicago. It’s a long story, but my mother didn’t want me to go to Chicago. She’s like, “No way.” And I was so young.
Kaizen: She wanted you closer to home.
Wade: Yes. So all of the sudden my dreams are shattered. And that is when the rebel in me came out. Because trading was something I could see myself doing. I don’t know how long I would have lasted or if I would have liked it, but I was really curious about. But a decision was made for me that prevented me from doing it. And that’s when I’m like: “You know what? Screw this. From here on I’m going to do what I want to do.” And that’s when I first started really rebelling against my parents.
So I had been working at the bank every winter and summer for three years. When it came time to finish business school, I looked at my options. But I missed my opportunity to do what I truly wanted to do. This mother of mine was like, “Oh, whatever.” Internally, I was like: “From here on I am going to do what I need to do.” And there were some other things going on. But my parents thought differently, and eventually there was a big clash, a big clash that is just now starting to be addressed.
Kaizen: How many years later is it now?
Wade: Sixteen or seventeen years later. It’s been pretty profound, pretty deep. But when people look at me today and they are like: “Where does this will come from?” The will is that I had to sacrifice the ultimate sacrifice in terms of parent relationship to get to where I am. Once you make that type of sacrifice—once you’re able to look up and say, “No. This is who I am; this is what I’m going to do”—and be rejected for it. Then you continue on your path and a lot happens to you along the path. But no one is ever going to tell you what to do.
Kaizen: Your decision to leave France and come to the United States: Was that because the U.S. was attractive? That it was far away from France?
Wade: No. I looked at France, and France was small. Nothing attracted me to France. I didn’t want to lead the life of these people. I didn’t want to lead a life where you pretend to a job in these types of companies at this level, and making this type of money, and if you do kiss the right behind for the right amount of time then maybe you can rise on the ranks. And these little, small mentalities. And in the meantime I’m pushing everyone aside. America felt like the only place where I could breathe.
Kaizen: Did you consider Australia or other places?
Wade: I thought of a lot of other places. You have to understand that when I go for something, I usually try to go for the best. I’m not a happy camper with in-between. So America was attractive to me because that’s where most of the people who I revere in this world came from and also the fact that Silicon Valley had been on my radar for so long. In hindsight, what attracted me about Silicon Valley is the freedom of mind that allowed people to go for the thing called “entrepreneurship.” Now I can be that articulate about it. It felt like the only place where I could just leave everything behind and come in and start over, but also a place where I can, again, just breathe.
People say that America is a place where anyone can be anything. To me it wasn’t a cliché. It was really how it felt. My heart was crushed and I felt, “I’ve got to go.” That’s when I told my boyfriend that I was leaving. He said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to America.” He’s like, “What?” I said, “Are you coming with me?” He said, “Well if I don’t come, does that mean you may dump me?” I said, “Maybe. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” So he came with me.
Kaizen: What year is this now?
Wade: This is late 1997. It’s funny—you live your life and you never think about how old you are.
I first went to Columbus, Indiana. In my last year of business school we had an exchange program with Purdue University in the United States. When I made my decision to move, I called Carol and Eldon, my host family who lived in Columbus, Indiana. I said, “Carol. I’m ready. You told me last year that when I was done with school and if I wanted to come to the U.S., you and Eldon would take me on.” They had a family business—an auto parts and service company. They had two locations. So they said, “Yes, come on over. We have plenty of work—accounting, marketing, all types of things.” They sponsored me for a visa and took care of everything for me, provided me with housing, and provided me also with the love of a family that I really didn’t have then.
Kaizen: How long were you in Columbus?
Wade: I was there for about nine months working with Carol and Eldon. Eventually, Carol was like, “You’ve cleaned up everything,” meaning their accounting. Once I cleaned that, I created a marketing plan for them, and just took care of things on a day-to-day basis. And eventually—she knew it and I knew it—she’s like, “As much as we want to keep you here with us, it would be selfish because you have such bigger potential. The world is yours if you’re willing to take it. If you want to stay with us—absolutely. It would be our greatest joy, but it would also be very selfish. So it’s up to you. You need to think about that.”
At the time I was engaged to the man who came with me from France, but they could see that he was a bad idea for me. Everybody could see it but me, of course. [Laughs]
Eventually Carol was distraught. She didn’t know what to do, but she also knew the last thing to do with me was to tell me “No” because if you say that, it is exactly where I’m going to go. Or I’m going to run; you’re never going to see me again. So she says, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, we will support you.” You see the hard trick for her was: “We’ll support you in whatever you want to do, even if we don’t agree with it. And if we don’t, we’ll tell you.” That’s fair to me.
And she said, “Honestly, as your soul-mother, I have a feeling that there is something going on between you and this other man in California.” That gentleman was seven years older than I was and from the same business school. At my business school in France, there was very bad, nasty hazing, and his promotion year was hazing mine. But he helped me escape a lot of the crap. Eventually a relationship formed, but very platonic. He had moved to San Francisco to start a branch of a French company. Emmanuel Marchand was his name. I was always on the phone with him. Anytime something was wrong, I would talk to him. When he was about to dump a girlfriend of his, he’d call me. I mean we had this relationship for five years just talking to each other like that when we’d met only once. But then the relationship developed a lot over letters—written letters. No typing, nothing, just letters. It’s beautiful.
Carol said, “Be good to yourself: go to California and see what is going on with that other guy.” So I went and, like it’s said, “I left my heart in San Francisco.”
So I went back to Indiana and broke up the engagement with the other guy. It was so horrible. He was so crushed. I felt bad, but it was not meant to be. I told Carol, “You were right. I’m moving to California.” At that time I totally followed my heart and went. I had no job, no nothing. But Carol and I were sure. She said, “If anything happens, we’re always here. And I just know that everything will be fine. You are doing what many of us would have loved to do in our lifetime, but never did.” She sent me off like that.
Kaizen: So now you’re in your early twenties, broke, and in California.
Wade: Completely. But in California I had stars in my eyes. I mean Silicon Valley! It’s even worse—it’s like my dreams now are starting to come into place. I’m in California and I have no job and no place to go because I don’t really want to go to live with Emmanuel. To me, I’m like, “I’m not going to impose myself. I have my pride and honor.” But I had a friend from Indiana whose uncle and aunt lived in Palo Alto. They took me in. I stayed with them and looked for a job, and within a week I got four job offers with four visa-sponsorship offers. It was great.
The one I picked was to be a headhunter in finance with a multi-national back then called AOC Financial Executive Search, now called Ajilon Finance, which is part of Adecco. They are the executive finance search branch of Adecco, a huge multi-billion dollar company. And I picked that one because, first of all, I was going to be in a sales job anyway and I loved the fact that my territory was part of Silicon Valley. I loved also the fact that I would be working with all of these start-ups.
That’s when I started working with companies like Google when most people didn’t know what Google was going to become. I started working with companies like Netflix. How many times I got lost driving to the Netflix offices! It was unbelievable. All of these companies that most of us take for granted today, household names, I was working with them when they were only super small teams. It was absolutely fascinating.
Part of my job also had to do with being at cocktail parties, lounge parties, this and that, where you would meet with all of these world-celebrity venture capitalists I had read about before like Don Valentine and people like that.
It was fascinating being thrown into the entrepreneur ecosystem, and I got to understand it very well. The ecosystem is made of many groups. You have lawyers; back then you had the big four CPA firms like Deloitte and Price Waterhouse, those guys; then the entrepreneurs themselves; and the venture capitalists, obviously. I got to see how they come together, how they exchange ideas, and how they fund one another or come to be co-founders.
And the thing is that things don’t really happen in bars. That’s what I love about Silicon Valley. Stuff happens at the ice cream parlor, like the Creamery in Palo Alto. That’s where so many deals get made—eating a hamburger and drinking a milkshake. For a lot of people it sounds cliché because the media made it like that, but I was living it. I was this very young person absorbing all of this energy around me.
And at the same time, the man I moved there for had decided to start his own company and was himself becoming an entrepreneur.
Also at the same, although I got a company sponsorship for my visa, I had to wait six months to work. I had started working for them, but all of a sudden HR called and said, “Magatte has to leave right now because if the INS comes now, the whole company could be shut down.” And this is not a small place. They said, “We’re so sorry, Magatte.” But my visa was going through and no one knew how long it was going to take. It turned out that it took six months. In the meantime, I started helping Emmanuel.
Kaizen: What did you do in Emmanuel’s company?
We worked like mad people. I was like 21 or 22, and for three years I had no vacation; I had no weekend; I had no evening. I remember working in this big warehouse when they only had small, few small machines and they were all hand-machines, refurbished stuff that came from China. I put the rivets on some of these books and binders and all of this stuff. But—I tell everybody—those were among the best three years of my life. That’s also when I realized that manufacturing is my thing—the joy that I get from seeing something in stages, everything that came into it, everything that had to be thought out to come together. It is fascinating. And then you go sell it.
I helped him make things in the warehouse, but I was also the phone person. Back then I had this very thick French accent, and I would get a lot of appointments because people thought they would meet with this cute, exotic French woman. Then my husband would show up and they’d say, “You ambushed us.” [Laughs]
We went on sales trips, and I traveled in the car with him, providing him with mental support. He’d walk in and I’d take the notes. We would drive to L.A. It was wonderful. I realized that if I could do this, I could do pretty much anything when it comes to business.
To start his business, Emmanuel had saved up enough money for one person to live on for like a year and a half, not knowing that I would be with him. But now we were two people and I am a bit of a high-maintenance gal, so the money ran out faster than planned. We get to this point where we almost needed to ask his family for a loan, but he was as proud as I am, if not more. So we were like, “Nope. We are going to do this together.” But we got to the point when, “Okay, if nothing happens by tomorrow, we’re going to have to call mom”—his mom and step dad. We didn’t want to do that, so we said, “Let’s just go to bed. Tomorrow is another day.”
I kid you not, the next day the lawyer called and he said, “You got your visa.” And my company called and they said, “You can start today. Your check is ready for you.” I didn’t know it at the time, but from that moment on money was never going to be a problem for us.
Wade: Later, when I was 25 years old, we bought a house in Los Altos, one of the most expensive zip codes in the country. And there I was, in Silicon Valley in this big home with a big pool and everything.
It was wonderful. It was a great experience. But then tragedy hit four years later when my husband passed away. So that signaled a whole other page of my journey. At that point, he and his business partner had gotten on track—their business was working really well. From that point everything was cool. We had decided a year before he died that now was going to be my turn to do what I wanted to do because I was excited about the power of entrepreneurship and the jobs it was creating.
At the same time, I was thinking of the need for jobs back home in Senegal and the boat kids who die at sea every year.
Wade: It’s a phenomenon that goes on in most of Senegal every year, unfortunately. I say “kids” but we are talking about 16, 18, 20, the heart of the youth, and boys mostly. They get into little fishermen’s boats and they try to go up the Atlantic to try to make it to Spain as their entry point into Europe, where they are going to become illegal immigrants. Just like many Mexicans do here. But the problem is that they use small fishermen’s boats and most of them don’t make it. So we have thousands of these young men laying at the bottom of the ocean being food for fish. It’s a big problem. There’s a village I know in Senegal where most of the population is women. The boys are dead. It got so bad, especially in that one village, that the Queen and King of Spain invited some mothers from that village to do a burial. I mean, obviously, they never got the bodies back, but it was symbolic.
Kaizen: This came to mind in California?
Wade: Yes. What happened was that I was living a magnificent life that is most people’s aspiration. But I remember one day driving down Big Sur which to me is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. We had just come from the beach and we were heading home and we were talking about this trip to Tahiti. And I just broke down: “This is unreal.”
Kaizen: Were you thinking about how things were back in Senegal?
Wade: Yes, but also the state of Africa as a whole. It had been bothering me because I got hit by the contrast. And beyond that—why it is that as a successful African black woman, most of my colleagues refer to me as “Frenchie.” It was in a very loving way, but I’m not French. And I realized that in my whole life I had never been accounted for as a black person because I don’t fit the idea of a black person. You see? The accent doesn’t help. And in Los Altos for the longest time I hadn’t met a black person who lived in Los Altos—very white. All of this, I’m surrounded.
I felt like I was living in a body that was not mine in the sense that even what my parents believe, I don’t believe. What people in Senegal are happy with, I’m not happy with. I think it comes from my grandmother—this woman who allowed me to be as free as free can be. When you have tasted freedom, you can never—there is just no way—you cannot even suppress it if you try because you think that is the right thing to do. I think all of those years in Europe I suppressed who I truly was. And that’s why the notion of authenticity is very important to me.
My parents stood for excellence—that is one thing we see eye-to-eye on, and I think I got that from them. Absolutely. It’s always like “Wherever there is excellence, we are going to drop you in because that is what you need to be infused by.”
So all of the sudden I’m seeing the problems in Africa, and I’m also seeing that Africa and Africans aren’t respected. And I’m seeing that everything that I am that is supposedly good is given to the French side. But then I started thinking that as a whole maybe Africans didn’t respect themselves: when I went to Senegal I found that many of them don’t respect their indigenous background. For example—and this is how my first company came about—you don’t drink hibiscus. Hibiscus is what poor people from the village who are uneducated drink. So if you had made it or even have a little bit of money, you’d go for the Western brand Coca-Cola or Fanta or Pepsi—that’s how you show your status, intellectual status, money status.
Kaizen: Sophistication means Western?
Wade: Yes. So the elite are consuming only imported brands. But the bottom of the pyramid can’t afford the Coca-Cola brand name, so they go for the knock-off products that at least are closer to Coca-Cola than hibiscus is.
Then the people who are growing hibiscus lose their livelihood, because no one wants what they grow anymore. And hibiscus, also called bissap, is part of Senegalese tradition. It is called the “juice of Teranga.” Teranga means hospitality, which is what we people from Senegal are known for. Hibiscus has been part of a culture.
Kaizen: Let’s back up one step. You are thinking about the contrast between the West and in California, particularly, with its entrepreneurial successful culture—and the way things are in Senegal with its issues of self-respect and poverty and so on. And you want to do something authentically African. How did you come to focus on a drink as a particular vehicle?
Wade: Yes. Let’s back up. When Emmanuel and I visited my country for the first time together—he had never been to my country and I wanted for him to go to Senegal, and he wanted to too. Also, my husband’s mother told me, “I always knew he would marry an African woman.” Because, she said, when he was four years old, he’d never seen a black person in his life; he lived in a very white community. But he would always draw himself as a little boy and next to him a little black girl; they were kissing. He always said, “Mom, I’m going to marry an African queen.” When he married me he said, “I found my African queen.”
Kaizen: That’s a sweet story.
Wade: I know, right? But he had studied so much of black Africa and he’d gone to so many African countries, but not to Senegal. So we went. One of the things that I was most excited about was hibiscus. I missed it. I hadn’t been able to go back for at least four years. In that time-frame, I came back and found you could not readily find the hibiscus. It shocked me. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t gone for a few years and the contrast was so sharp.
Kaizen: So the Western drinks were displacing it?
Kaizen: Is the hibiscus a soft drink?
Wade: No. Hibiscus is what you would call a fruit drink, though normally it counts as a tea. Tea is only one leaf: whether white tea, green tea, or black tea, it’s the same leaf, but it’s how much you oxidize it. Technically, hibiscus is a dry flower—the calyces of the flower—that you seep in hot water for five minutes or so. You can drink it straight after you seep it and add some sugar or not. Ice it or hot, either way it is perfect. But we call it a fruit drink because in my country we usually add pineapples to it or orange juice or whatever. I was going to go for the most pure version of it—just the hibiscus and maybe some mint. I went after my grandmother’s recipe because that’s what I grew up with.
Kaizen: How was it part of the Senegalese tradition?
Wade: When people come to Senegal, when they first land, you offer them a drink. It’s hibiscus usually, and a ginger drink. Now when we went there, I asked, “Do you have hibiscus?” They’re like, “Oh. You are so behind. Who drinks hibiscus?” That’s what they would tell you.
Or there’s a wedding, and the same thing happens. Or at a restaurant, I asked the waiter for hibiscus and he’s looking at me like, “Didn’t you just land from America? I mean, who wants hibiscus?” And then I heard him making nasty, disrespectful comments about African things. That’s when I became ill to my stomach because this was to me the direct reason why Africans cannot be respected—because they don’t respect themselves.
Hibiscus is part of our culture, but they have been happy pushing it aside to adopt Western brands. To them now if you are a worthy Senegalese, you drink Western drinks. Also at the same time I’m seeing that there are some homes where kids want to speak Wolof which is a traditional language, but the parents would almost tap them. “You don’t speak that language in our home.” The same thing with attire. The Senegalese dress better than the French! It was amazing. Senegalese dress too is going to die. I’m not asking people to wear clothes from back then because, let’s face it, some of those clothes are not very functional for modern life. But there’s a whole tradition about how to make those fabrics that I don’t think should go. So maybe it is the job of twenty-first century people like me to find a way to keep them alive. Maybe we give them a new application. But we do something.
Kaizen: So Senegalese language, drink, and dress are disappearing?
Wade: Yes. Everything.
Kaizen: And you decided to focus on the drink.
Wade: I decided to focus on the drink because right then and there I got very angry. “Where is my beloved drink? Where is it?” I was ill to my stomach for everything that the missing juice meant. When you bring a tray to me and my drink is not there, you’re showing me how I don’t exist in the global scene of cultures. Coke exists. Pepsi exists. All of those people do, but I don’t. I got so angry for three days that my husband said, “You know, Magatte, this anger is taking you down.” I was so mad; I was so disappointed at people.
Kaizen: The loss of the drink was symbolic of the broader trend?
Wade: Yes. That’s when it really all made sense to me. I was realizing two things: the loss of an important piece of my culture, and the fact that we had no jobs. I didn’t make a link between the people leaving Senegal and why they were leaving. They were leaving because of jobs, but I didn’t know yet how jobs could be created. But what I saw was a woman leaving the livelihood. Hibiscus was disappearing, and the women who grew it were losing their livelihoods. So they are leaving the countryside to go to the capital, Dakar, to try to find jobs. Most of them don’t find jobs because there aren’t any jobs. A lot of them end up in the street or in prostitution or who knows what else. Kids—same thing. Begging.
Kaizen: A downward spiral.
Wade: Yes. That’s when my whole experience in Silicon Valley came to me and everything I learned there. I learned the power of branding. Branding is basically a culture, but you build it within a product or the company. It’s the notion that no one can touch the values. When you do the branding exercise that is what you do: What is the brand? What is the promise of the brand? It’s more than a logo.
Basically branding is the opportunity to tell a story. You can make up that story or you can emphasize a story. Coca-Cola decided to make up a complete story. The whole Coca-Cola Santa Claus is completely made up by Coca-Cola; it’s all made up. The outfit … everything is made up. There was a true Santa Claus in the German culture; I grew up with those, you know. But Santa Claus is normally not a person. The way he looks—like a chubby old man with a white thing all over and the outfit? All made up by Coca-Cola. It’s a Coca-Cola made up story.
Kaizen: But it’s a compelling story. And they make it theirs.
Wade: Most people think a brand is just is a logo. You put it on your website, this and that. No! I had gone through so many branding processes by then that I totally understood how a brand gives a soul to a company and to a product. Brands were going to be my best allies to reintroduce any culture that I wanted to introduce.
So here I was. I was like, “Okay, branding is going to allow me to tell whatever story I want to tell. Branding will allow me to get my culture loved by people and the product is going to be my vehicle.” It was so simple. And as this company grows—a company like that is going to allow me to put these women back to work. The jobs are going to be taken care of; my culture will be taken care of. That was the magic combination for me.
Kaizen: A win-win in a lot of ways.
Wade: Absolutely. And that’s what we did.
Kaizen: The Adina name for your drink—where does that come from?
Wade: Adina means “life.” My pronunciation, I like to say “Adeena.” In Senegal, depending on which part of the country you are in, a lot of people would say Adina with a long “u” sound like “Adoona.” My aesthetic side tells me that Adoona is too heavy. I don’t like the “u” in between. “Adeena,” though, is all of the sudden more lifted. So Adina means life in its philosophical dimension.
Kaizen: Is that from Wolof?
Wade: Yes it’s a Wolof word. I always go for Wolof words.
Kaizen: What was your plan? The raw materials would come from Senegal, so the women will have jobs, but everything would end up in the United States, because that is going to be your market.
Wade: Yes. So we had steps. What I wanted was to make sure that at some point all of the manufacturing, or most of the manufacturing, happened in Senegal. I wasn’t simply happy putting back to work farmers. I wanted to create manufacturing jobs as well. My goal is to really turn Africa into a manufacturing hub, but a green manufacturing hub, a clean manufacturing hub because that is the only way we are going to get the hundreds of millions of jobs we need for this youth that we have—some of them at sea and some of them wandering the streets.
Kaizen: So the hibiscus is grown in Senegal.
Wade: It’s harvested, packaged, and warehoused in Senegal and then shipped via containers to the U.S. where they would be turned into extracts especially for us.
Kaizen: Where did this happen?
Wade: We had three plants we were working with: one in Chicago to take care of the center; a plant in Oregon; and one in the Boston area.
We eventually added a second-line, a ready-to-drink coffee: frappucinos. For that we worked with a co-op in Ethiopia called the Oromia co-op. Their involvement with us brought to life a documentary called Black Gold; I got involved in some pretty heavy fights about fair trade. There were a lot of politics behind the scenes that I don’t know if you want to hear, but we were into a lot of ideological arguments.
Kaizen: Were the coffees also under the Adina name?
Wade: Yes! Basically Adina stood for reintroducing authentic, cultural, healthy beverages from around the world. We made sure that we weren’t going to be boxed into some little thing, because there is something you can do about all of the world’s beverages.
Kaizen: So the first one is Senegal-based; the second one is Ethiopia-based?
Wade: Yes. And then we even ventured into making a drink with chocolate. We bought the chocolate from Guatemala, from very specific Mayan communities because that’s where the art of that drink came from. Our espresso was one of the best espressos you ever could have. It was just gorgeous. I mean we had it together; it was wonderful.
We had our own chemists. We had a little R&D department within the company that was doing all of these things. Then things happened more at the plant level. From there we added a third line, which was the Ayurvedic teas. That was mostly inspired by the traditions of India, but still using some hibiscus from Senegal.
Kaizen: On the business side: Do you have funds of your own or where is the capital coming from?
Wade: To start Adina, my husband and I put in $50,000 and I started it in my kitchen.
Kaizen: Your kitchen in Los Altos?
Wade: Yes. I had the first two drinks, which was a ginger drink we call Ginga and the hibiscus drink we call Bissap. Even there, in the names, it’s like, “What does ‘bissap’ mean?” As they ask, you are telling them the story. That’s how the culture gets spread. That’s the power brands have.
At some point I decided: “I want to make this big and I don’t have time for reinventing the wheel.” So I went looking for a partner. My husband was like, “I’m not going to be your partner; I want to stay married. So go find yourself another partner.” [Laughs]
Kaizen: Wise man.
Wade: I know. Right? He knew how I’m kind of a control freak.
So I sit down and I did my little chart. I put all of the things I wanted from this partner—what he needed to know; the accent he needed to have—all of that stuff—and even the content of his heart because this was going to be a harder job than normal. This is not just building a brand, making drinks, and selling them. There’s a whole Africa component and a whole supply chain that we are going to have to build.
By the time I started my chart, I had gone to a plant in Oregon to negotiate with them to take us on—this tiny little company. I chose them because they are the ones making products for Tazo tea. For me it was like, “I need them because what I’m doing and is very similar to them.” And I loved their holistic approach.
I went there to meet this guy, the owner. And oh my god, the owner was so tough. Like this grumpy old man. [Laughs] There’s a moose hanging on the wall, here in California! I’m looking at him; he’s looking at me. I’m probably the first African person he’s ever seen in his life.
Kaizen: A little culture clash?
Wade: [Laughs] It was crazy! And I was scared. There were gun magazines!
But I had fallen in love with the chemist there. He had said, “Don’t worry. Catch a flight. You’re going to charm him if you are anything like I’ve heard on the phone.” So I went there and took my husband with me. My chemist friend had told me some things, “Yeah, he’s a hunter.” I took my husband because all the boys in France, especially from certain families, hunt. So I took him because they could talk. I knew that was going to be the connection. I told my husband, “You’re going to have to work hard on this.” He’s like, “Oh, don’t worry.”
So we go in there and this guy, oh my god! But I’m like: “I need this. I need him to take me on because I’m too small to go to anybody else. This is the only way I’m going to be able to do this in a clean way.” We talked and we bonded. Actually, he liked me in my own dorky way. And I did like him in his dorky way. He’s a straight shooter. That’s what I love about small business America: people may have their imperfections, but at the end of the day they are honest people working hard for what they have. I have so much respect for that. I just love small business. Anyway, you could tell that he was a straight shooter, that he’s worked really hard, and that’s just the way it is. I told him my whole story. At first I was reluctant because I was like, “What’s he going to care about? This guy doesn’t care about anything.” But I told him and it was unbelievable.
Kaizen: He responded?
Wade: He totally responded. I told him, “I don’t mind working hard.” He put me to the test. “Come here tomorrow at four o’clock in the morning. I’ll show you what goes on in here.” I was there before four. I think he liked that. I was excited. I never felt like, “Why am I doing this dirty work?” Because plants can be noisy and all of that. But I was genuinely so excited. I would tell him about the leaves and I said, “I’m going to be your smallest job.” He said, “Don’t worry.”
The nice thing was that I needed to have my drinks organically certified and they had all of that. Tazo was all organic and also Kosher certified. He knew the process: it has to be cleaned a certain way; it has to be inspected before you do this, inspected after you do that. He was going to piggy-back me on what they ran. So Tazo didn’t lose anything. [Laughs] This was it!
This was so great. I had negotiated all of that. Now I really had a company, a viable business. I could have built the business in an organic way, but my sense of urgency for Africa and the fact that I felt that I had something valuable in my hands—I could find partners for this.
And so I did my little chart—that’s how the name kept popping up. Greg Steltenpohl, Greg Steltenpohl, Greg Steltenpohl. I’m like “Okay, I’ll go after him then.” People were like, “Are you crazy? He’s in retirement after Odwalla. He’ll never come back to a juice business.” That man has been put through the washing machine and then the dryer by Coke—horrible. He never wanted to go back. But fate had it that he was speaking at a conference—a Mavericks conference—where he was on a panel with Howard Smith of Tazo and the founder of Electronic Arts, which is a video game company. All of them succeeded because they were mavericks in the distribution for their companies.
The distribution Greg had built was based on the fact that he had convinced the supermarkets that the drink needed to be in the cold section, and most of them don’t have a special fridge for it. So he would tell them, “I have the fridges for you.” That’s his whole Trojan horse. It was that little idea that really put him on the map. He would basically bring his own cooler, brand it, and stock it all up. And because it’s a whole lot of work, the stores allowed him to not have to go through their own distributors. So Greg was able to build his own distribution. Everybody thinks it is Pepsi trucks and Coke refrigerators in stores, but they copied that from Odwalla.
Kaizen: He was giving them the whole package?
Wade: Yes. And he had his own people. He didn’t have to wait for the store person to come in and replace an order, because you lose a lot of sales that way. You lose a lot of sales because the store people are all over the place, and sometimes they miss a week of sales, because by the time they see you or sometimes your tag is on the floor or it’s gone and they can’t remember what was there. But anything you put out there sells.
But with Greg, his people would just go in and fill up the coolers and do their own thing. They had like a hand-held device to allow them to track everything and to charge people directly. And he’s the first one who started doing that—having coolers in stores. Coca-Cola copied that from him.
I didn’t want to be part of a groupie line that was waiting to see him, so I sat in my chair and talked to my friend until the whole line was almost over and I got up. My friend happened to know him because Greg had invested in his software company. So I said, “Introduce me.” He introduced me and I said, “Hi. My name is Magatte and I’m working on a project that I think you’re going to want to hear about.” He’s like, “Here’s my card. Call me in two weeks.” Two weeks to the day, I called him. I asked, “Do you remember?” He said he did. So I asked when I could talk to him and I said, “I need to see you. I can’t talk on the phone.” He said, “Come on over.” He invited me to his home. I went there; his wife was there too.
Kaizen: Are they California-based also?
Wade: Yes. San Francisco. They had a place in San Francisco and a place in Davenport, California where Odwalla was born basically. It’s the first town you hit from San Francisco before you get into Santa Cruz.
So I went there. Even before I was done—even before I got to the “What do I need you for” part, he said, “How can I be a part of this?” That was the beginning of it. His wife decided to join too.
We decided we were going to go the fast track. We said, “We can raise all the money in the world for this.” We just knew it. That was in April 2005. Greg is like, “We can do in five years what it took me twenty-five years to do alone.” And we did it.
We didn’t go fundraising right away, obviously. You have to prepare your thing; you have to talk to lawyers; we even have to finalize things amongst us, and so on. And there was a lot of work to be done for months: finish the prototypes, make sure that the plant was ready. We also had to make sure the plant manager met Greg, which was almost a disaster. He hated Greg. Sometimes Greg can be pretty annoying. But then we said that I would hold that relationship. I was still the person on top with R&D. Now my job was also going to be on top of sales because there is such a thing that we call the “founder’s glow.” People want to buy from the person. Also for fundraising: my job was that I’m the storyteller; I’m the charmer; that’s what I do. Then we have our wonderful COO and Greg also. So not only is it a beautiful idea that you’re all going to fall in love with, but we can make it happen.
Kaizen: You had a marriage of credibility and experience.
Wade: It was a marriage made in heaven really, if I had been smarter. So we started fundraising in October.
Kaizen: This is 2004?
Wade: Yes. We wanted just a million dollars from family and friends just to prove the concept. That’s all we wanted. We ended up with two million dollars and people we had to kick out of the deal. It was already subscribed in no time. As we were closing the financing—that’s when my husband passed away.
It was a disaster. My husband died in mid-December that year. I was a mess. It was decided it would be better that I go to Senegal for the elders there to deal with it. They did not want to let me stay here and be with medication like, you know, all of those anti-depressants.
It was also a disaster because it was in the middle of the holidays. All of the flights are full. Everybody is going home to family and friends. And when you die overseas—the stuff you have to deal with is just crazy: this type of coffin, this and that. It took two weeks for his body to be taken back. In the meantime, my mother-in-law was like, “You’re coming home. I don’t want you to stay alone.” But I’m like, “I’m not going to leave him alone here.” She’s like, “Magatte, he’s gone. Come here now so that we can take care of you.” And I said, “No, I’m not coming without him.” Eventually she’s like, “We’re going to get on a plane and come there and you’re going to come back with us.” I said, “No, no.” So it was just a mess.
But at that point, I must say, Greg and Dominique, his wife, they have been like what I feel normal people should in a situation like that. They were people to lean on for me. They and other friends took care of everything. To this day I haven’t gone to recognize my husband in the morgue. It was like, “I can’t do that.”
Eventually they put me on a plane and we had to wait in France. Every day … today is he coming or not? Just like that until December 31st. And my mother-in-law insisted. Everything was planned, everybody was waiting. Everything was done already. We knew exactly where we were going to have him buried. Then on December 31—thank goodness—he arrived. And my mother-in-law was like, “We are going to bury him today. I want you to start grieving as soon as possible.”
Everybody was on standby. When we knew and had confirmed that he was on the plane and that he was going to arrive this day, then the funeral happened and everybody was there. The church was packed. There were lines all the way outside. My husband was so loved and people traveled from everywhere. We had friends who traveled for 24 hours all the way from Tahiti. This guy had paid for business class and there was nothing available and he told them, “I’ll sit in the bathroom if I have to; I’ll fly on the floor if I have to, but I’ve got to be there.” So people came from everywhere. And then we sent him off. The next day I took off. I went to Senegal and stayed there for a month.
My investors were the best: “Anything you want to do, we understand. At this point, it’s your choice.” But the women in Senegal made me realize that my savior was going to be the job, the business. So after a few weeks I decided that I was going to go back; I was going to fight. I caught a flight back to California and I never looked back. So I didn’t grieve Emmanuel for five years because I went back and worked like a dog.
We got the company off the ground. I don’t make excuses anywhere, but I was probably not myself for years. Maybe there were things I would have seen that I could have stopped, but I was so weak and I let a lot of things happen. They weren’t bad things, but in terms of making sure that control doesn’t fly or that I missed many opportunities to insist on opening up the board. But to me it was never a problem because I was looking at them more as family rather than remembering that we may disagree sometimes. All of these things—if I was in my right mindset—I could have taken care of.
Kaizen: In hindsight, then. Let’s say you have a smallish business and you want to fast-track it. What would you say about board size? With a small group, if everybody clicks then it’s fine. With a larger group you dilute control, but you bring in expertise. Is there one right answer?
Wade: Yes there is. First of all, the mistake I made was not getting myself a good lawyer as a proper advisor. Not conflictual, but someone who is more on the corporate side and not hired by the company. I should have gotten my own person who helps me look at things. I mean, you don’t have a husband and wife on the board! I mean, duh! No matter how much you love them, no matter how good they are together, you don’t do that. Mistake number one. Even if I didn’t catch that right away, I should have been able to catch that anytime afterwards and I should have brought that up to them, the board, and the investors. No investor would have been against me because this is a fiduciary thing to do.
Kaizen: Standard procedure.
Wade: Absolutely. And the fact that I felt often that we didn’t have an independent board because Greg and his wife controlled the board. As well, I felt we were lacking some skills on the board. It was also difficult for me to challenge them directly because with my African background, as a younger person you never speak up against older people. Greg and Dominique could have been my parents—they’re older than my parents, actually. So you don’t speak up against them, or if you do there is a certain way.
And on top of that, I was always on the road, so I would catch things when it was too late on a lot of personnel issues.
Kaizen: So you don’t have control, you’re on the road, you’re too deferential …
Wade: I’m a mess. [Laughs] The only thing I’m good at right now is selling: selling to investors or selling to my customers and also working on new products. That’s all I’m good for. Oh, and throughout the years we took more money—
Kaizen: So you have a semi-dysfunctional internal organization. What about sales?
Wade: Sales are going fine.
Kaizen: Back in Africa, there is infrastructure to develop.
Wade: Yes. That’s going well too.
Kaizen: Are you managing that yourself?
Wade: Yes. But I have teams. But that’s why I was so all over—on the road everywhere. I had teams. I built a national sales team with our first national VP of sales, so she would be doing a lot of things. But I’m the one who comes up with the sales plans and things like that.
Another thing we discovered when I went out on the road is that all of Greg’s strategy was based on his thinking, twenty-five years later, that things are going to work the same as they did for Odwalla—that the cooler placement rate was going to be as high as he had at Odwalla. But we weren’t going to have close to 100 percent as he had; some stores are too small and they would rather just put his drinks in their fridge, which is still perfect, because what you want for a drink is for it to be in the cooler. That’s where all of the sales happen. And then people get to know it and then they buy it maybe in cases, but the cooler is what everybody wants, whether it is your own or the stores’. So Greg had placements for only in coolers, mostly in his, and if not, then in the stores’. But that is a 100 percent placement, which guarantees a fast sell-through. He had counted everything to go along these numbers—and also the distribution. All of the numbers were wrong, it turned out. So at some point I had to sit down with the CFO and re-do all of the numbers.
Kaizen: So what year is this now?
Wade: It was 2006.
Kaizen: So you are about two years into it?
Wade: April 2004 is when the company got incorporated as a team. 2005 is when we released the first bottle to market. All of that time we are working our administrative work, doing planning, fundraising, getting prototypes, and all of that stuff getting ready for first production. April 2005 is when we first put the product out to market. 2006 is when—after we have tried all of these different things—and we see that all of these numbers are not matching and people are starting to become de-motivated.
Although I run all of the sales meetings, Greg wants to sit in on all of the sales meetings and he’s just getting down in people’s necks. Eventually in 2006 we’re like, “This is not going to work.” We also decided that some of the flavors needed to be tweaked, that we needed to add new flavors, to help the sell-through. So a lot of things were happening.
In 2006 I’m really now in charge of sales. We sat down with the CFO and the COO and re-did everything based on what I knew the reality to be. Greg didn’t account for all of the promotions we’d have to do, like the invoices and the items we would have to give away. Ten percent here, fifteen percent there. He didn’t know how Whole Foods works. Whole Foods was our biggest customer and with them you have to do OI programs.
Kaizen: What’s an OI program?
Wade: It’s an “off invoice.” What happens is we do promotions with them. When I sell to Whole Foods, I have to sit down with every region and after every region you have to sit down with every store and make sure that the marketing plan is in action; so we have to set a marketing schedule. We are going to say, “For these two weeks we’re going to be on sale and I’m going to give you 15 percent off of the invoice, so it is going to be cheaper for you, Mr. Whole Foods, because that way you are going to commit to putting the drink at $1.99 instead of the regular $2.49.” So there is a promotion. We also have to have a commitment of doing demos. Demos are costly and most of the Whole Foods stores don’t allow you to do your own demo. They employ their own people to do that, so you’ve got to spend about $150 per demo.
Kaizen: It adds up.
Wade: Yes. I came up with some demo ideas. We had some beautiful bracelets made in Senegal, very cute. That was part of our job for the women doing the demos. It was nice because people had never seen it before. People would buy sometimes just for the bracelets or t-shirts.
Anyway you have to sit down and look at all of those numbers, add them up, and decide that we may sell this much, and so on. According to all that, eventually I had to hire a demo person who was only in charge of coordinating demos. Eventually we had several people in the company dealing with that nationally. Often at these demos I would pop in, like this little celebrity person popping in; and people enjoyed that.
Kaizen: How did you first connect with Whole Foods?
Wade: People think that it’s thanks to Michael [Strong], but I didn’t know Michael then. I connected with Whole Foods because we were attending trade shows and our drink is a natural fit for Whole Foods and their philosophy and what they stand for.
I met a lot of my buyers earlier when I was primarily going from door to door. From one deli to another, from one grocery store to another. One-by-one-by-one. Knock-knock. Who’s the owner? Who is the manager? With my little cooler dragging behind me with my drinks in there all nice and cold. If they had time, we would go in the back and I would walk them through everything. Oftentimes
I made the sale on the premises. My invoices and everything were ready. Sell it to them and deliver right then and there, and move to the next place.
Kaizen: That’s boots on the ground.
Wade: Absolutely. That’s the only way with beverages. Unless, for example, Pepsi owns you and they can put you in their truck and then force their way into anything. But with a brand like that, the core customer base is mainstream. My customer base is a cultural-creative demographic. It’s a Whole Foods-type buyer. They want to know what they are drinking. It better be different; it better have meaning behind it. Same thing with Vitamin Water—the founder was boots on the street. There is no other way.
For people who weren’t available for me right away, I would make an appointment. If they are not there, I left a little juice behind and a note. I took their information, because I have days in the office when all I’m doing is following up and trying to get appointments. I had everything mapped out like that. I had my territories that I had divided all up: Monday I’m going this area; Tuesday that area. The only time people in the office would see me … well, most of them won’t see me because I come early in the morning, before any of them are there, to pack up my car. My poor car. I had this beautiful new car—trashed within, I don’t know … [laughs]. So I put the seats down and put as many cases as I could in and go on the road. By seven o’clock I’m done. Most of the office would show up at eight o’clock.
Kaizen: That takes lots of energy. At this point, you’re in your late twenties?
Wade: Yes. Late twenties, early thirties and I’m usually the last one at the office when everyone is gone because then I enter all of my invoices. Everything I was able to sell, I enter from my own notes. I put all of the invoices on the accounting desk, empty the car, and things like that.
Kaizen: Now, back in Africa, part of your motivation is building infrastructure. Are there challenges back there?
Wade: Oh yes. You see, even in Senegal the hibiscus is not popular anymore because of what we talked about. But hibiscus people are consuming hibiscus around the world. It turns out that hibiscus is a big part of the culture in Mexico—in most Latin countries. And in some Arabic countries, like Egypt where it is a national drink. Jamaica: big deal. A lot of the tropical, warm areas. So who now has the market cornered? The Chinese. The Chinese are growing hibiscus and selling pretty much to the whole market. Also Thailand and other Asian countries. The Chinese are making the hibiscus; it’s cheap stuff. If I wanted to buy hibiscus easily, we’d call China. I call a broker who calls this person in China; two weeks later a boat has loaded on our dock and we are done. So the problem is that the Africans have just given up.
Kaizen: And you want to build an African supply chain?
Wade: Yes. Out of China the organic was available, but I’m a very picky person. There are two kinds of hibiscus. There’s the standard, which is light pink and very stringent in flavor—that’s the one you want. Then there is the VIMTO variety, which is darker, almost like a sangria color, a very deep, rich red, but not lots of flavor. I don’t want that one. I grew up with the other one. The cheap people try to go with the other one because it goes farther. Also hibiscus is used as colorant in the food and other industries. It’s a powerful, natural colorant.
But beyond that, the biggest problem for the Senegalese is lack of quality and consistency in quality and quantity. I found that out right away. Like today, even China has the problem of perceived quality. It may be right; it may be wrong; but it is perceived. In Senegal, there is no such thing as an organized market. Over there are maybe ten people, and the group over there is one hundred, and the group over there is maybe one woman. All of it is sold to some middlemen who put it together and ship it to God knows where. It’s all like underground markets and the stuff is dirty; you can’t trust anything. With a company like mine, that’s a big no-no.
So, by necessity, we had to build a supply chain. To the early investors this was key. We knew that the strength of the brand was that part of the story that the hibiscus comes from Senegal with the highest taste and quality. We also had to make sure that we had quality not only in taste but in cleanliness and consistency. We also had to produce what we needed because moving container loads of hibiscus every two months—that’s a lot of hibiscus.
We had to organize the Senegalese women into something formal. To go from being marginalized—one here, one there, and one there—to being grouped so that we could control the quality train. We needed everything to be streamlined and standardized. We also had to get their organic certification and their free trade certification, all of which are hard to get.
Kaizen: Since you are selling in the United States, does someone from the U.S. have to come over to Senegal?
Wade: It doesn’t have to be from the U.S. EcoCert has closer people. They’re based in France and have offices all over Europe and even in parts of Africa. So it makes it easy for their inspectors and easier and cheaper for us. Fair trade is the same thing but a whole different ball game.
So we had all of that work ahead, and we knew that if we were very successful we could get it done in three years; a normal time-frame is five or six years. We were being very aggressive.
Kaizen: To get consistency across time and to scale up?
Wade: Yes. In Senegal, one thing we had to do too was get land. These women had little plots. So we started looking at all of the women that I wanted to work with because they had been at it for a long time and because the area has a culture of hibiscus growing with perfect soil condition. I brought together the different players who could do this for us, so it was a beautiful mix of a private and public partnership. The United Nations Development Program wrote a whole case study on this. It was really good for us. And that’s why oftentimes university departments ask me to help them with some things.
What we needed was expertise around growing hibiscus. I needed an entire team, but we couldn’t afford to buy an entire team or it wouldn’t make anything sustainable. So I started researching and that is how I came to ASNAPP—Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products—an organization all about African plants and botanicals, but natural. Their main goal is to find ways to commercialize African plants and botanicals. Its founder is Jim Simon who is the head of the plant and biology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They were exactly what I needed. Not only are they caring about traditional, indigenous plants mainly in Africa, but on top of that they have an office in Dakar. They had five offices all over Africa. I also loved their approach because they understood that the only way to save these plants and to bring them back to the forefront is to find a viable commercialization channel. It was beautiful.
So, of course, I called him; I flew to New Jersey and explained to him everything we were doing. He’s like, “You are the partner we’ve been missing. We’re missing the private sector link and especially the buyer link.” He said, “We have a lot of buyers buying what some of these people are doing, like some cosmetics company.” He is always involved and knowing what beauty companies are doing with research. I said, “I have a whole supply chain to build and you guys will help me with this because you are the experts.” They have biologists, agro engineers. We signed a memorandum of understanding, and we agreed on what my company would pay for. Like when he or other people from Rutgers travel for that in Senegal, we pay for it. But we have the whole lab at Rutgers at our disposition. You can imagine how all of the sudden things are flying back and forth.
Kaizen: A win-win across a for-profit and non-profit sector?
Wade: Absolutely. And for the land situation I went to find the first lady of Senegal because I knew she was very much into women finding independence through earning money.
Kaizen: And what’s her name?
Wade: Madame Viviane Wade. She was the wife of Abdoulaye Wade, who was President until March 2012. I went to see Madame Wade because Senegal has a lot of land, and I knew that she was already excited about bissap, the hibiscus, and I told her that we could turn her interest, which really probably wasn’t going to go anywhere, into something big.
Remember, by that time the hibiscus industry was dying. She was trying to have marginalized women do this and that, and I said, “We are the buyers. We can do it, but these are my conditions. I need to get us to this level.” ASNAPP was going to be the coordinator between the women and the organic and fair trade certifying bodies. Adina was going to pay the organic certifying process, but it was built into the costs that the women were going to charge us. What we paid them, they were able to turn around and reimburse us for that because technically they are the ones that are going to own all of that.
Today, these women … if you want to buy anything from them, you have to place an order at least one year in advance. Everybody wants their stuff: from South Africa to Germany to Europe—everywhere. They have something very valuable; they know what they are doing.
Kaizen: So you’ve built a culture of small business in Senegal.
Wade: I would say I built a culture of quality with the people I was working with. But these guys had to train them exactly because what they were going to have was a beautiful, top-end product with the right certification. And you can rely on these women. If they say that they are going to deliver to you this day, you arrive and the truck is ready to load, unlike everybody else when dealing with Africa. Also, if you call them, you can have a person in the office and they can talk to you. They even know how to ship samples around the world and the samples will get to you on time; and by the time it gets there it’s not moldy either, which is what happens most of the time.
You see, all of these problems are why no one is dealing with Africa. You don’t know who to call, or when you do reach them, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And two months later you see nothing because nobody followed up.
Kaizen: There is the whole business learning curve.
Wade: The whole business. We got land for these women. Madame Wade basically provided the land through her association and the fact that her husband was the President. They were all set up as a legal, viable entity and she was going to pay for the fair trade certification, and again the cost was built in such a way that the women would be able to reimburse her. Within three years we had everything done; we were certified.
Kaizen: What year was that?
Wade: I started the whole process in 2004 and by 2007 we were good to go. Very rapid.
The women were definitely on their own. We had even managed to resection the seeds from previous cultures to plant, so now we don’t have to buy any seeds. Before, no one cared about the seeds. You know, they did just great stuff like that.
Kaizen: How many women are we talking about back in Senegal that were actively involved by this time?
Wade: Four hundred women when we started. By the time we were done, 4,000 women were involved. I don’t even have today’s numbers; I would have to look again, but it was crazy. And the industry is back, which is the most important thing.
Kaizen: It’s on the growth track?
Wade: Yes. I remember when we were starting some women would laugh at us like, “You idiots!” They were telling the other girls, “You idiots. How many times are you going to have these NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] come to you and tell you to produce something just for it to sit and rot?” Because that is what NGOs do: they make people produce stuff, but they never follow up on how they are going to sell it, so it rots. So other women were laughing and said, “Don’t you have any pride? How many times are you going to be taken advantage of like this?” And the women we were working with were like, “Laugh all you want. We have faith in this woman.”
Kaizen: Are there other challenges? Religious or political obstacles?
Wade: That was no problem really because in Africa the women have a culture of really being independent.
Kaizen: Is this Senegal in particular or West Africa?
Wade: Senegal, but also West Africa in general. In Senegal, women there would say, “What I earn is mine, and what my husband earns is mine.” [Laughs]
Business culture is not so much a problem, especially amongst uneducated people like these women were. They are entrepreneurial by instinct, most of them. But where they miss out is respect for consistency, respect for quality, respect for standards. That’s where the West beats Africans most of the time.
Kaizen: Those things can be learned, as you showed.
Wade: Yes. One example is that when I first began production, I had managed to bring the first shipment. But then the next shipment, we were all ready with all of our money, and the plant called me.
Kaizen: The plant in Oregon?
Wade: Yes. We only had that one. The plant calls me: “We’ve got a problem.” I’m like, “What?” The plant damaged a big-ass machine. A machine worth tens of thousands of dollars broke because there was a huge rock in one of the bags. You know, because normally the bags come and you dump them; you don’t have to look at all of the stuff.
Kaizen: A quality control issue then?
Wade: Absolutely. Not only did the rock destroy this thing, but on top of that there was a pile of hair in the filter too. And in one of the bags they found a dead bird. This is why Africans are not respected, once again.
So I took the first flight to Senegal because this had to be dealt with in person. I took three little bags of hibiscus with me: one from China, one from Thailand, and one from them—you know with all of the nasty stuff, the dust and all of that stuff.
They didn’t know why I was there, but they knew that there was a problem. I met with about 40 representatives for the 400 people, and we had this big meeting in the village under a tree, no seats. I showed them the three bags and I ask, “Which one should you like?” Of course, they all go for the Chinese because it’s the one that is the most beautiful and clean.
Then I asked, “What do you think of this one?” They said, “That thing! Who did this? It’s gross.” I said, “That’s yours.” And I told them everything: how I got the phone call, the nasty stuff in there, the dead bird, the rock that destroyed the machine, and also the hair. We had hair nets; we had gloves. All of these things are part of the process—even the shoes that you wear. But to them: “What do you mean? If hair falls, we are going to see it.” Yeah, right. “That’s why you have hair nets.”
And you see, collectively, this is what happens. If they don’t see it, it’s not happening. For them it’s like all of this is the fluff-fluff and the frou-frou of the white man. “White men are too weak.” If they eat something that has been dropped, they say: “There’s nothing wrong with that. We do it all of the time.” Or: “Our eggs are never in fridges; they are from outside.” Because the microbes—the germs—we are talking about, eyes can’t see, but they’re there. So even if you can’t see it, you should at least be respectful of people telling you “This is how we need to take care of these things.”
Also, never pick up the flower if it fell on the ground. We told them, but guess what they did. They were picking stuff up. So none of these things were respected—not because they didn’t respect us but it was too foreign to them. It’s nitty-picky and they couldn’t understand why. But when I showed them the bags—now they see why.
Kaizen: So it was an educational process.
Wade: Each time you pick up something from the ground there is going to be dust, a rock, and also the dead bird. When we tell you never to leave a bag unattended or open, it’s because this is what happens. A bird came to try to eat and fell in the stuff. The thing is at the bottom; the women come and close it and go. So just little details like that, but those details are everything in business.
Kaizen: When was this quality control trip?
Wade: Probably 2006. It was early in the process, because there’s no way we would have passed certification.
I often make this point when I talk to business groups in Africa, because the people who are going to make Africa go forward are the small-business owners. But they are not going to make it work because even if you have a quality product out of Africa, out of Senegal, you can’t sell it—the elite buys imported products, and the base buys knock-off products from China. For this to work, people in Senegal have to have access to the international market. Also in the international market is the customer group that is going to love what they do—the ones who are culture-philes. But they are outside Africa, in the U.S., in parts of Europe, Australia, and Japan. But the only way they are going to access those markets, besides with their story and their authenticity, is quality. I mean, you don’t sell that kind of stuff to the Japanese.
Kaizen: So a culture of quality is needed.
Wade: They don’t have a culture of respect for that quality and what it takes. When I do give talks in Africa, they are frustrated: “I have my water company and I don’t even get through the border—customs. How come? They don’t just believe me that this is good water and that they should take it.”
It may seem superficial to you and to me, but it’s a big problem. Even to this day, they are not accepting the fact that their standards are too low. For them it’s a mystery how we do all of this dealing with America because their experience is that none of their stuff goes through.
Our women soon mastered the laws of business when dealing with these countries. Meaning, the American has to be able to call you. Often in developing countries you must travel there and see people face-to-face—they don’t have this culture of building relationships on the phone. Even when you travel to them, they don’t respect times. These are all realities. But if you are not like that in business, you go down.
Kaizen: Also a track record and a culture of trust.
Wade: Exactly. So we had to teach them all the things to make sure that the product has integrity. Make sure that you follow-up with your customer. Customers have to have a way to reach you, and it is not your customer’s problem. When they call from America, you should make it easy for them. If you were smart, you would have even just one person, or use the internet and have a Google Voice where people can call from the U.S. and it costs them nothing—they’re calling a U.S. number. Then you retrieve the messages and get back to them!
And it shouldn’t be your customer’s problem how you’re going to ship samples. When a person goes into business in most of Africa, all they think is: “All I need is a product and then I sell it.” They don’t think about the customer service, whether it’s shipping samples or following up.
Kaizen: How do you replicate your success with Adina? Will the people who are involved in Adina start other ventures, or will other Senegalese learn from it and duplicate it? Or foreign business professionals falling in love with Africa and bringing their expertise there? Or will it take more people like you—a Senegalese who received a significant amount of education in Europe and America, and who goes back with the credibility—because you’re Senegalese—and the business knowledge?
Wade: Some of the growth is happening. When you ask if it will be foreigners doing it, for most of South America it is already happening. When you think of brands like Guayaki or Sambazon, it is American folks; I know the founders of these two companies. They are basically white dudes from my neck of the woods in California who went to these places on surfing trips. They see a native drink, and they come back and build a business around it while the natives have been sitting on it forever, probably busy drinking Coke while letting these treasures die out.
Red Bull—it’s an Austrian guy who went to Thailand and noticed that they were drinking this thing that was really giving them power; he built Red Bull around it. Today Red Bull is a multi-billion dollar company or brand.
Out of Africa things are mostly happening from South Africa, where you have Westerners seeing things from South Africa and trying to build brands around them. Usually it is Europeans, more on the creative side, who go down there and are really developing things.
Kaizen: So the first phase is Westerners exporting business culture to Africa?
Wade: Let me take that back. Those people, I’m not sure if they are really doing what we are doing.
Kaizen: Right. You are building the culture as opposed to overlaying the culture.
Wade: Yes. I think it is great what they are doing—everybody should go for opportunities where they see them. And if the people already there don’t see it, you know what—good for you that you see it and you are doing it.
But ideally I think we need to make sure that the natives do it and that is what I’m trying to accomplish.
Michael [Strong] is the one who got me into talking and the reason I’m talking to you is because part of this growth is with this mouth of mine. I’m trying to lighten some bulbs in people’s minds.
Since I started Adina, on the hibiscus alone, you know what happened? One of the founders of Naked Juice—which was an arch-rival of Odwalla—who is no longer with Naked, started a whole new company called Ooba, a hibiscus soda company. It is very natural, high end—all of the good stuff of hibiscus. Also, Whole Foods developed a hibiscus sorbet. Republic of Tea, another big tea company, created a whole line based on hibiscus. That is also spreading the word.
Kaizen: So, many opportunities?
Wade: Yes. But the bigger opportunity I see is people replicating what I am doing. There are secrets all over Africa—drinks, foods, massage techniques. Everywhere you look. Even our way of life, even the way we deal with death, like how they took care of me grieving. It’s totally anti-mitigation, but it worked. Imagine a beautiful center with an organic garden in the back and maybe only 10 or 12 beds, and people would come from all around the world when something really bad happens and they need to grieve properly with the help of the elders. These people are dispensing their wisdom to you and taking you on long walks and you’re taking care of a garden. Imagine. It’s a little institution that could make a lot of money. People would go there instead of spending money on Prozac.
Or African dances, like what happened with Zumba from Brazil.
I was in Nigeria this past October talking about how to see all of these opportunities around them. Package them and modernize them for the 21st-century customer.
And really understand the cultural-creative demographic. That demographic spends half a trillion dollars every single year on the type of companies and brands that people like me built. It grows at a double-digit rate. There are reasons why Wal-Mart is the biggest seller of organic products; they are the reason why Wal-Mart even got into organic in the first place. They are why Clorox had to create the brand Green Works. And it was all built by people like Greg Steltenpohl and Odwalla. I can say whatever I want about Greg, but I give him that.
We all have it in us; it’s a behavior. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream—all of those guys. John Mackey and Whole Foods. This is now the new, elite customer. One day I believe the Chinese will be the biggest customers; everybody will aspire to be like them. That’s why all of these other brands are coming up with ethically-made products. The only reason why Chanel and other brands are not dead yet—their sales are dwindling in the U.S.—is not because Americans don’t have as much money anymore. The dollars are going to other brands.
Like my customer base for Tiossan. They have money. They can buy any Chanel product they want. Price is not the problem. But they would not be caught dead with any of those products on their skin or anywhere near them—because of what the brand means. It’s all shallow. Not authentic. No nothing. So the only reason Chanel is still alive is the new rich in China and Brazil and India; that is where the sales are coming from. But soon—because China is always looking at what’s the best of America, because they also have a complex of inferiority—they are going to realize that if you want to show your elite status, you don’t consume Chanel, you buy Tiossan. That’s when the “Aha” moment will happen. I’m asking Africans to get on board now.
Kaizen: So you are ready for that generation when it happens.
Wade: Yes. So how am I trying to grow the base? How am I trying to make this growth sustainable? That’s why I go everywhere to speak and that’s why I’m willing to sit down today and speak with you, because you wouldn’t believe the people in Africa now saying, “We’ve got it.” And then they’re like, “How do we go from here to here?” And that’s when I make sure that they understand their customers, setting standards, always looking at in your industry and asking what the highest standards are. That becomes the standard and then you beat them.
Kaizen: Is another part of the process to have the young Africans get out of Senegal for a couple of years—go to Europe, Silicon Valley like you did?
Wade: Not necessarily. I get this question all of the time because they are looking for their first way out. “I’m here in Lagos and I don’t have means for travel and maybe that’s why I can never be like you.” I say, “No, guys. The luck you have, even compared to me when I started and compared to anybody before our generation, is the frickin’ internet. And I know that you spend hours in cyber cafés.” The internet is expensive, but these kids are always in cyber cafés fooling around on Facebook, maybe watching porn; who knows what else they are doing. I say, that time you use to educate yourself about the world. You may not be able to come to New York and grab my product and look at it. But if you go to my website, you can make the picture larger; you can find things. You can put one and one together. And all of the blogs that exist. You can go on the FDA website and look up the standards and compare that to what the Europeans are doing. Then catch a really great brand that is staying on top of everything—a brand that is really effective. Go and look at their policies. What are they doing? Try to reach that because it is going to be easy for you to know.
I tell them, “The world is at your fingertips. But it is a commitment. It is a commitment to excellence. So from now on everything that you do has to do with that. Even when you pick up a magazine at a stand, maybe you cannot buy the magazine, but you can flip through. Nothing stops you guys from now on.” Also all of these Africans—we all have friends here and in Europe—so they can partner back and forth.
Another thing in the African culture: they don’t work with one another, which is something I’ve been trying to educate them on. We’ve got to be able to rely on each other. Many Africans have no problem working for a white person. To them, that is normal; it is almost like a privilege. But another black person coming and telling you what to do and you are going to do it? I don’t think so. If you can do it, I can do it too. That’s the attitude.
Kaizen: Are there tribal issues or class issues?
Wade: It’s not even tribal issues. It is this complex of inferiority. It is so there—it is killing everything in the culture. That’s why I write about all of these things related to dignity. Most of the West doesn’t get it, but for the Africans a lot of their hearts are bleeding when I talk about it. You know how they say that fear is usually your biggest problem? It makes you paralyzed. For them, it is the complex of inferiority. It is in everything. From starting to think that they can’t do it to thinking it is only the white person who can do it to anything coming from them cannot be good. I see treasures; they see things they cannot wait to bury. They want to move on to what the West is using. It’s the root, I think, of all of our problems. When I go to Ivy League schools and see Africans there who want to go and work for McKinsey or an investment banking company, make all of this money, and go home with their CD’s and iPad and drinking Coke. That’s all they care about—showing off. Then they’re like, “See, that’s my son.” That’s all they care about—status.
Kaizen: So they see through other people’s eyes.
Wade: Yes, yes. And that notion of status is foreign to the notion of status that the creative person has. The cultural-creative person cannot stand people who work in Wall Street; the cultural-creative person has the means to buy a Mercedes, but they would rather have a Prius. That’s the cultural-creative demographic. They’re on the fringe, but that’s the demographic we want to make the mainstream at some point.
Kaizen: You said that that’s $500 billion per year for the U.S.? And that demographic would be attracted to potential African products?
Wade: Yes. I tell them, “There’s a customer base out there that is almost built for us. It’s almost like they came to life at this right time for us.”
The problem is motivation. For example, I was in Gabon in June, because they invite me to speak at all of these economic things, and ministers of this and that want to know how to do that. We had this huge room, hundreds of people. All of these conferences I go to are usually put together by Richard Attias who basically produces the World Economic Forum. He co-founded the Clinton Global Initiative with President Bill Clinton, so he does that level of things, and he often invites me. I’m going to go to Senegal next week for another one. And he said, “Everything you are doing is important, but your greatest work would be yak, yak, yak and getting this vision out.”
In Gabon everyone is wondering, “How do we motivate the lethargic youth?” But it starts with these leaders themselves. I asked the room, “How many people know the cultural-creative demographic?” Only one hand showed. It happened to be one of the girls who was sponsored to be at the meeting from Harvard. Only her. She has been following my story, Adina, for a long time. Hundreds of people and only one hand. And I said, “Now you are asking me what Africa’s problem is? This is what Africa’s problem is.”
African entrepreneurs have a customer base at least when it comes to consumer brands. Consumer brands are important because they are why cultures are loved and respected in the world. When you think of the top 1,000 global brands that way, none is African. The first one you see is South African airlines, which is hardly in my mind an African brand because it was created in South Africa under apartheid. That’s the first African brand. You see Coca Cola, Facebook, Google, Apple—mostly Americans. That’s why American culture is so important. It’s so prevalent. It influences everybody because it’s in people’s lives. Americans have no problem with self-esteem anywhere around the world. That’s what Africans need, but we don’t work on these things. And now the Chinese understand that it doesn’t matter if you have all of the money in the world because the culture-creative demographic will see “Made in China” or “Made in Senegal” and Senegal is the love of their lives—even above “Made in the USA.” The Chinese are craving respect, so now they understand that they have to create brands because they are not going to force their way into people’s hearts by throwing billions of dollars at people.
Kaizen: They have to go to the next branding level.
Wade: Absolutely. So we Africans have a way to leap-frog: We are going to leap-frog through these consumer brands. I don’t care how many mines we dig; I don’t care how much copper our crazy people are selling cheaply. As long as all we have are commodities we are trading around, the world’s perception of us leans toward the nastiness. That’s the African brand, and it needs to change.
Kaizen: So your strategy is building, organically, business culture in Africa to target the cultural-creative consumer.
Kaizen: You’ve been critical of a lot of NGOs and the celebrities that come in with their ideas of how to solve African problems. What’s your main criticism of the traditional approaches?
Wade: First of all, I commend their hearts for wanting to do good, but wanting to do good is not enough. That’s all I want to say on that. My main criticisms are a couple of things. First, most of their approaches are on the “pity-branding” side of Africa.
Wade: Yes. Most of so-called brands that come out of Africa or anything related to Africa doing business is pity. Bono, for example, and his aid thing. It’s all about aid. Aid, aid, aid.
Kaizen: So it’s really charity?
Wade: Yes. How can somebody receiving charity build up self-esteem? How can somebody whose livelihood is charity—and I’m not saying getting charity here and there.
Humanitarian aid I put aside, except that I do have a problem when it becomes a way of life. That is what most of Africa is on—at least that is the part of Africa that the world hears about. Pity-aid is what these celebrities or aid people are about and it is contributing to something that I do not want to see anymore, which is pity. It is not a viable business-model.
Kaizen: It needs to be positive? Creative? Authentic? Active?
Wade: Yes. Also what I don’t like is that in most African countries we have more NGOs than we have small businesses. This is ridiculous. All these NGOs are doing is giving something for free. Well, who can compete against free?
Kaizen: So it puts the small African business out of business.
Wade: Yes. Everything is given free. And so not only are the small businesses being put out of business because when you have ridiculous ideas like we are going to collect left-over soaps from the U.S. …
Wade: Yes! For some people, it’s used underwear. Really. The stuff you see is just crazy.
Let’s take soap. It is so easy to make a good, nice bar of soap. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist for it. All of this soap around here—some that people have used—and they ship it all the way to African countries. Money is involved. Then it has to be processed because of microbes. Money is involved. And then they give it away for free. Imagine if all of that money was spent on a local entrepreneur, who, with the right kind of help, could make soaps and create jobs and sell it to other people.
But instead we have the real soap-makers out of business—and their employees. Then you also have cultivated the mentality of handouts, and you have the lack of self-esteem. Once again, the Africans are like, “It’s because of the white man that we have this soap.”
Kaizen: It’s a cycle of dependency.
Wade: Yes. And they stay in that stage. So we’re funding aid workers instead of entrepreneurs. One is sustainable, the other isn’t. And the aid workers, when they come back to the U.S., the only way for them to keep raising money is to tell people war stories about us, true and untrue. But that’s not the only story.
Kaizen: That’s their marketing.
Wade: Yes. When I started Tiossan I was looking for a great CFO, and somebody pointed me to someone else in Silicon Valley who had made all of this money as a CFO in tech companies. My acquaintance put me in contact with the CFO because that person spent his time building little schools in Nepal. So, maybe he’d have a heart for what I do. So even that acquaintance, who I thought really understood what I was all about, put me in contact with that person because in his mind when I touched the word Africa he thought “We’re going to give back.” He’s thinking charity; he’s thinking pity.
When I explained to the CFO what I’m doing, he said, “But, but how exactly are you benefiting Africa? How about wells? Are we going to dig wells? Are we going to build schools?” To them, if you are serious about Africa, that’s what you do.
None of them has ever thought about the need for entrepreneurship for Africa., not even Dwyer Gunn of “Freakonomics” in The New York Times, who has a Ph.D. in economics for developing countries. If she doesn’t have a better clue, who will? She was on a phone interview with Michael and Michael was talking about entrepreneurship and free markets. She was like, “Well, I could see that working for China and India, but I can’t see that working for Africa.” When I heard that—I kid you not, I was in the car and I could hear everything—I jumped into the conversation. I was furious.
Kaizen: It’s like saying Africans aren’t good enough for entrepreneurship.
Wade: And this is a Ph.D. It goes so far that when you want to fundraise money for an African brand, the only way it clicks in investors’ brains is if there is a pity component. Most of the people entrusted in Africa and African companies are the bleeding hearts, supposedly, the do-gooders. But they are so far on the left. Markets? They are like, “What?” They don’t understand the dynamics of markets and it doesn’t motivate them. What is triggered in them is an emotion to give. But they will only be excited if you tell them, “I’m going to give this” or “I’m going to do that.” The pity-party excites them. Those who are about business—no-nonsense business—go to them, but they are like, “No. No viable business has been built out of Africa.”
Kaizen: So for people interested in business, there is an opportunity. If Europeans and Americans are interested in Africa for business potential, what advice would you give to them on how best to approach doing business in Africa?
Wade: I tell them, which also serves my purpose, to try to find really great partners on the ground. It really is nice to have a co-founder or somebody like that who is your equal. So I tell them, “This is one way for you to bring the best of the world together.”
Obviously, go there and find out what is going on, and deal with something that you really, truly care about. But I tell people who are really, truly interested in Africa: “Think about the stuff that you are usually excited about, whether it’s healthcare or education or whatever.”
For example, I have this mentee at Harvard—she’s Chinese, so she sees all of the problems I’m talking about with her own country. People like her give me hope. Sandy (that’s her name) wanted to do something in education, but she feels the whole system is screwed.
Kaizen: In China?
Wade: In China and in America. Her solution was to do a traditional non-profit. I said, “Sandy, there are going to be creative, entrepreneurial ways for you to tackle this issue.” A year later she emailed me: “I think you’re right. I’m going to do it entrepreneurially. That’s what I’m going to do when I get out of here.”
Kaizen: Has she read James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree?
Wade: No. She is supposed to talk to Michael now. People interested in Africa, young and not young, are interested in Africa because usually there is a problem there. But I’m trying to exhort them to think: Instead of becoming an aid worker, can you become an entrepreneur? Or an investor with somebody on the ground? Look at partnering. Look at being a co-founder, not with your other Harvard buddy, but with somebody on the ground because they are going to bring a lot to you; they are going to fast track you because they know things.
Kaizen: Going back to your African roots, you then decided to go in a different direction with Tiossan and different product lines?
Wade: Yes. The constant with me is to reintroduce indigenous assets from my culture to the modern world, using the power of branding, marketing, and packaging. My customer base is the cultural-critic demographic. That’s my formula. Beverages was an entry-point. But what I did with beverages, if I had the time in my life, I would do it with all aspects of my life in Senegal, whether it is skin care, or to organize those healing centers for grieving people. Or African dances: I would hire a top choreographer who can help me dissect each of the moves and put them maybe in a different form. The music: maybe tone it or not tone it. But put it in a form where the Western people could take it in and we would take it to some of the top gyms around the world. You see Zumba now, but you would also see this other dance.
Kaizen: Now you’re starting with skin care products.
Kaizen: What raw material did you start with back in Senegal?
Wade: The main product of the formula is indigenous to Senegal. It’s a combination of black seed oil and shea butter. Black seed is a novelty that we are introducing to the market right now. Shea butter has been done and over done, but black seed is totally new. It came to us from the Islamic traders from Timbuktu way back when. These are 400 year old types of recipes that I’m bringing back. Obviously we had to modernize them, because if I only followed the indigenous recipe—it stinks; the texture is horrible. [Laughs]
Kaizen: You had to solve those problems.
Wade: Exactly. We had to fix the look; we had to fix the texture. And to scent it I decided to go with French perfumers who are among the best in the world. The formula is indigenous to Senegal and modernized by a leading California green chemist and scented by top French perfumers, which is all part of my route: Senegal. San Francisco. France. You see again how I bring these three cultures together.
So how is this brand going to serve my purposes of culture and jobs? Obviously, the company is going to require people to be employed—that is the jobs. And a brand like this, when I started it, I had the top execs from a major company that does luxury mostly say to me: “If you succeed in what you are saying, we’re takers.” Basically, this is a big company that buys a lot of high-end brands, but they don’t have anything African in their portfolio. And again, they said that it was because nobody is operating at their standards. And that is what the market wants.
Kaizen: So are you in product development and testing now?
Wade: No. Now these are out. We are in the concept phase now. If things work out well, then next year at this time we start manufacturing in Senegal—the lines we know that sell the best.
Kaizen: So you are test-marketing now?
Kaizen: What does that involve?
Wade: We are testing the concept in terms of lifestyle because our goal here is not “Rah, rah, rah. Look at us Africans, we are so great.” For Tiossan products, we want to make sure that people really like them—that they like the scents, the textures, the packaging. We have a great marketing job to do.
One issue is that we had to design a whole new look. To me, we have to create what I call “contemporary Africa.” It doesn’t exist; it’s not properly done. Try this: Google “contemporary Africa” and you’ll still see masks—all of the clichés—but nothing like we are talking about. Probably later when you do that, you will start to see Tiossan showing as contemporary Africa. That is the goal. Some people look at Tiossan’s product design and are like: “Where’s Africa in this?” It is an entirely new design. You can see that there is something exotic about it, but it should be about subtlety now.
You can contact the top branding firms and they are stuck in their old ways of designing Africa. They all want to bring back old colors and ornaments. At its best, it is colonial style, which is beautiful, but it is colonial—it is old. At its worst, it is tribal.
Kaizen: It’s just old and clichéd?
Wade: Yes. And these designers were stuck—and we are talking about some of the best people here. I was stuck too.
Kaizen: So a new design concept?
Wade: Yes. I’m not a designer, but I know what I am looking for when I see it.
Kaizen: So are your test markets responding to the product design?
Wade: Yes. The concept people absolutely love, but we haven’t executed it 100 percent. I’m still much like a kid learning to walk. When it is executed—which takes time—that’s where the value of this company is going to be. Everybody agrees that skin care is a crowded market; it’s crazy. But they do agree about needing authenticity. Even the website—we are working on putting romance on the website. Then the authenticity part will come in. We are fine-tuning.
Kaizen: What does authenticity mean for skin care products? How do you tell or show the story?
Wade: When women come here—it’s funny. Some of them walk in this space and get it right away. Because what you always have when you are building new brands like this, you’ve got to get your core because this is not a mainstream brand. Your core is going to be very small and very hard to find. But when they find you and you find them, it’s the perfect match. I have a book here full of names of people who have already adopted us and are already buying our stuff. The perfume is building a little cult following just from the store, by the way.
Wade: What’s going on is that these women are where we want to take women. Basically, they’ve been waiting for us. How often do you have a woman walk in and spend $400 right there in lingerie—very high-end lingerie—or grab a perfume for $72 and, as you can see, there is no pricing; they don’t care.
Kaizen: They are buying a lifestyle.
Wade: They are buying that and at the same time their eyes are all over this. And they are like, “I want that book, this, or that.” That’s my clientele. You see the habit of thought? These are people who can think for themselves. People can be original and they are hungry for that. And oftentimes we have long conversations on education.
Wade: And at the same time we have long conversations on women not being themselves, on people just being cheap. When they walk in here they feel that I’m different and they feel like this is not really corporate; this is different. The colors—the women are like, “No one dares these colors. And no one does it as well as you.” People rave about the store. They come here and when I start to talk about me and what I care for—and you know I’m bold in my views and in what I want to accomplish—and they just start to fall in love. That’s how I know we have something real because most of the other beauty brands are just that—beauty brands. If you look at all of their social media, it’s all about [raises voice to sound shrill] “Hey, the best way to do it with the eyeliner … put these colors on.”
At first, we were too heavy on the philosophy. We were too much in your face, almost preaching. That’s what I learned. Then we got a new agency from New York City, very cosmopolitan. They totally got the brand and took the freedom, and gave me something that was a continuation in new directions. I couldn’t make it myself, but when I saw it, I knew this was it. The whole direction changed. Laurie Diamond, who was the top marketing person for Evita before and after it was sold to Estée Lauder, told me, “Magatte, this concept is fabulous. And the fact that this is an African brand! It’s almost too scary what you have.” She is a PR person. She’s like, “This is crazy.”
Kaizen: So it’s all on the upside.
Wade: It’s like a worst nightmare and dream: nightmare because there is too much to sell and dream because, well, pick your entry point. You could talk to a New York Times economics person about pushing the brand in a way that is not pushing, because you are talking more about the economics behind it, like entrepreneurship. And you could talk to Cosmo from a pure beauty standpoint of it. And you can talk to Vanity Fair about how this is going to be changing women’s lives, teaching them to be more authentic, more themselves. This is Feminism 3.0 with all of the good things of feminism—because there is also a lot of crap in feminism.
Now my problem is an execution problem.
Kaizen: This is much fresher and more understated cosmopolitan?
Kaizen: And who you are, Magatte Wade, is built into the brand?
Wade: After Adina, I never wanted to do that again. But now I am ready to again make me my brand, but I have to try to build it in a way where at some point I can move out and it still stand on its own.
Kaizen: So how do we clone you? Actually, that probably isn’t the right word since “authenticity” is the theme.
Kaizen: So to rephrase: How do we help younger people become more authentic? You went through a rebellious phase and a harsh learning curve with your first company. Young people often have trouble seeing what’s possible in the bigger picture. You are still young, but there are teenagers and those in their early twenties now. What do they need to know in order to unlock their potential to do great stuff?
Wade: Most important for young people—or anybody who is vying to be authentic—is how you surround yourself. I feel like if I had been surrounded by more people who were willing to stand their ground, it would have been easier for me to practice the habit of authenticity. It’s the support network.
Kaizen: Surround yourself with authentic people.
Wade: Or who support it. They may not be that way themselves, for whatever reason, but they respect and love you for it. But we need to be in a world where that is respected. Oftentimes I feel like we are one foot in and one foot out and that is very critical for most of us. Some of us are two feet in, never turning back. Actually, once you go there, you never turn back and that’s the beauty of this. And it becomes easier. You become happier.
Kaizen: Like the young bird flying out of the nest—it’s the first leap.
Wade: That’s the hardest, yes. But once you go there, you may not be perfect flying yet, but as you go you get better and better and then you enjoy it and then you can start making figures and all types of things. So for those kids what I would tell them is: first surround yourself with people who, even if they don’t understand or don’t do it themselves, at least they respect you for that. It’s a calling in people. I really do believe that all of us want to be authentic.
So you do that, but at your own level you have to start practicing the habit of courage. That is really what it is all about: courage. Because if decide you are going to be authentic and original, you are going to be hated for it. It is going to be hard. Hence the community that is supposed to surround you and remind you of what you are doing and push you. It’s courage. At that point, you are really facing yourself.
Kaizen: How does one develop or practice the habit of courage?
Wade: I have found that for myself is that it’s oftentimes questioning myself on very basic things, like when I’m at a store and I want to buy something—this happened just recently over the last couple of years. Michael had been very helpful for me, but this I did a lot on my own. I go to a store and I want to buy something, especially clothing, I’m going to think, “Why do I want this dress?” You’ve got to stop; stop yourself for just two seconds: “Why do I want it? Do I want it because somebody told me I look great in yellow, or because my friend has the same one, or this is going to tell somebody I have this money? Why do I really want this brand?” Oftentimes you will catch yourself.
Wade: Yes. Why do you want to go to this party? Just practice the art of asking yourself a question, knowing that you are the only one in that mind of yours, so tell yourself the truth. If the answer isn’t really, “Because this is what I like, this is what I love to do.” Or, “Am I going because everybody else is going? Because it is a party to be seen and see at?” What is it? The more you start catching yourself being a coward—meaning anytime that you are doing something because of somebody else or because of some other forces—there’s nothing worse, I think, within yourself than feeling like a coward. It’s not like you are going to go kill yourself or anything, but you are starting to pay attention. That is when your sense of rebellion comes.
If a bully keeps on pushing you, one day you are going to just take the bully to the ground, but you have to be able to feel that you are being bullied. Most of us are lying to ourselves in thinking that what we do is our own will when it is not.
So I oftentimes practice that art of catching myself. Just asking myself: “Why am I doing this?” And being honest with myself inside. If I find myself too many times going to a party only because I felt it was the right thing to do or whatever, then there automatically comes a time when I’m like, “Nope. You know what? Screw it. Today, I’m not going.” And from that moment on it becomes easier.
I keep quotes and I get books of people that I absolutely admire because they were willing to be authentic. Steve Jobs does his own thing and doesn’t care what people think. Or Ayn Rand—whatever you think of her—she was her own self. With all of her flaws and all of her beauty, she was willing to be herself. Her life story and books really are great tools to me.
I don’t copy their lifestyles. But I respect the fact that they were authentically true, original persons. The journey, the tales of heroes. Any person—it doesn’t matter if they own a big company or are famous so you can read about them. Those are the stories that matter to me. Those to me are the real heroes.
Another thing about courage, dignity, and honor: I really believe that we all crave them as much as we crave food. It is not so obvious, but it is so there, and that is the danger. If you are hungry, you can identify what is missing in your life. But dignity, honor, and courage, and how it makes you feel—that to me is the key of humanity. If you have lost those, you’ve lost everything. And that’s how most of us fall into all types of …
Wade: Yes. And addictions of any sort, whether drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling. You are filling that void.
But I can tell you that the pride and the happiness of knowing that you stood your ground, even if you lose and even if they stumbled all over you.
And that is what my brand is all about, trying to get people on a journey like that. I want to make dignity, honor, and courage cool because dignity, honor, and courage are a result of authenticity.
As a matter of fact one of our taglines is, “Tiossan. You have to look at it as your talisman for authenticity.” You’ve got to be reminded of that. Talisman goes into my culture. You know oftentimes what they say? This person goes to a shaman, and then succeeds at their exam. Then you ask the shaman and the shaman is like, “I gave him nothing. What I gave him—there is nothing in there. It’s all here [points to her head]. The fact that I gave the talisman to him, he believed in himself and he went and did his best.”
Kaizen: It’s a token of what you are at your best.
Wade: There you go. Tiossan is not only a real product that is going to do wonders for your skin and beauty, but most importantly Tiossan is a way of life. And more than even a lifestyle, it’s a new way of being and thinking. I really am trying to take people on a romantic journey: a tale of courage, dignity, and honor, and being authentic and true to yourself.
Wade: If we do that, we win. I know we’ll win big because you win whenever you cater to people’s natural needs. And dignity is, I think, the biggest need of man, as humanity. I would rather not eat and conserve my dignity rather than eat and not have it.
Wade: I don’t know if everybody is like that, but I have a feeling that there are enough people like that to build a market for this company. And I also have a feeling that if we do it well, then the mainstream will be aspiring more and more to that.
And 50 percent of all of the profits go towards the creation of innovative schools in Senegal because, yes, we can fix adults all we want, but how about we start from the ground-up? So it is going to be Montessori schools with Sufi spirituality—not religion—but the spiritual part of Sufism. Michael Strong is going to build a whole curriculum.
I envision beautiful schools. Nubian Art architecture, which is authentic and traditional Senegal, though, obviously, we are going to modernize it. Beautiful. But architecture like back in the days, made with adobe, basically—but it has done so well by the people who know how to do it really well, where you put windows and doors and courtyards and everything. That’s all natural air-conditioning.
Kaizen: That’s architecture at its best.
Wade: Yes. Architects have mastered it before, but today when you are in Senegal you only see ugly cinder blocks taken from some Arabian city. When I go to Saudi Arabia, I feel like I’m in Senegal. Whether it is on the poor side or the rich side, it’s ugly architecture. Or they copy the ugliest parts of the Spanish style, like you see in south Los Angeles. Senegal has lost its past architectural mastery.
We want to get a big piece of land enough where we can build a factory—I call it a factory, but I hate that word because it is just retail. Imagine, even the place that we do the lingerie, I want to organize the work area like maybe there is a seamstress over here, there’s all of these plants and all of that stuff, surrounded by beauty. Even the machine we are going to get, I’m going to try to make sure that it isn’t too noisy. All of these little details, the aesthetic of life, when you are surrounded by it, it helps you be more … you know what I mean?
Wade: Believe it or not, in Senegal we do not have any public areas for kids to play. There are no such things as playgrounds; the kids have to go to the beach or any natural, open space. There is not this culture of taking care of a child.
And our education system is very much top-down—the worst of French colonial teaching. The problem we have in Senegal is our elite are trained to be French bureaucrats, while the uneducated are entrepreneurial but haven’t the sophistication to be real.
Kaizen: So your goal is to rebuild the whole culture, but starting inside of the whole individual?
Wade: Yes. And I hope I live long enough to see the first graduation of the first batch of kids that come out of it because these are the kids that you are going to hear about. They are going to be some of the most brilliant minds in whatever it is that they decide to do and they are going to have the biggest hearts. They are all going to have in common in what they succeed in life is that they came from this type of school. And I want that to be the norm because we are going to do a lot. Africa is going to get there.
But what I fear is that the Chinese are the ones who are establishing manufacturing, and they are doing it the Chinese way, meaning all of the disrespect for humans and environment and all of that. They are now setting up shop in Ethiopia and places like that because it is cheaper to employ somebody there than it is in China, believe it or not.
In Africa, we have the AGOA regulation, meaning that for many goods at least 30 percent of its manufacturing components must come from Africa—no tariff duty here. So the Chinese make 70 percent of what they do in China, bring the rest to Africa, and then get it to the U.S. to avoid tariffs to stay competitive. And they are building these nasty factories. Somebody like me, free markets, jobs, and everything, I should be happy. But that is not the vision that I have.
Kaizen: It’s better than nothing, but it could be much better.
Wade: Exactly. Workers know that it doesn’t have to be them living on bunk beds and living like rats and working like dogs—it can all be done with the dignity of the human at the heart. That’s what I care about and that’s my vision of Africa. It’s going to be the green manufacturing hotbed of the world making some of the coolest products that the world has ever seen.
This interview was conducted for Kaizen by Stephen Hicks. For more information about Magatte Wade and her company Tiossan, please visit her website.
© 2013 Stephen R. C. Hicks. All rights reserved.