Entrepreneurial African missionary Aisha Okudi, 37, laid the foundation for her thriving business and ambitious humanitarian work during a period when she and her children were sometimes homeless. She'd been through worse.
Regardless of how bad things have gotten, she's remained focused on her mission because she considers her story of transformation a testimony to her faith in a Higher Power she serves for the greater good. The Omaha visionary is proud of how far she's come with her Sha Luminous line of organic shea butter skin rejuvenation and beauty products. Sha Luminous is available at Hy-Vee supermarkets in six states as well as Akins Natural Food Stores, No Name Nutrition, Jane's Health Market and select salons. She's working to get in Whole Foods.
She's humble about her success because she's following a plan she feels called to. She views everything about her journey, even the dark side, as a conduit for the missionary work that is her real passion.
The base of her hand-crafted products is butter extracted from the shea nut, a natural plant indigenous to the same rural African provinces she serves. After years helping poor African children by sending supplies and making donations, she visited Niger in 2010 through the auspices of the international NGO, Children in Christ. She made connections with villagers, tribal leaders, fellow missionaries, government representatives and American embassy offcials. She purchased a missionary house to accommodate more evangelists.
She says she's tried getting Omaha churches on board with her work but has been rebuked. She suspects being a woman of little means and not having a church or title explains it. Undaunted, she works closely with CIC Niger national director, Festus Haba, who calls her work "a blessing." In addition to Niger, where she once considered moving, she also visited Togo on that 2010 trip.
She visited Ghana in 2012. She's returning to Africa in August, this time to Mali. With the help of Haba and CIC she'll explore growing her business there to create import-export streams. At one time she weighed developing holistic herbal health clinics in West Africa.
"I want to create job opportunities for people because this business is about helping people who come out of poverty just like me."
She wants more Africans enjoying the fruits of the shea nut grown there by employing locals in its production and sale and by making her products affordable so more locals can enjoy their health benefits.
It's a far cry from the self-centered, destructive path she was on from the early-1990s through 2004. Growing up in Omaha and Des Moines she long headed for a hard fall. Her family often moved. Finances were always tight. She was a head-strong girl who didn't listen to her restless mother and alcoholic father. She got in trouble at school.
"There were issues at home. I was always told no coming up and I got sick of hearing that. I felt I was a burden, so I was like, 'I'm going to get out and get my own stuff.'"
At 15 she left home and began stripping. A year later she got pregnant. She gave birth to the first of her four children at 17.
"I found myself moving around a lot. I really didn't know what stability was. I never had stability, whether having a stable home or just being stable, period, in life. I was young and doing my thing. My dad walked in the club where I was stripping. My sister told on me."
The ensuing confrontation only drew her and her parents farther apart.
"I was trying to live that life. I wanted to have whatever I wanted to have. I danced, I sold my body and I made lots of money from it. I did it for about 12 years. I wanted to have it all, but it was not the right way."
She got caught up in the alcohol, drug abuse and theft that accompany life on the streets.
"I was in and out of prison a lot. I used to steal to make money."
In 1997 she served time in the Douglas Country Correctional Center for theft by receiving stolen property.
In 2004 she was crying in an Iowa jail cell after her second Operating While Intoxicated offense. Her arrest came after she left the strip club where she performed, bombed out of her head.
"I had to get drunk so I could let these men touch me all night," says Okudi, who drove her car atop a railroad embankment, straddling the tracks, poised to head for a drop-off that led straight into a river.
That night in jail a decade ago is when it all came to a head. "I just sat there and I thought about my kids and what I just did," she says. She felt sure she'd messed up one too many times and was going to lose her children and any chance of salvaging her life, "I was crying out and begging to God. I had begged before but this time it was a beg of mercy. I was at my bottom. I surrendered fully."
To her relief the judge didn't give her prison time at her sentencing hearing. "I told the judge, 'I will never do this.' He said, 'If I ever see you in my courtroom again it will be the last time.' I burnt my strip clothes when I got out, and I didn't turn back. I got myself into treatment." She'd been in treatment before but "this time," she says, "it was serious, it wasn't a game. I enrolled in school."
Ten years later she has her own business and a higher calling and, she says, "I'm so proud that I write the judge and tell him how I'm doing." Okudi's learned how to live a healthy lifestyle and not surround herself with negative influences and enablers.
Her life has turned many more times yet since getting straight and sober. In 2006 she seemingly found her soulmate in George Okudi, an ordained Ugandan minister and award-winning gospel artist. They began a new life in Washington DC and had two children together. Then she discovered he was still married to another woman in Africa. The couple is separated, awaiting a divorce.
She's learned to forgive, but she's only human. "Even though I've grown sometimes it feels like, When is it going to end? But to much is given, much is required. You've just gotta consistently stay on track. No matter what it is, stay focused."
Even as recently as 2012 and 2013 there were tests and setbacks, including bouts of homelessness. The difference then and now is that when adversity strikes she doesn't get too high or too low, she doesn't feel entitled to act out. She claims she experienced an epiphany in which God spoke to her and set her on her Esha Jewelfire mission.
"When I had that vision and dream I was pregnant with my youngest son. I was living with my grandmother. I was newly separated from my husband. I said to my grandmother, 'I don't know if I'm going crazy or what, but the Lord said I will build like King Solomon and go and help my people in Africa.'"
Since childhood this Africaphile has expressed a desire to help alleviate poverty overseas. Her visit to Niger and the overwhelming reception she received confirmed she's meant to serve there.
"It was immediate. I was able to blend in wherever I went. I know that's where my calling is. I cook African, my children are African, my friends are African. It's just a natural thing for me."
She even speaks some native dialects.
She's long made a habit of sending clothes and other needed items to Africa. But a call to build was something else again.
"Where am I going to get the money from to help these people in Africa?" she asked her grandma. "I didn't know."
Then by accident or fate or divine providence a friend introduced her to shea butter, an oil used in countless bath and beauty products. "And that's how the idea for my business came up," Okudi says.
Shea is gritty in its natural state and only transforms with love. Sound familiar? "I researched it and found that it moisturizes, it cleanses, it refreshens, it heals, it brightens, it just makes you shine. It's naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. So I figured out what I needed to do with it."
Her experiments led to lightly fragranced shea butter-based products, including lotions, creams and scrubs. She began marketing them.
She gets raw shea in big blocks she breaks down by chopping and melting. She incorporates into her products natural oats and grains as well as fruit and herb oils to lend pleasing textures and scents. The fresh fruit and herbs are pressed by hand. Nothing's processed. "All this stuff comes from God's green earth -- oils, spices, herbs, organic cane sugar," she says. Nothing's written down either. "I have it all in my head. I know every ingredient in everything I make. Everything is made fresh to order and customized. Everything is hand-packaged, too."
Selling at trade shows, house parties, off the Internet, the small business "started really growing and taking off for me," she says. With her products now in chain stores, she contracts workers to act as sales demo reps where her products are carried. She also has a contract with a hand-mass manufacturing firm in Nashville, Tenn. She's in discussions with a majo beauty products manufacturer-distributor.
She says besides her line being "bomb diggity," retailers and customers alike respond to "the mission purpose behind it," adding, "It's purposeful, its meaningful, there's life to my company."
Her business has been based at various sites, including the Omaha Small Business Network. Production's unfolded in her mother's kitchen, in a friend's attic, in her house, wherever she can find usable space. "My business is simple, it doesn't really need a big plant or office."
Having a store of her own though was a dream. A few years ago "an angel" came into her life in the form of Robert Wolsmann, who within short order of meeting Okudi wrote her a check for $10,000 – as a loan – to help her open her own shop.
Wolsmann is not in the habit of lending such amounts to near total strangers but something in Okudi struck him. Besides, he says, "I could see she needed help. She showed me what she made and I was so impressed I presented her with that money. I couldn't resist investing."
"He's an awesome person," Aisha says of Wolsmann. "We've become great friends."
She says her dynamic personality attracts people to her. She feels what Wolsmann did is evidence "things work in mysterious ways – you don't know what’s going to happen, you've just got to be prepared."
Her Organically Sweet Shea Butter Body Butter Store opened in 2010. The labor of love proved star-crossed when after two months her landlord evicted her. Okudi's opened and closed two more stores to pursue new opportunities .
"Entrepreneurs go where they have to go to get things done."
Evictions from two rental homes found to be uninhabitable took their toll. "I asked God, "What is going on? Why does this keep happening to me?' I didn't have nowhere to go. I was seeing myself back living from place to place like I've always been, still trying to take care of my kids and do my business." Stripping’s fast money lured her back for a short time. She and her kids stayed at the transitional housing program, Restored Hope, but when things didn't work out there they went back to couch surfing before finding stability at the Salvation Army Shelter.
"It kept me focused on my mission. I've been called to be that missionary, so I'm not so upset anymore about why I've been bounced around or why things have happened the way they have. There's a way bigger purpose. If you just be really humble and wait and be patient to see what God's doing, He'll turn things around."
It's why she no longer dwells on the past or worries about what she doesn't have right now.
"Nothing matters when it comes to material things. The only thing that matters to me is my health and just doing what I know is right in my heart to do. Even though I lived the way I lived, basically homeless, I realized I am very blessed and I remained grateful.
"God only gives you what you can handle. He obviously knew I was equipped to do it. You just do it, but there's preparation to everything. Nothing goes to waste. Everything I've been through I've actually used as a powerful testimony to either encourage someone else or to inspire myself to move forward."
For the past year she's earned enough money to find stable living in her own downtown condo.
Often asked to share her story before church congregations and community groups, her message is simple:
"To persevere, period. I don't care what your situation is you've got to keep going. The world doesn't stop, time doesn't stop, problems never cease. You have to go through them. I go through my trials and tribulations and I never ask God to remove me out of them because it builds character, strength and perseverance for you to move on. I always tell people, 'Don't stop, just keep going.' The fight is not easy, the fight ain't no joke, it's a war, it's a battle. You've got to put full armor on and fight. God don't have punks in his army.
"You've got to be a soldier for everything you put hour hands to."
She's aware her success amid myriad struggles inspires others.
"It reminds me who I am and that when I don't think people are watching me they are. I've always been a happy, giving, loving person. Even when going through something, I pick myself up. Even my father said, 'If you can be changed from where you came from, I know there's a God.' Now, he's stopped drinking. He's reborn."
She realizes her own rebirth may be hard for some to swallow. "People who knew me in my past might say, 'Oh no, not Aisha, with what she used to do?'" She acknowledges she couldn't transform without help.
"When I got the call to start my business to support the Africa missions I had no business training or education, I just did it. I've learned as much as I can from experts and entrepreneurs who've already been there and done it. I've seen what not to do and what to do. I've learned to listen more, to be more patient, to look at all options instead of just what I know, because it's not about what I know it's about what I need to know. This has been a very humbling and hard faith thing for me."
In 2011 she graduated from Creighton University's Financial Success Program for low income single mothers.
"I learned how to be very resourceful working within my means, how to budget and how to cut out unnecessary costs."
She was introduced to EcoScents owner Chad Kampschneider, who became a mentor and ended up picking up her product line.
After being accepted to tape an episode of Shark Tank she decided to pass on the opportunity rather than risk gaining partners who would wrest control of her vision.
"I've gotten this far with my mission and purpose and I don't want to get detoured on another path. I figure one day I'll be a shark myself helping people grow their businesses and realize their dreams. If I continue to follow the path I've been following I'll get there. I see myself global helping in poverty areas through my company."
She's determined to complete her mission.
"I just get up knowing I gotta do what I gotta do, and I live one day at a time. I don't let my financial and emotional path haunt me. There's nothing you can do but do what you need to do every day and be a part of hope. Too many people are hopeless. There's no light in them. I'm not about that, I'm about life and living to the fullest and being happy with what I have and where I'm at because I know greatness will come some day for me. I'm a very favored woman in all things I do.
"I haven't been at a standstill. I've come a long way and I continue to grow. I'm still transforming, I'm still moving forward. I still reach out for help in areas I need help in."
She suspects she's always had it in her to be the "apostolic entrepreneur" she brands herself today. "Sometimes you don't discover it until things happen to you. I think I had it but I didn't embrace it then. I heard so much negative in my life coming up that it turned me away…I said, 'I'll show you,' and I made wrong decisions. What the devil meant for bad, God turned it for good.
"I'm a natural born hustler but I hustle in the right way now."
This month Okudi will be at select Walmarts and No-Frills stores seeking donations for her African missions.
For more about her products, visit her Facebook page, Sha-Luminous-by-Esha-Jewelfire.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com