Skip to main content

This Senegalese-born, Harlem-raised entrepreneur makes her roots her true home

Awa Diaw knows what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land. In fact, that’s her home.

It was potentially the most significant trip of her life, and Awa Diaw remembers little of it.

She was only 6 years old, flying over the Atlantic Ocean away from her home in Senegal, bound for a far-off big city called New York. Her mother and father, who had already emigrated to the United States in search of better educational opportunities for themselves and their growing family, were there waiting for Awa.

That trip is a fuzzy memory for her, a stark contrast to the painfully clear memory of her first day of first grade in Harlem.

“I’m in the classroom yelling, literally yelling in Wolof. I can’t speak English, so I’m crying and screaming and trying to get the ESL teachers, who only know Spanish and English, to understand me, and they aren’t understanding me,” Awa recalls. “It was like that for my entire childhood.”

But Awa does not give up easily. Her mom might call her stubborn, she says with a grin. Though it took several years to master English, Awa not only found a way to make a home in Harlem, she stayed deeply connected to her roots in Senegal. From college in Maine, business school in Indiana, and her first job in Seattle, she’s lived in so many places that she now has an exceptional ability to make a home wherever she goes.A young girl standing in front of a pastry case wearing a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt

Just over two decades later, Awa makes the trip back to Senegal for the first time since she left. As her feet plant on the soil of the capital city, Dakar, she’s blasted with a hot, dry, familiar wind. Shading her eyes against the sun, she realizes, I’m back. I’m finally back.

A few days later, along with her travel companions, sister Maryama and mother Penda, she disembarks a small boat that brought them to Gorée Island, the site where millions of Africans were enslaved before being forced off the continent.

Awa’s prepared for a deep sadness, but the beauty of the plant life dancing in the wind stirs something beautiful into the sadness, complicating the history of this land. Her land.

*****

Back at home in Seattle, Awa’s blending up the next batch of shea butter for her business, Nekawa Beauty, with her friend and business partner, Chelsea Trotter.

Awa’s been in this apartment for several months, but the place feels like she’s lived here for years: happy plants, bright prayer flags, African-print throw blankets, and the distinct smell of shea emanating from her kitchen—a smell that reminds her of her Senegal-meets-Harlem world.

Awa’s been making shea butter for her own skin and hair for years.

“My first memory of using shea was when I was born,” she says. “Senegalese women slather it on themselves and their babies. I can see my mom rubbing shea butter in her hand to warm it up and then massaging my baby brother’s little body and head.”

Awa says she was a clumsy kid with perpetually scabby knees from running and falling. Her mom applied shea butter to her wounds obsessively. “I remember not really knowing what shea butter was, but I knew it was good for me; I knew that it felt good.”

Shea butter comes from the shea tree, found predominantly in the dry savannah region of West Africa, especially in the southern regions of Senegal. The tree’s fruit contains a nut in the center. The nut is cracked open and rigorously pounded into small pieces. The pieces are then roasted and mixed with water to form a paste, and then the paste is cooked so the fats rise to the top and the oil, which becomes the unrefined shea butter, settles to the bottom.

A few years ago, while in business school where they met, Awa and Chelsea turned Awa’s shea butter recipe into a company and named it Nekawa Beauty. (Nekawa is awaken backward, named because using shea butter awakens the skin. It’s also the Swahili word for pure, and it contains Awa’s name.)

Awa receives the unrefined shea (a purer version than most refined shea butters on the market, which Awa says have been diluted by preservatives and chemicals by companies looking to stretch the product and make more money) from her family and then melts it, mixes it with other organic oils that she knows have a history of nourishing skin and hair, and that’s Nekawa Beauty shea butter.

*****

She and Chelsea started out wanting the product to reflect the simplicity of its original uses, but Awa’s recent trip to Senegal has deepened their intentionality.

She remembers her mother’s village Ndoth, a peaceful respite from the city and tourism and rows of plastic litter. In Ndoth, there wasn’t a trace of plastic, vegetables gardens grew in the backyard, and goats and chickens raised for meals roamed the property. The practice of eating only what you grow and raise has nourished her ancestors for generations.

“They’re living a sustainable life without calling it sustainable,” she said.

I understand that I make my own home, and that’s many places at once…that’s also kind of the beauty of it.

She thinks about how adopting practices from the past could help make things better for future generations.

Getting back to this kind of simplicity is ideal, she knows. The question of how to do it overwhelms her, but she’s no stranger to holding two truths at once. That’s the dichotomy that is Awa: she presents as fearless, walks tall, and has a voracious appetite for success; but the confidence doesn’t take up all the space in the room, and her success doesn’t seem to come at the expense of others.

“She’s a really powerful person,” says Chelsea, describing her friend. “But more than anything, she’s humble. I’m telling you; she’s going to be someone to remember.”

Nekawa Beauty tethers Awa to Senegal in multiple ways. She and Chelsea donate certain proceeds from the sale of the products to a nonprofit that focuses on health and education in Africa.

“Continuing the relationship between my business and the continent is important to me,” Awa says. It helps her bridge the gap between her two homes.

“I understand that I make my own home, and that’s many places at once. I’m still figuring it out. I’ll have to keep figuring it out. That’s also kind of the beauty of it.”

But she knows it’s complicated: home is not only Ndoth. It’s Harlem, it’s Maine, it’s Indiana, and right now it’s Seattle, where she works at Microsoft. When she started on her current team, she wasn’t sure how people would react to her being an entrepreneur on the side.

“I am always a bit shy about talking about my small business at work, but since it’s on my LinkedIn profile, a few coworkers saw and showed so much interest in it, sharing the product and telling others about it. It feels great to see people invested in not just what I do at Microsoft but also in what I do outside of my daily job.”

Their excitement and support feels, to Awa, like family.

*****

Two women pose in brightly colored dressesAwa keeps getting rich flashbacks to her recent trip.

Back in Senegal, the jeep bounces violently on the rocky dirt road. A trail of dust announced their arrival to Ndoth. Her mother turns to her grown daughters in the backseat, her expression serious.

“Thiossane,” Penda says, in Wolof. Awa looks out the window as chills run down her arm and tears well up in her eyes.

Thiossane loosely translates to, “this is your history, your people, your land. You are home now.”

The evening that Awa returns to Seattle, a friend texts her, “Welcome home.” She smiles as her plane taxis on the tarmac. She is home.

*****