Think of her as Wonder Woman in a hijab.
Leesburg’s Tammie Umbel is a homeschooling mom of 14 and the founder and CEO of a nationally distributed line of natural body care products.
Umbel founded Shea Terra Organics in 2000 and has kept the company on a roll for 17 years while raising and educating her children, now aged 4 to 26.
Umbel was an early adopter of increasingly popular natural ingredients like shea butter and argan oil. She combined her knowledge with a lifelong interest in the empowerment of people from developing countries. When she launched her business, one of her goals was to improve the lives of African women by sourcing products from that continent and fostering the creation of sustainable small businesses, while providing natural products to end users.
“I wanted people to use what they had in their environments and bring those secrets to the western world,” Umbel said. “It’s got to help the people that it’s sourcing from. It’s got to help the end user—there has to be that relationship. And it has to be something that’s not going to harm the environment.”
Umbel lives on a charming 10-acre farm near Leesburg with her husband, Dr. Syed Ishaq, a nephrologist practicing in Fairfax, and 11 of their children who are still at home.
Through the wonders of technology, along with late nights and early mornings, Umbel runs her business (her production facility is located in Sterling) and her household.
Finding balance can be tough, however, and one way Umbel achieves it is by eliminating distractions and getting help from her children around the farm.
“One of the major components of the company when I came up with the business model is that my children come first,” Umbel said. “We don’t have a television. … We’re constantly in motion, and my children have a lot of duties and responsibilities.”
A Georgia-born descendant of Appalachian pioneers, Umbel converted to Islam in her teens after moving to Maryland with her family. She met her husband, a native of Pakistan who came to the DC area for his medical residency, at an area mosque. Umbel, now 44, married young and had eight children by the time she launched Shea Terra at the turn of the millennium.
Umbel and her husband first visited Loudoun as newlyweds while living in Arlington more than 20 years ago. She was captivated by the area’s rural beauty during a visit to Leesburg.
“All you saw was green mountains, and I said ‘that’s where I want to live,’” she said.
It took more than a decade for her dream to be realized, but a dozen years ago, the family made the move to Loudoun. Umbel said it’s been a welcoming home for her family, where they’re putting down roots on a number of levels. One son has been active for years in the Middleburg polo community, and several of her children have been involved with STEM programs at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun campus.
And while Umbel chalks up occasional acts of aggression or unkindness to her headscarf, she finds Loudoun to be a place of acceptance overall.
“That’s why I’m here. One of the reasons Loudoun is so wonderful is that it’s by and large more educated and more cultured,” she said.
Umbel, whose smile is radiant beneath her black headscarf on a warm spring day, said that her relationship with Islam has provided both the inspiration and much of the know-how involved with creating her business. Her introduction to women from around the world at her mosque was what initially exposed her to so many natural remedies and beauty secrets from non-western cultures.
And those connections drew her to many now-popular ingredients that were less well known two decades ago. For the past 17 years, Umbel has been developing relationships with suppliers in Africa, allowing women in numerous countries to start their own businesses.
One of her first products was Egyptian black seed oil, which got the company rolling, along with shea butter and henna. In 2003, she expanded the line and started with argan oil and other products, and Shea Terra now offers more than 300 products. Shea Terra beauty products are sold in Vitamin Shoppe stores around the country and online. Umbel’s newest line, Wild Beauty, features products that are each linked to a wildlife conservation project.
Umbel’s faith is intimately intertwined with her business and she attributes much of her success to divine inspiration and her mission to offer high-quality, chemical-free products at reasonable prices.
“A lot of times people will tell us that our products are blessed,” Umbel said. “There’s that component of generosity. … It’s not just about selling a product. We want you to feel loved.”
When Umbel travels to meet with her suppliers, she brings her children along, and the family has traveled together to Namibia, Morocco and Egypt. It’s not always easy, she said, but it’s part of her efforts to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in her children, along with a respect for the environment on both an international and local level. Umbel and her family are also committed to efforts to bring back native plants in Virginia and preserve and protect local waterways.
“I’m trying to plant those seeds in their mind,” she said.
For more information on Tammie Umbel and Shea Terra Organics, go to sheaterraorganics.com