Liberian immigrant Richelieu Dennis built and sold a beauty business for $1.6bn but he isn’t done yet

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 2, 2024 8:53 AM EDT
Richelieu Dennis
Rich Dennis. Credit: Wayne Lawrence

Immigrants in the United States generally encounter a myriad of challenges, navigating a complex intersection of race, immigration status, and cultural identity. From systemic racism to socio-economic disparities, Black immigrants specifically face hurdles that compound the already intricate immigrant experience. The journey involves not only adapting to a new culture but also confronting racial discrimination, language barriers, limited access to resources, and unfamiliarity with the American social and legal system and policies.

These were the stark realities for Richelieu Dennis when he escaped war-torn Liberia in 1987 and started selling shea butter out of his dorm room at Babson College.

Born in Liberia, Dennis experienced a challenging upbringing amidst the country’s violent civil war. Fearing for Dennis’ safety, his mother, Mary Dennis, dedicated years to securing her son’s escape from the turmoil. Little did Mary know that these unfavorable circumstances would ultimately shape Richelieu’s future.

Eventually, an opportunity came for Dennis in the form of a scholarship to Babson College, Massachusetts, where he successfully earned a degree in business. Shortly after Mary departed Liberia to attend her son’s graduation ceremony, rebels attacked and completely destroyed their home. When Mary finally arrived in the United States, she had nothing else but the two bags she carried with her.

Dennis, devoid of employment, a concrete plan, and a place to call home, resorted to his family’s long-standing custom: crafting organic bath and body items. By utilizing his grandmother’s cherished formulas, he and his mother embarked on a venture of vending soaps amidst the bustling streets of New York City.

“We needed a place to stay and food to eat until things settled down back home,” Dennis said. “So we started mixing different soaps and selling them on 125th and 5th in Harlem. It wasn’t a business plan—it started as a way to survive.”

Years back, following the untimely death of her husband, Dennis’ grandmother, Sofi resorted to selling handcrafted Shea butter soaps and salves in Sierra Leone to provide for her family. Her reputation as a skilled healer spread across the countryside, and she eventually passed down her valuable recipes to her grandson.

Dennis’s ascent to the highest level of the beauty care industry in America can be attributed to his age-long family tradition that served as the key to his success. Dennis embarked on an ambitious mission to tackle specific skin and hair care issues that had been overlooked by mainstream skin care companies. By drawing upon his family’s deep-rooted traditions, Dennis infused four generations’ worth of recipes and wisdom into his line of natural bath and body care products. Together with his mother, Mary Dennis, and college friend, Nyema Tubman, he co-founded Sundial Brands, focusing on creating shampoos, conditioners, and lotions, such as SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage, which cater specifically to the needs of Black and Latino customers.

The trio collaborated using unprocessed elements such as shea butter, essential oils, and African black soap, a product that originated from West Africa and was created from plant ash. They combined these ingredients to create incense, skin, and hair products. The process involved mixing the lotions and soaps in the small bathtub of Dennis’ limited-space apartment in Queens. Subsequently, they packaged the products in Ziploc bags and sold them on every corner of the street in Harlem.

Dennis’ creations occupied a void in the market. Despite the fact that major beauty conglomerates such as L’Oreal catered to women of color with predominantly chemical relaxers, news about Sundial products began to circulate, and Sundial went from vending on a humble table at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue to wholesaling its merchandise to local stores, fairs, and festivals.

Turned Challenges into Strength

Similar to any other Black-owned enterprise, Sundial encountered setbacks. Financial institutions were reluctant to extend loans to an African immigrant, denying Dennis the modest sum required to acquire the basic tools for his business. Sundial struggled to establish an inventory and resorted to selling the meager output they could manufacture on a daily basis. The trio diligently navigated their constrained finances and reinvested the funds into the business.

“We did that daily, because we didn’t have the resources to build up inventory,” Dennis says.

A factory space posed yet another obstacle for the Black-owned enterprise. After an extensive quest to find a suitable location for expanding their manufacturing capabilities, they relocated their operations to a warehouse in Long Island in 1992, resulting in their departure from their apartment at 5 a.m., every day of the week to produce and package their products, and delivered their goods in the afternoon.

“White kids grow up in this country navigating abundance. And Black kids grow up navigating scarcity. That leads to different mindsets. When you’ve been marginalized and left out and in a lot of cases abused, when wonderful things happen—thing that would be celebrated in a white community—they get scrutinized differently in a Black community.”

Sundial also faced racial profiling prevalent in the beauty industry at that time. During the early 2000s, there was a surge in the popularity of natural beauty products. Despite this, Dennis was determined not to place his products in the designated “ethnic aisle” of drugstores, which was often a dimly lit and limited back section of stores.

“There was this practice of segmentation, which in our opinion was amounting to segregation,” Dennis says. “With every fiber of my being I felt that that was just wrong. The only place that segregation was legal was in the beauty aisle.”

Instead of accepting inferior product placement tags, Dennis waited patiently for 16 years until retailers agreed to display his products alongside other hair and skin-care products. In 2007, Sundial finally gained recognition as Macy’s became the first major retailer to stock their products. Target also joined in later that same year.

Rising Hope

Sundial’s remarkable debut in the mass market in 2007 was impeccably timed. This was possible because, in the years leading up to 2007, the sales of relaxer products had experienced a decline, while the demand for Sundial products had soared significantly. The mid-2000s witnessed the emergence of the natural hair movement, which celebrated textured hair and traditional styles, and this trend gained immense popularity and high demand. Despite not having widespread distribution, Sundial had already generated $60 million in revenue. However, with the introduction of mass distribution, these sales skyrocketed fourfold over the following decade. Under Dennis’ guidance, Sundial successfully obtained certification as a B Corp company.

The $1.6-billion Monumental Deal

Throughout the initial 24 years of Sundial’s establishment, Dennis refrained from seeking external funding and gradually transformed from a street vendor in Harlem to a supplier for prominent chains such as Target and Whole Foods. This remarkable feat was accomplished by capitalizing on the burgeoning demand for natural beauty products, a market segment that was virtually non-existent during that era.

Considering the impressive performance and escalating prominence of Sundial, it was only logical for Unilever to aggressively pursue the acquisition of the New York City-based company, which boasted a revenue of $240 million at the time. Unilever’s strong desire to acquire Sundial was further demonstrated by its willingness to grant Dennis the autonomy he desired.

Dennis had a specific set of terms, primarily focused on maintaining complete control of his company without any restrictions. To his surprise, Unilever agreed to all of his requests. Unilever made a generous offer of approximately $1.6 billion for Sundial. In November 2017, Dennis orchestrated the groundbreaking deal in the beauty and personal care industry. This acquisition remains one of the largest deals in the natural beauty/personal care sector in the United States and also represents the most prominent consumer products deal by a majority Black-owned company. Following several meetings with Dennis, Unilever publicly announced its acquisition of Sundial in 2017, propelling Dennis and his mother to become one of the wealthiest Black entrepreneurs worldwide. Dennis and his mother, Mary, who co-founded the company in 1991, held a 51% ownership stake. Furthermore, Dennis retained his position as the CEO of Sundial, enjoying the freedom to continue in his role for as long as he desired without being subjected to the typical multi-year lockup period imposed by acquiring companies on incoming CEOs.

Another Purpose-driven Vehicle

Dennis assumed the roles of chair and CEO at Sundial until December 2019. Throughout his tenure, Dennis conceived the notion of establishing a community commerce platform, utilizing his entrepreneurial achievements to reinvest in marginalized communities.

“We developed what we call ‘community commerce.’ It’s this idea of leveraging our business to invest back in our communities,” Dennis said. “No matter where we go or what we do, we bring the community up with us.”

The collaboration between Sundial and Unilever resulted in the establishment of the New Voices Fund, a non-profit organization committed to supporting and empowering female entrepreneurs of color. This purpose-driven partnership led to the creation of a $100 million fund. Initially, the non-profit invested $30 million to support brands such as Honey Pot, which specializes in plant-based feminine hygiene products, and the McBride Sisters Collection, a wine company. Over time, Dennis, now 54, has also provided support to other ventures, including Slutty Vegan and Mielle Organics. P&G later acquired Mielle Organics in early 2023.

Social Mission Board

After relinquishing his positions as Sundial chair and CEO, Dennis established the Social Mission Board in collaboration with Sundial and Unilever to expand the reach of community Commerce models on a global scale. By joining forces with similar institutions that share the same mission, the Social Mission Board utilizes proven frameworks to assist entrepreneurs in underserved communities of color. They aim to bridge the gaps in access, capital, and expertise, thus reducing disparities.

Essence Ventures

In furtherance of his mission to uplift minority communities and minority-owned ventures, in 2017, Dennis established Essence Ventures with the aim of empowering minority communities and minority-owned businesses. This independent Black-owned consumer technology company focuses on integrating content, community, and commerce. By doing so, it strives to develop an ecosystem that caters to the cultural and lifestyle requirements of people of color. In January 2018, Dennis acquired Essence magazine from Time Inc. for an undisclosed sum, ensuring that the magazine became fully black-owned once again. This acquisition further solidified Dennis’ commitment to empowerment through various avenues.

“What we’re doing with Essence is not very different from what we’ve done with Sundial,” Dennis says. “And that is to serve black women deeply, to serve women of color in a way that no one else has thought about. In a way that’s authentic to who they are, in a way that’s dedicated to them.”

Empowerment through Education

In December 2018, through the New Voices Foundation, Dennis acquired Villa Lewaro, the historic estate of Madam C.J. Walker. With meticulous renovations, Dennis converted Villa Lewaro into a prestigious learning institute, functioning as a think tank. This remarkable establishment supports women of color entrepreneurs with comprehensive educational programs, both in-person and virtually. Through a curriculum-based approach, these aspiring business owners are equipped with the necessary knowledge and resources to foster the development, growth, and expansion of their enterprises.

“We want to leverage the resources we’ve acquired to invest back in businesses with the same fundamentals we had 20-something years ago,” Richelieu said. “One Sundial isn’t enough. We want to help other entrepreneurs and companies, especially those from the black community, get to where we are today.”

In conclusion, Richelieu Dennis remains a true visionary in the business realm. His distinct perspective on connecting business with social awareness has resulted in groundbreaking innovations that have had a global impact. Dennis has showcased his exceptional business skills and unwavering commitment to empowering the Black community through his accomplishments in establishing Sundial Brands and Essence Ventures, as well as his strategic business acquisitions and philanthropic endeavors. Undoubtedly, his journey serves as a source of motivation for aspiring entrepreneurs worldwide.