By Ebimo Amungo
Richelieu Dennis and his mother, Mary, are one of the most unlikely success stories of African immigrant entrepreneurship. Forced by war to overstay in America and prompted by unemployment to start making soap and shea butter products at home. Dennis and his school roommate hawked their products on the streets of New York and eventually founded Sundial Brands. The company grew to become one of the largest immigrants owned cosmetic businesses in America and was eventually acquired by Unilever for $1.6billion, making Richelieu Dennis and his mother one of the richest African immigrants in America.
Born and raised in the capital city of Monrovia, Dennis Richelieu lost his father when he was just eight years old, and his widowed mother spent years shuttling him and his sister between Liberia and the neighboring country of Sierra Leone as civil unrest and violent conflict alternately flared up in both nations.
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As a teenager, Mr. Dennis left Africa for the first time to attend Babson College in Massachusetts. Dennis Richelieu had hoped to graduate and return home to Liberia to start a citrus farm. But by the time of his college graduation in 1991, civil wars had broken out in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. His mother traveled from Africa to the U.S. to attend his graduation ceremony. While she was in America her residence and possessions back home in Monrovia were completely destroyed. Ms. Dennis and her son never returned back home. Instead, they rented an apartment in Queens, New York.
“Our home was destroyed. Everything you had was gone,” says Mary, who is known simply as Miss Mary to her employees. “The little I had, we took that and started a business.” Dennis’ plan had to change.
Together with his mother and college roommate, Nyema Tubman, Richelieu began making and hawking soaps, handmade from ash and shea butter on the streets of Harlem. The inspiration for the soap was the natural recipes used by Dennis’s grandmother, Sofi, a shea butter expert who had been known as a village healer back in Liberia.
“My grandmother made different hair and skin preps and sold it in the village market (in Liberia) and I grew up seeing her do that,” he said. “I started making African black soap (made with plant ash) and shea products — the same things my grandmother was making and selling.”
The soaps proved popular, and gradually the business began to expand into other bath and beauty products. Sundial Brands was born. The products were targeted at Blacks and Latinos in America who sought natural cosmetics to treat their hair. Selling his new product from the back of his bus, from Harlem all through New York. Dennis and Nyema Tubman eventually created an informal distribution channel that stretched across America. Sundial Brands was eventually sold in retails chains nationwide, including at Whole Foods, Vitamin Shoppe, Wegmans, Sprouts, Pharmaca and independent health food stores.
Sundial Brands grew until it was the largest black-owned beauty brand in the world and one of the ten largest black-owned businesses in America. In 2015, Bain Capital purchased a minority stake in Sundial that reportedly valued the company at a whopping $700 million.
Two years after the Bain investment, Sundial Brands was acquired by consumer goods giant Unilever.
Forbes estimated Sundial Brand was valued at for $1.6 billion at the time of the sales and proclaimed that Mr. Dennis and his mama have a combined net worth of $850 million, making them two of the wealthiest black entrepreneurs in America.
100 MILLION DOLLAR NEW VOICES FUND
As part of the acquisition of Sundial Brands, Unilever and Mr. Dennis together created the $100 million New Voices Fund, which is aimed to assist entrepreneurial women of color to achieve business success. The fund has so far invested $30 million, out of $100 million raised, in brands like Honey Pot (plant-based feminine hygiene products) and the McBride Sisters Collection, a wine company.
INVESTMENTS IN AFRICA
Since the sale to UNILEVER, Sundial Brands has intensified its effort to have its products in Africa, Europe, and South America. To understand customers in these locations, Dennis has had to travel to places like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria to research the distribution models there. Sundial Brands is also expanding manufacturing outside the company’s Long Island headquarters into areas closer to new markets, including Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa.
EMPOWERING WOMEN IN GHANA
Sundial Brands purchases over 250,000 kilos of raw shea butter from Africa especially Ghana where the company sources from seven women’s cooperatives in Northern Ghana where the brand works with over 700 women who are paid ethical wages as co-op members in a healthy environment. This has led to a seven-fold increase in income for each member of the local and women-led cooperatives that supply the product. The women in Ghana have become Sundial’s partners, not just suppliers, and with their rise in income, they experience greater health, access to education, and the benefits of financial freedom.
Dennis has said he has plans to continue investing a portion of its sales into communities and efforts to improve the lives of those in its supply chain.
ESSENCE VENTURES LLC
Dennis also established an independent company Essence Ventures LLC just which he used to acquire Essence, the premier black women’s lifestyle magazine, from Time Inc. The acquisition mades Essence a fully black-owned publication for the first time in nearly two decades.
SPLASHING ON REAL ESTATE
Since selling part of his business to Unilever, Dennis Richelieu has made two landmark property acquisitions. First he purchased Villa Lewaro, built in 1918 for Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire who made her fortune in natural hair-care products catering primarily to African American women.
Dennis revealed that he plans set up a think tank aimed at fostering entrepreneurship among women, particularly women of color, through distance learning and on-site retreats at the 34-room, 20,000-square-foot mansion on North Broadway. The building was designed by Vertner Tandy, the first African-American architect registered in New York.
“The idea is we would create a think tank where we would have some of the some of the best minds in the country thinking about entrepreneurs and the challenges of entrepreneurship for women and women of color.”
Dennis also purchased a strikingly ultra-contemporary mansion set in the hills above the Sunset Strip in California. The house was spec-built by a developer on the site of the late James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz’s home. The property has 12,109-square-feet of living space spread across three full floors, one of them subterranean. The house is completely gated and secured with a state-of-the-art security system: cameras, infrared beams, bloodthirsty crocodiles, all that jazz and was purchased for $15,750,000.