How this Liberian-born entrepreneur went from selling soap on street corners to building a beauty empire

Richelieu Dennis went from selling soaps on Harlem street corners to building one of the biggest multicultural beauty companies in the country. (Photo: Sundial Brands / Graphic: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)
Richelieu Dennis went from selling soaps on Harlem street corners to building one of the biggest multicultural beauty companies in the country. (Photo: Sundial Brands / Graphic: Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

#BeautyDisruptors is a new series where Yahoo Lifestyle Beauty Editor Jacqueline Laurean Yates interviews CEOs, inventors, and other extraordinary individuals who’ve managed to shake up traditional norms, launch innovative companies, and change the stagnant conversation on beauty.

When Richelieu Dennis was a student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., he was unable to return to his native Liberia due to civil war. While facing this conflict, he decided to start selling different skin care as his grandmother did in their family’s village market in Sierra Leone. From there, Dennis made his way up to street vending in Harlem African black soaps, shea butter by the pound, and coconut products. Along with his mother, he would create new products at home, and the demand quickly grew.

Fast-forward years later, and Dennis is no longer selling skin care on street corners. He’s now the CEO of Sundial Brands, which includes a portfolio of some of the top-selling beauty lines for people of color. If you have walked the beauty aisles of any favorite mass retailer, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across Sundial brands Shea Moisture, Nubian Heritage, Madame C. J. Walker, and Nyakio.

Dennis is invited to speak all over the United States and has received accolades for his ability to grow his business from such humble beginnings. Oh, and he just purchased Essence Communications, which includes Essence magazine and its parent lifestyle brand, from Time Inc. The mogul is successfully pushing the envelope, with no signs of slowing down, but his journey has had its share of pitfalls.

Keep reading to find out how Dennis perseveres and remains on top of his game in an ever-evolving beauty industry. Prepare to be inspired.

Yahoo Lifestyle: Did you initially envision selling soaps on the street would turn into a full-fledged business?

Richelieu Dennis: Yes, this was something that my grandmother had done in a very rural setting on a small scale. The idea was that we would do that to survive, but about a week into it, we realized that there was a tremendous amount of need for natural products that worked for women of color. From that moment, we thought, let’s do everything we can to serve her [women of color] and bring new innovation. We started making products that people were asking us for and, because there was nobody serving black women in this way, there was nobody else for them to ask. There was nobody for them to go to and say, “Hey, I need this,” or “I have this problem and I’m looking for the solution.” We provided that.

How does Sundial Brands stand out from personal-care companies?

There are brands and people that are making products entirely based on ethnicities, but not based on specific need states. Not all black women have the same hair texture. Back in 1991, ’92, ’93, many brands were only making products for women with relaxed hair, straight hair and not take into account that these women were trapped because they didn’t have products that worked for the way they wanted to wear their hair, so they were forced to wear their hair in these styles and use chemicals that damaged the hair and didn’t give them what they wanted.

That what’s very unique about Sundial and Shea Moisture. We’ve always also focused on how she’s living her life, understanding her culturally, her aspirations, and how all of that tied into what her beauty needs were to provide her with the best — and to this day, nobody does it from that perspective.

Why are you personally so heavily influenced by women of color?

My grandmother was a single mother. My mother’s a single mother, and I have four daughters. I’ve experienced firsthand the challenges of what it is to be a single mother. And many of those challenges are challenges that, if we all just got together and worked together and thought about it together, we could help solve. There’s no need for women and moms to go through this world alone without the help and the support from the businesses that do business in our communities and that generate success from the women in our community. That should not be happening. That’s why it’s been our mission to keep doing something about it for the past 27 years.

Do you ever involve your daughters in the creative process of coming up with new products?

Yes! They are in each part of our innovation pipeline. Each of them has different hair textures, skin types, and personalities. They all want to express their beauty differently as well. So with that, they are very much a part of how we go to market and what new products we’re in the process of making. They are also very involved in helping run the business.

Shea Moisture faced a little backlash this past spring for an ad that ran. You’ve since bounced back and still came out victorious as being one of the leading hair brands for women of color. How were you able to do it?

The first thing we did was own it. We said, “We’re 100 percent understanding of the societal issues that exist. We have been fighting to correct those societal issues from day one. So this was not a shift or a pivot in our strategy or in our focus, but we did make a mistake.”

When you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before and you’re trying to build something that hasn’t been built before on a platform that hasn’t existed before, you are going to make mistakes. The biggest advice that I can give is to not run away from issues when they occur. Own it. Your consumers deserve that. Go stand in front of them, accept the responsibility, make the correction, and move on. If you do that in a consistent way, they will understand and they will support. What we did was not out of any sinister or clandestine plan. It was a miss in editing, and we owned that and moved on. Our consumers recognized just how valuable the work is that we do, besides the product that we produce, the work that we do in our community, and support us through it.

Have there been any recent wins within Sundial brands that you can share more about?

To build a business from standing on a street corner to winning No. 1 multicultural brand in the country, and becoming the 10th best hair care brand in the country is pretty significant.

Also, we’ve grown and have continued to invest in our community with our $100 million New Voices Fund that we just announced. The New Voices Fund is for women of color and focused on investing in women of color who own businesses and providing them the capital, resources, and access that we didn’t have so that we’re able to create more economic sustainability in our community for women. For me, that’s a tremendous accomplishment, to have built a business that can deliver that type of a return back into my community.

Your New Voices Fund seems to align beautifully with another recent win for you — acquiring Essence magazine. Can you tell me more about how this business deal came into fruition?

Our mission is to serve women of color and serve them deeply. One of the things that has been a real challenge in our community is we no longer own the narrative. There are very few outlets that we own and, in Essence‘s case, that speak specifically to and for women. So this is just, again, us going deeper and serving women of color and making sure that women of color are not just the ones receiving the narrative but that they’re the ones that are owning and controlling the narrative so that we are represented by ourselves properly, and that was the catalyst behind our new business deal.

Was acquiring Essence magazine something you always saw yourself doing?

No, but what I did know was that in order for us to go deeper in serving her and have the resources to be able to support the pillars that are necessary to be able to serve her, Essence is the only media vehicle out there that has been serving around those issues for so long.

We should own our beauty culture. Nobody else should own it and then create narratives that work for their own viewpoints. As I thought about these issues more, I realized, who’s going to invest in this idea of owning our own narrative? How I can leverage the business that we’ve already built to generate the resources that I can continue to invest in my community at a much faster pace and at a higher level? So that’s what I did and used that momentum to acquire Essence and make further investments in our community.

What is your vision for the future of Essence?

I think there’s so many areas to grow. Whether you think about it from a digital perspective or online communications, but then also taking this narrative of our beauty culture and being able to bring to marketers an access point that allows them to speak in a genuine way to women of color and to market to women of color in a genuine, respectful, thoughtful way; to provide women of color a platform where they can express themselves around social justice, around entrepreneurship, around lifestyle, around culture and style, around beauty, around … so it’s not about just beauty now. It’s about a platform now, that black women can express who they are across their communities and their needs and across how they’re living their lives.

And, as I said, we have to move away from this thing of trying to homogenize who we are as people and move to expressing who we are as people in a society that are all facing different opportunities and challenges but are finding common ways to achieve our goals and celebrate that. So that’s the vision.

How did it make you feel to see the outpouring of love from people of color finding out that Essence is once again a black-owned business?

It continues to show how much we care about our community and how much pride we take in who we are and what we are, especially in an environment where we find our culture being questioned and taken from us and attacked. There is hope for us to continue, and we are fighting, aligning, rooting, and investing in one another. That’s very positive, and it’s something that hopefully continues to spark the interest of more entrepreneurs that are building a business and finding success. It should encourage them to not just take that success and go invest it in the stock market but to bring those resources and dollars back into our communities to serve our people. Nobody else is going to do it for us. We’ve got to do it for ourselves.

What advice would you give to aspiring business leaders looking to disrupt the beauty industry in the way you have?

Every company today needs to go after black consumers. Black-owned businesses need to serve black consumers extraordinarily well and go after broader markets if we’re going to be able to survive and compete, because they’re coming into these markets that they never came into before. For 40 or 50 years, didn’t pay any attention to it. Now they’re paying attention to it and, if you are just disrupting other black-owned businesses in your community, that’s all that happens, and then nobody makes it. If you take care of your community and you go out and disrupt in the marketplace against broader markets, then you have you have the abilities and the access to grow and sustain beyond just cannibalizing other black-owned businesses.

What are some important lessons you’ve learned along the way?

One lesson is to stay true to who you are as a business. The second is to make sure you have a true passion for what you’re doing. Three, establish a North Star as to why you’re doing it, and that will help you. As you face difficult times, it will help you make smart decisions if you’re clear about what your North Star is and about where you’re headed. Four, make sure that you bring your community along for the ride.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

My mother continually inspires me. I think the evolution of our culture inspires me. The evolution of the change that our culture brings to the broader culture inspires me. I’m always looking at how we as a community are evolving against all of the challenges that we have, and that really brings me great inspiration.

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