Business

When Giving Becomes a Habit: A Look at the Life of Richelieu Dennis

By

Mohit Kamboj

Despite life’s many difficulties and gifted modest roots, Richelieu Dennis created and sustained a successful, multi-faceted empire that displays his core value: to aid and empower others.

Richelieu Dennis takes pride in the work that he and his mother and others close to him have been able to do to help communities around the world thrive like never before. Dennis also stands beside the entrepreneurial support given to countless black men and women across the globe who have a dream just like Rich Deninis did,

Humble Beginnings

Richelieu Dennis was raised in Liberia and Sierra Leone. He grew up experiencing strong businesswomen first-hand .

His mother, Mary, was an economist who promoted economic mobility for women. His grandmother used generations-old recipes for skin and hair care products, successfully supporting herself and her family.

As a young man, Dennis migrated to America to escape enormous civil unrest at home and to attend university. He secured a scholarship for the private business school Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, that focused on entrepreneurship education.

His mother would send shea butter products to her son from back home in Liberia. Dennis would re-sell them to classmates.

Although prevalent in Liberian society, there was a hole in the American market for shea butter products, as beauty ideals differentiated. It was never Dennis’ intention to launch a business, only to offer top-quality suncare products while he attended school.

Initially keen to return to Liberia to pursue a career in citrus farming, selling oranges, pineapples and grapefruits, plans changed while attending Babson. Mary was visiting for her son’s graduation narrowly escaping the ground fighting that had now entered the town where Mary lived. She lost her house and all her belongings. Mary and Rich Dennis were war refugees relocated to the US..

Speaking about this day, Dennis suffered great uncertainty and pain.

Characteristically, he would use those feelings as fuel over the next 30 years.

Stepping Up With Shea

With his mother working alongside him, the two continued making soaps and creams from his grandmother’s recipes in Sierra Leone.

In 1991, joined by Mary and his best friend from college, Nyema Tubman, Richelieu Dennis founded Sundial Brands in Harlem, New York.

The business slowly expanded from selling plastic bags of shea butter products at various points along the 125th street thoroughfare in uptown Manhattan.. Dennis refused to sell his products to shops that would only place them in the segmented ethnic aisle.

In 2007, Macy’s became the first mass retailer to stock Sundial products, placing them with the rest of the hair and skincare products. Other American marketers would follow, and— eventually, so would the world.

Sundial Brands

Richelieu noticed an inequality in the American beauty aisles, and Sundial Brands meant to rectify that.

While the diversified and dynamic society now embraced natural black hair and beauty, it lacked high-quality care products for black women.

In 2017, multinational consumer goods company Unilever purchased Sundial Brands. Dennis used the funds to invest in New Voices, which empowers and assists black entrepreneurial women through skill-building, leadership development and networking opportunities.

Proud Performances

Richelieu Dennis is driven by how deeply he cares for the welfare of others, aiming to better society. He champions equality by funding and supporting initiatives to strengthen other black entrepreneurs.

In 2019, Dennis developed Sundial Community Commerce, which partners with and reinvests in communities where Sundial does business. The company believes that true economic independence is a result of commerce and assists in empowering women to break the cycle of poverty.

Community Commerce partners with women-led co-ops in Northern Ghana to supply shea butter. It ensures that workers and suppliers receive fair compensation for services and goods. Sundial Community Commerce invests in local and global efforts, guaranteeing critical infrastructure and improvements in the supply chain. It leads educational programs to further women in business, transform communities, and positively impact millions.

In 2018, Richelieu acquired Essence a lifestyle magazine, restoring it to a fully black-owned publication.

Additionally, Dennis is on the Board of Trustees for Babson College and works in conjunction to inspire other young entrepreneurs.

Richelieu Dennis hopes to inspire people of color with his own life experiences, encouraging them to work harder to achieve their goals and dreams.

He felt the events in Liberia while he was a young student prompted him to incite change. He evolved from an aspiring fruit farmer to a self-driven philanthropist and cosmetics industry mogul.

Richelieu Dennis believes that modern challenges (the pandemic, social injustice and climate change, namely) will spur the next generation of motivators and leaders to solve complex social problems —and inspire them to make their difference in the world.