Richelieu Dennis runs a family business. He, his mother and his sister named their beauty brand SheaMoisture after the shea butter products that Richelieu’s grandmother made and sold in West Africa. Richelieu built his company into Sundial Brands (acquired in 2017 by Unilever), which sells hair and skincare products primarily designed for black women.
He also oversees the $US100 million ($137 million) New Voices Fund that invests in businesses owned by women of colour, and early this year he bought Essence magazine.
We talked to him about building a business with a cultural mission, making business decisions with his family, and how he addressed the outcry over a controversial ad.
Current Gig: Founder, CEO & Executive Chairman, Sundial Brands; Founder & Chair, Essence Ventures
Location: New York
Current mobile device: iPhone and iPad
Current computer: Don’t use one
One word that best describes how you work: 24/7
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
You could say I was born into entrepreneurship. My grandmother, who was from Sierra Leone, was left to raise four children in the 1940s in a rural village in West Africa after becoming a young widow. To support her family, she made natural skin and hair care preparations and sold them primarily to missionaries and villagers.
Through both her personal experiences and her experiences as a village merchant, she learned (and taught me early on) that with an efficacious natural product, the consumer is not to be typecast. This is the legacy of my family and the brands we build at Sundial Brands (maker of SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage, Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture and Nyakio).
I was born and raised in Liberia and came to America to attend university. When I graduated in 1991, Liberia was in a civil war, and I was unable to return home. It was then that I started Sundial with my college roommate Nyema Tubman, and my mother Mary Dennis. We began making soaps developed from my grandmother’s recipes in our Queens apartment and started selling them on the streets of New York City to survive.
As our company grew and we began growing our family stateside, our different cultural influences and walks of life helped us even better understand the criticality of an inclusive point of view. That has impacted how we view the world, how we view business — and perhaps most importantly, how we view our purpose in both.
We started our company out of a need to survive, but we’ve built it based on a mission not only to help others survive, but to prosper. In fact, we view ourselves as a mission with a business, rather than a business with a mission. Because of that, our purpose — to empower people to live more beautiful lives — sits at the centre of everything we do as company and compels us to keep community at our core.
This spirit of purpose and empowering those around us led to our purpose-driven business model called Community Commerce, which equips underserved people and communities with access to the opportunities and resources that enable them to create lasting value for themselves and others. It results in an ability to build stronger, self-sustaining communities and enterprises.
Take us through a recent workday.
I began the day with an update call with my executive team at Sundial and then had a series of brand meetings for SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage, Madam C.J. Walker and Nyakio regarding new creative, community engagement and strategy. Then I had a mentorship lunch with a group of Black women entrepreneurs.
Later in the afternoon I met with our New Voices Fund team on our infrastructure and launch, had a few calls with a few of our agencies, and ended the day with a dinner meeting to discuss the new vision and strategy for Essence.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
iPad, Apple Pencil, Notes App.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Anywhere I am — mostly in the car.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack (no matter how small or niche)?
Listening to my mum! I’ve often tried going other routes, but the smartest and quickest have always been a result of taking my mother’s advice.
Take us through an interesting, unusual or finicky process you have in place at work.
Well, an interesting or perhaps unusual process is the way we innovate. Essentially, we get innovation inspiration and ideas from our community and from our retailers (yes, we really do listen!). Based on the feedback and requests we receive, as well as our own research and knowledge of efficacious and culturally-authentic natural ingredients, my sister (our Chief Innovation Officer) and I work together to determine how to bring it to life.
Those conversations (or shall I say debates!) often spill from the boardroom to the dinner table (and sometimes with mediation from Mum!), but we ultimately align on how we want to move forward because our core focus continues to be serving our community to the fullest and fulfilling their unmet skin and hair care needs around the world.
When your purchase of Essence was announced, some people brought up the controversy over a 2017 SheaMoisture ad that seemed to overlook the brand’s black customer base. How do you handle the longterm effects of incidents such as this?
As leadership, we never hesitated to immediately own what happened. Most importantly, we set out to restore trust. A critical lesson we learned from that situation is that we have to make sure all of our employees, particularly our new hires, have a full immersion in our culture.
We’ve nearly doubled in size in the last two years. So we are experiencing both the opportunities and challenges that come with that growth and are applying our learnings from each to ensure we continually get better.
Ultimately, I can say it has made us better. Following that incident, I and other members of my leadership team went on a multi-city listening tour with rooms of anywhere from 25 to 500 Black women at a time sharing not just their feelings about the ad, but also about their lives, their communities, and their needs beyond the beauty aisle.
The inspiration for our New Voices Fund (the $US100 million [$137 million] fund we created to invest in and empower women of colour entrepreneurs) was the direct result of what we heard from these women about what some of their key challenges were in living the lives they imagined for themselves.
So, we set out to help provide a solution, beginning with tackling some of the issues many Black women entrepreneurs have around access, capital, expertise and other resources to help grow and sustain their businesses, and thus strengthen their families and communities.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
Everybody and all the time! Any level of success we’ve achieved is due solely to the collective efforts, determination, commitment and sacrifice of our entire amazing team. Trust me, it takes a village!
How do you recharge or take a break?
I recharge by going to an executive education program every summer. Continual learning is so important to refresh and recharge, and I am always in search of ways to do something differently or just understand a new perspective. It’s critical to personal improvement and to becoming a more effective leader.
What’s your favourite side project?
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“You can do anything in this world if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
Wealth creation in the Black community.
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