How this Liberian-born entrepreneur faced backlash for selling his company to Unilever for $1.6 billion

Abu Mubarik October 05, 2023
Richelieu Dennis. Photo: Babson College

Richelieu Dennis is a Liberian entrepreneur who co-founded the personal-care products company Sundial Brands, which he started with his mother Mary and college roommate Nyema Tubman in 1991.

After graduating from college in the U.S., he could not return to Liberia due to a civil war. His mother would join him after escaping the civil war. Unable to return home, he teamed up with his college roommate, Nyema Tubman, to make soaps and other natural products. He had recipes from his Sierra Leonean grandmother, Sofi Tucker, who made soaps with shea butter and salves.

They moved with his mother from Boston to Queens in New York after launching Sundial Brands. They sold raw black soaps and essential oils on the streets of Harlem and Bed-Stuy before they later rented a van to move the products to street vendors and shops.

They continued to grow progressively and were valued at $700 million in 2015, reported Fast Company. They created brands including SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage, and Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture which started selling in large stores like Sephora, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods.

In 2017, Dennis sold Sundial Brands to Unilever for $1.6 billion, and he is now one of the wealthiest Black entrepreneurs in the U.S., Forbes reported. Nicknamed the “godfather of budding black entrepreneurs,” Dennis demanded that the multinational corporation invest $50 million in a fund to empower Black female business owners as part of the sale deal. But he faced criticism at the time he sold the company, with many calling him a sellout. Dennis believed that he received backlash because that kind of deal was rare at the time amid the mistrust people have for such big companies due to past incidents.

The 54-year-old has since invested in a number of businesses, including Slutty Vegan and Monique Rodriguez’s Mielle Organics which sold to P&G in early 2023. In 2018, he acquired Essence Magazine with the pledge to use it to empower black women.

Before that, he founded Essence Ventures in 2017 to focus on “merging content, community and commerce to meet the evolving cultural and lifestyle needs of women of colour.”

Dennis was born and raised in Liberia where he lived with his parents. His father died when he was 8 and he moved with his mother to her native country, Sierra Leone, with his sister. Both countries faced growing tensions at the time and Dennis gained a scholarship to the United States where he attended the Babson College in Massachusetts.

Dennis never forgot about his home country Liberia as he visited there regularly. He even granted an interview to the New York Times on the acquisition of Essence magazine while on a flight from Liberia to the United States.

He also started purchasing over 250,000 kilos of raw Shea butter from Africa – Ghana – where Sundial provided a seven-fold increase in income for each member of the local and women-led cooperatives that supplied the product.

Last Edited by:iboateng Updated: October 5, 2023


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