In 1987, when civil unrest in Liberia brought him to America, Richelieu Dennis also became an entrepreneur. He sold shea butter out of his Babson College dorm to make ends meet. Necessity would evolve into Sundial Brands, which became a leading maker of skin care products for black consumers. In 2017, Dennis sold Sundial to Unilever, to help spread the supply-chain wealth to West Africa and other underprivileged areas. He remains CEO and executive chairman. He discussed his amazing journey with Inc. editor in chief James Ledbetter.
I grew up in Liberia at a very tumultuous time, a very violent time. We had our first set of riots that really shook the country when I was 10 years old. We had those riots in '79, and then the following year we had the coup d'état. Just extremely violent.
Did it affect your family directly?
Very directly and very personally. We lost a lot of extended family members, but a lot of painful things happened in my immediate family during that period as well. I grew up seeing how cruel humans could be to one another. I think that shaped a lot of my sense of fairness.
Did you think, "I've gotta get the hell out of here"?
It really wasn't "I've gotta get the hell out of here" as much as "What is causing all of this?" And what role can I play, and what can I do? I became very sort of socially active, more active around students' rights, education rights. Back then, teachers beat the students. I didn't think that was right. I was very vocal about that, so I got beaten a lot.
I saw the inequalities and injustices around women and economics. My mother was a single parent by then. She was an economist in the Liberian government; my father died of cancer when I was 8. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Both my maternal and my paternal grandmothers were entrepreneurs. My father and my grandmother were actually business partners, just as my mother and I are today.
How did you end up at Babson?
I got a scholarship. As things started to really deteriorate in Liberia and there were more uprisings, my mother, Mary, just felt it was time for me to leave. Early on, I realized that the way to solve some of these issues was through wealth. Because otherwise, you're always asking somebody else's permission. You're always under somebody else's influence.
So did Sundial start while you were an undergraduate?
I was selling shea butter to my classmates. I would get supplies from my mother for my personal use. My ambition was to go back to Liberia and become a citrus farmer. People were starving there, but it's such a lush, lush agricultural haven. You'd have these orange trees and you'd have these mango trees, but they would just spoil. There was no cannery. There was no juicing market. That problem remains with development in Africa, all of the resources that are extracted out, as opposed to developed in. You could say I eventually did become a, maybe not a farmer, but more of a harvester. I never got to the citrus farming idea, because I got here in '87, and then the internal conflicts in Liberia really started to escalate.
So you became a refugee entrepreneur.
By 1989, the conflict was basically full-blown, so there was no going back. That's when I started to sell more, just as a means to buy food, because there was no money coming from home.
What made you focus on shea butter?
There are things that Liberians have been using in their communities for centuries. To protect themselves from the sun, to survive, to eat, to live. And they were never quite developed commercially. So shea butter is something that has been used in our culture for centuries, all over Africa, for very specific purposes that people have been trying to solve for in the West. So you start to educate people on the benefits of it.
It was also around that time that the mindset or the consciousness of consumers started to shift, and they started to question what they were putting on or in their bodies, where it was coming from. Was it ethically sourced? Was it exploiting people?
And then your mother moved to the U.S. to join the business?
She actually didn't move--she came to my graduation, on the last flight that left Monrovia before the rebels invaded the capital city. She left with two suitcases, and by the time she landed in New York, her home had been bombed.
So Liberia's implosion impelled Sundial to become a real company rather than a college survival gig.
We started making different preparations, whether it was soap or incense or just the shea butter by the pound or by the ounce, and selling them in Harlem on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. I set up a table and started selling. There were 12 of us in a Queens apartment, and we were all just like, things will calm down back home and we can return. It'll be another week, maybe another two weeks. Nobody expected it to last almost 20 years.
But lots of guys are on 125th Street selling stuff on card tables. At what point did you break out?
There are a lot of guys on 125th Street with card tables. There are very few guys on 125th Street with a Babson education. One of the things that I learned: There's always an opportunity in a disorganized market for the guy who can organize it. So we started to deliver. Back then, it was beepers. They'd beep us, give us an order, and then we'd deliver. That's how we started our distribution business. We had a Toyota Previa; we loaded up all our stuff and we started delivering to the vendors, and then we started supplying for flea markets and county fairs. Then we started in health food stores, and started to think about going retail.
What made you think you could make that transition?
Being on the street allowed me to very quickly understand that our customer wasn't being serviced in the store. You'd go into the retail store and the experience was horrible. If you were a person of color who walked into a retail environment back then, you were basically segregated. I used to say the only place in America where segregation is legal is in the beauty aisle.
Can you explain what that looked like, how it could happen?
First, you would walk in and you'd be followed around the store. Your products would be isolated over in this corner in the back, on the bottom here with poor lighting. And then the assortment would be horrible. We found that it took a black female consumer a trip to five different retail stores to get the products to do her hair. It took us 16 years to get into retail, because we didn't believe that that was the right way to service our customers.
Sundial is certified as a B Corp and as a Fair Trade company. How do you see those movements? Are they making a difference?
You can see the impact just by walking into a store. The isolation is all but gone, and the messaging is respectful and thoughtful. So there's real change around how you look to serve underserved consumers.
B Corp and Fair Trade, those certifications have helped because they've provided their consumer with comfort that this company or this brand or this product aligns with the person's values. Consumers are more aware today. But there's a lot of misinformation as well. A certifying body allows you to take comfort in, hey, there's been some measurement here.
You sold the company to Unilever in 2017. What was that process like?
It took us about five years. We like to think of ourselves as a mission with a business. The mission needs to continue to be developed, but it needs to be developed at scale, because if we're going to actually bring the economic impact and inclusion into these communities, into our supply chain, all of these women in West Africa, we're going to have to find a much bigger platform.
Was Unilever the only company you considered selling to, or were there lots of suitors?
There were lots of suitors, but none that had already demonstrated the desire and the ability to do this right. Unilever had done Ben & Jerry's years before. Also, not many companies have the sophistication and the supply chain that Unilever has across the globe.
Did you at any point think "Unilever is the problem"? I mean, Unilever is why the market looked like it did for so long. Did you ever see that as a contradiction?
I still see it as a contradiction. But Unilever is willing to step up and say, "We do have a problem. And we're going to take steps to solve it." You walk down a beauty aisle today, it's not what it was 30 years ago. That is a credit to the work that Sundial did. That changed retail across the country. And that's what we plan to continue doing, though now we get to do it at scale. It's pretty exciting. As large competitors see the value that's created and the advantage that gets created, then they are going to do similar things, right? Which then all starts to empower these women across the globe, not just in West Africa: in Turkey, in the Philippines, South Africa, in Jamaica and Haiti.
Last year, you announced the launch of the New Voices fund, a $100 million fund to invest in businesses owned by black women.
Again, we're trying to solve a problem. And that problem is, something like 7¢ of every investment dollar in this country goes to a woman-of-color business. With that disparity, our communities are never going to be self-sustaining. Government has its role and responsibility. We should have the same opportunities as everybody else to build our own communities. If I had had somebody who'd invested in me and my business, I probably wouldn't have taken 30 years to get here. We've invested in the Honey Pot, which is a vegan feminine care company. We've invested in a company called Beauty Bakerie. We've invested in a company called the Lip Bar. We've invested in a tech company called Sweeten, which is a contractor marketplace.
I try to tell people $100 million is not a lot of money, in the overall scheme and in the face of the problems we're trying to address.
So you just need to apply more capital? Isn't that relatively easy?
Capital is a challenge and an issue, but I don't believe that it's the main challenge. It's access, and it's expertise. We need to create those environments in these communities. It's not like these women grow up and the guy next door is the manager of the bank and the other guy next door is, you know, running the SBA.
I want to know about buying Essence. Many would say that the worst thing you could do right now is get into media. You obviously have a different view.
I don't see Essence as a media company. Most media companies have an audience. Essence doesn't have an audience. Essence has a community. Those are two very different things. When I see Essence, I see the largest community of black women in the world. That, for me, is the holy grail. So now we're building a business to serve that community--not to serve the audiences that make up that community. Last year, the Essence Festival had somewhere close to 600,000 attendees.
Name some leaders in America you admire--in business or in politics or in entertainment?
Warren Buffett, who is probably a favorite of everybody's. My mother has shown me what it means to have stick-to-itiveness. Another person I truly admire is Ben Horowitz, the way that he's embraced culture and used it as a teaching tool.
Do you ever go back to Liberia?
I do. I was there this Christmas. I went back to visit my father's grave. We have a school there called Todee Mission that we support.
Is your brand of entrepreneurship possible there?
I think it will be. It's been very successful in Ghana. Our community commerce model is that 10 percent goes back into the supply chain, to the women at the bottom of the pyramid, so that they participate at the bottom and they also participate at the top. As Liberia gets more stable, I think it can happen. We're gonna find out, because we're definitely going to try to make it.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the model of car used for Sundial Brands' initial deliveries. It was a Toyota Previa, not a Toyota Prius.