In the 1990’s, an African American mother and her son, Mary and Richelieu Dennis, launched a beauty and skincare product company now known as Sundial Brands/ Shea Moisture in their small apartment in New York City. But recently, they sold 49% of that company to Unilever… and now it’s worth $1.6 billion!
Raised by his mother in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Dennis came to the US to attend the acclaimed business school Babson College. He planned to return home after graduation and start a citrus farm, but it wasn’t possible because of the civil wars that broke out in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nevertheless, his passion for entrepreneurship did not die down.
In 1991, he and his mother took a chance with his grandmother’s generation-old recipes of hair and skincare products. Along with Nyema Tubman, who is also a Liberian and Dennis’ college roommate, they created products in his small apartment and sold them on the streets of Harlem.
Their products — which is made of combined natural ingredients such as shea butter, essential oils, and African black soap — filled in the vacant space in the market where the big players made products for women of color that’s meant to chemically alter the hair and make it straighter.
As word-of-mouth about the products spread, the business kept growing. Managing the finances, however, wasn’t as easy because banks refuse to lend African immigrants even a few thousand dollars. Dennis wouldn’t also allow his products to be put in the so-called “ethnic aisle” of drugstores.
The 16-year wait
Dennis only wants the best for his products, and he knows they deserve it. He had to wait for over 16 years for major retailers such as Macy’s and Target to carry his brand. As if it was perfect timing, Sundial/ SheaMoisture started becoming more popular. Initially sold without mass distribution, its revenue reached $60 million and even quadrupled with mass distribution.
It is also important to note that Black consumers accounted for 19% of the U.S.’ personal care products last year, even though African Americans make up only 14% of the population.
An unbelievable deal
No wonder Unilever kept on pursuing them, and even gave Dennis all his demands which included full control of the company with no strings attached. Unilever even offered a whopping $1.6 billion for Sundial. Dennis and Mary were given 51% of it which amounts to $850 million, making them two of the richest Black entrepreneurs in the world.
As part of the deal, Dennis is free to run the company as long as he wants. “We’re here to run the business,” “It’s not like I’m in a Founder’s Room, where Unilever wheels us out to show us off. It doesn’t feel like we sold the business.”
Additionally, Dennis is looking to expand his products to Africa, Europe, and South America. He also continues with the efforts to improve the lives of those in its supply chain, such as over 20,000 Ghanian women.
After buying Essence magazine last year, he also announced the New Voices Fund which aims to support entrepreneurs who are women of color through a $100 million investment. Surely, Dennis uses all the means he can use to empower Black entrepreneurs.