How The “Godfather Of Black Entrepreneurs” Is Closing The Racial Wealth Hole — One Billion-Greenback Exit At A Time

Sundial founder Richelieu Dennis talks the racial wealth hole, getting turned away from a celebration at Essence Fest (regardless of proudly owning the model), and what he discovered from his second near-death expertise.

Richelieu Dennis bought Sundial Manufacturers to Unilever in 2017 for $1.6 billion {dollars}. It was a shocking story and never simply due to the value tag; Dennis escaped war-torn Liberia in 1987 and began promoting shea butter out of his dorm room at Babson Faculty. He’s now one of many wealthiest Black entrepreneurs within the nation. And he’s sending the elevator again down for the following technology. As a part of the sale to Unilever (the makers of Dove cleaning soap and Ben & Jerry’s), Dennis insisted the conglomerate make investments $50 million in a fund to empower Black feminine enterprise house owners.

Dennis, 54, has since backed Slutty Vegan and invested in Monique Rodriguez’s Mielle Organics which bought to P&G in early 2023. He additionally purchased Essence Journal in 2018, vowing to “to serve and empower girls of shade.” However apparently proudly owning the model doesn’t assure admission to the very best events at Essence Pageant, he admits right here in a brand new interview sequence referred to as “Cereal Entrepreneur,” hosted by Methodology co-founder Eric Ryan and journalist Mickey Rapkin. Over a bowl of cereal, Dennis talks large exits, larger conglomerates, and that rumor that he’s shopping for BET.

MICKEY RAPKIN: Wealthy, you introduced Frosted Flakes right now. Why that one?

RICHELIEU DENNIS: To start with, it’s the cereal I like consuming. I’ve at all times cherished the commercials. And I wish to vogue myself tiger-ish.

RAPKIN: (laughs) Within the early 90s, you had been promoting SheaMoisture on a card desk on 125th Avenue in Harlem. What acquired you away from bed again then?

DENNIS: It was starvation. However that’s each entrepreneur. Hire’s due, you’ve acquired medical insurance you gotta pay—if you happen to might even afford it. However for me there was this overwhelming sense of duty: there have been no actual merchandise or manufacturers tied to [our] ancestral tradition. These components existed. You’d have folks present up and say, “My mom made so-and-so once we had been in South Carolina. And he or she acquired it from my grandmother who acquired it from her mom.” However as a result of Black tradition had been interrupted with slavery, that by no means acquired translated into precise merchandise and items and providers.

ERIC RYAN: That’s actually highly effective. I’ve by no means heard you say that—about how slavery mainly severed these traditions.

DENNIS: You begin to consider all of those younger individuals who do not know what it’s to really have a product that works to your pores and skin kind or to your hair kind.

Disrupting The Magnificence Aisle

RAPKIN: You as soon as stated, “The one place in America the place segregation is authorized is the sweetness aisle.” You bought Sundial to Unilever. However weren’t they the folks accountable for that segregation? Did that come up within the negotiation?

DENNIS: You wager it did.

RYAN: (laughs) There’s Tony the Tiger popping out.

DENNIS: Should you’re going to rework a market—if you happen to’re going to rework a approach of doing issues that’s fallacious—generally you want the those who have perpetrated it to acknowledge that after which right it. Unilever, to their credit score, acknowledged that they weren’t serving an unlimited group of those who had the spending energy and the willingness.

Repeat Offender

RYAN: One of many challenges of being a serial entrepreneur—one of many causes we needed to do that column—is replicating that first success. After promoting Methodology, I had this actual worry: Did I get fortunate or was I good? Wealthy, was that your expertise?

DENNIS: There was by no means a sense of I’ve-gotta-do-this-again. That’s not in my nature. I’m aggressive round mission versus accomplishment. For me, there’s a lot work to be achieved in bringing equity to {the marketplace}. (pause) It’s laborious being an entrepreneur. Interval. However when Black entrepreneurs have been systemically blocked out of alternatives and entry it turns into even tougher. There was no infrastructure, there was no ecosystem, there was no path that Black entrepreneurs needed to depend on or observe.

RAPKIN: You’ve been referred to as “the godfather of budding Black entrepreneurs”—

DENNIS: I’m sufficiently old now that I will be the godfather.

RAPKIN: The gray in your beard seems good. However let’s discuss Mielle Organics. You’re an investor. They bought to Proctor & Gamble earlier this yr. However then comes this on-line backlash from prospects saying: They’re gonna change the formulation, they’re gonna cater to white girls. Was that irritating to see?

DENNIS: I believe if you happen to’re Black, you perceive it. Should you’re white, you marvel at how one might really feel that approach. White youngsters develop up on this nation navigating abundance. And Black youngsters develop up navigating shortage. That results in totally different mindsets. Whenever you’ve been marginalized and left in and out a whole lot of instances abused, when great issues occur—factor that might be celebrated in a white group—they get scrutinized in a different way in a Black group.

RYAN: Say extra about that please.

DENNIS: What has traditionally occurred on this nation—once we’ve seen success in our communities, that will get destroyed. You’ll be able to return to Tulsa. Black group builds up financial footing, will get fully worn out. We come out of slavery and there’s the promise of 40 acres and a mule. Then, no. You’re doing experiments at Tuskegee on folks— That results in main belief points. Black firms constructing scale and exiting them is new. We have now to normalize enterprise growth over time within the Black group so folks embrace what it’s to really construct these companies, take that capital out, and reinvest it again into our group. I’ve had the nice fortune of constructing Shea, which grew to become the biggest within the class, after which had the nice fortune proper after that to accomplice with Melvin and Monique in Mielle and construct the second largest. For me, that’s pleasure.

Welcome to Essence Fest

RAPKIN: Let’s discuss pleasure. You likened Essence Fest in New Orleans “to the real-life Wakanda.” Give us an amazing late-night story from this yr’s pageant.

DENNIS: OK. I are available in at two o’clock within the morning, perhaps three o’clock within the morning. Within the foyer is T.I., Lil Jon, the oldsters from Goal, the oldsters from Disney, Taraji P. Henson and Jill Scott—all these folks simply hanging out within the foyer loving on one another.

RYAN: Solely you can have made that occur—bringing these people to at least one place, to an surroundings the place everyone seems to be loving on one another.

DENNIS: (laughs) I believe they had been there for the wine.

RAPKIN: Give us yet another story.

DENNIS: D-Good does his Membership Quarantine. It acquired so much us by Covid. He introduced it to Essence Pageant. And so right here I’m—one other two o’clock within the morning deal—coming from the conference middle. And I couldn’t get into Membership Quarantine.

RYAN: They turned you away on the door?

DENNIS: Think about that. I’m texting D-Good, however he’s truly, he’s doing his factor, he’s not his cellphone. I’m standing exterior. I couldn’t get in.

RAPKIN: Whereas we’re speaking media, there have been stories earlier this yr that you simply tried to purchase Vice. Now there’s discuss you’re shopping for BET.

DENNIS: [pause] We’re at a stage within the growth of Black enterprise in America the place there are fairly plenty of Black folks that may be in that dialog. For me, that’s the massive win. There are a number of individuals who have the entry, the sources, and the skillsets to tug one thing like that off.

RAPKIN: OK. However are you shopping for BET?

DENNIS: We have been very centered and bullish on media. We proceed to take a look at no matter there’s that’s on the market that we predict can actually profit from our experience and drive the tradition ahead. That’s all I’ll say on that. However I’m extraordinarily motivated by the truth that there’s multiples of individuals that may have an actual critical dialog about this and that may truly pull it off.

[Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, the Wall Street Journal reported Paramount Global had informed potential bidders—which included Tyler Perry, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Byron Allen—that it would not be selling its majority stake in BET Media Group.]

Getting Schooled

RAPKIN: We frequently discuss successes. However entrepreneus can study extra from our errors. Inform us a few mistake you made with SheaMoisture and what lesson you took away.

DENNIS: We had been promoting our merchandise the road. We had been having actual success and we acquired a chance to enter Macy’s. I took nice delight in the truth that I used to be promoting a product on the sidewalk—on a desk exterior of Macy’s—and I used to be additionally promoting that very same product inside Macy’s. And that just about put us out of enterprise.


DENNIS: I didn’t perceive the pricing fashions, I didn’t do the work to grasp them, I didn’t know that I’d must pay chargebacks. I didn’t perceive that I used to be accountable for labor. I didn’t perceive that I couldn’t schedule that labor and inform it when to be and the place to be. I didn’t perceive all of these different prices that went into being in a division retailer.

RYAN: After we had our first large Methodology launch at a grocery chain—it was our largest order ever—we acquired a examine for a couple of {dollars}. (laughs) We went and checked out all of the deductions they took. My accomplice and I had been similar to, “What the f—?”

DENNIS: We grew like a weed in Macy’s. However the extra we bought, the extra we misplaced. That almost bankrupted us.

RYAN: Switching gears in a giant approach: You’ve had two close to loss of life experiences in your life. How did that have an effect on your outlook on enterprise? Or your motivation?

DENNIS: The newest one, the latest near-death expertise was Covid.

RYAN: I like that you simply stated “the latest one.”

DENNIS: I believe that’s God’s approach of continually reminding me that I’m right here for a purpose. And I can’t neglect it. However I acquired Covid very early on—in February of 2020. It was earlier than the medical institution actually understood what they had been coping with a lot much less how to cope with it. It was a horrific expertise. I’m mendacity within the hospital, I’m within the ICU, and every single day they’re wheeling folks by me—those who didn’t make it.

RAPKIN: That was a scary time.

DENNIS: In the future an awesome calm came visiting me. I had spent that complete day considering of my youngsters. And I used to be like, “You realize what? They’re going to be all proper.” Actually that acquired me by it. As soon as I spotted I had achieved what I wanted to do as a guardian, I grew to become very calm. I believe that enabled me to give attention to combating versus worrying. That empowered me [then] and that empowers me right now.

RAPKIN: Final query. This column is known as “Cereal Entrepreneur.” We’re speaking over cereal. What had been you consuming for breakfast if you had been promoting SheaMoisture on that card desk on a hundred and twenty fifth Avenue?

DENNIS: I wasn’t consuming breakfast. These had been one-meal-a-day days, my buddy. I ate from a whole lot of meals vehicles. (laughing) Meals vehicles are attractive now. There might even be a couple of Michelin-starred ones on the market. However again then, that’s not what they had been.

The dialog has been edited and condensed for readability.

The dialog has been edited and condensed for readability.