The Founder & CEO of Sundial Brands, maker of SheaMoisture, is using his influence to reshape societal standards and his business to empower generations of women across the world.
When you ask Richelieu Dennis, Founder and CEO of Sundial Brands, about beauty and skincare products, words like empower, revolution, and sustainable resources dominate the conversation. Dennis, who goes by “Rich,” got his start selling raw shea butter and African black soap on the streets of Harlem and now presides over a global brand that was recently valued at close to a billion dollars. And with that growth comes responsibility – lots of it.
Sundial’s largest and top-selling brand, SheaMoisture, revolutionized the mass beauty market when it hit retail shelves in 2008. But Sundial Brands had long before ignited the now-booming natural hair movement by shunning harsh chemicals in favor of using organic, all-natural ingredients, and the company’s products quickly became cult-favorites on the streets of New York.
Dennis, who grew up in Liberia, understood the challenges that many women were facing in a beauty industry that sought their dollars but didn’t serve their needs. So he became fiercely dedicated to empowering women to embrace their natural beauty, however they define it — particularly women of color and with multi-cultural roots. “Black women got tired of being told how they should look and the narrow beauty standards they should meet,” Dennis says.
Dennis, 47, has continued his mission of empowerment through Community Commerce, Sundial’s business model aimed at providing minority women with access to educational and entrepreneurial resources. Dennis and his company are focused on breaking generational cycles of poverty, and one key way they are going about this is by working with women’s manufacturing cooperatives around the world. For instance, they partner with women-run cooperatives in northern and southern Ghana that produce locally-sourced shea butter, African black soap and coconut oil.
In teaming up with the cooperatives, Dennis aims to foster a mindset focused on helping communities thrive in a sustainable way, as opposed to fueling the “survival mentality” that he says is sometimes encouraged by aid-focused organizations.
“While they may build a school,” Dennis says of community development NGOs, “if a mother needs her daughter to go to the river to get water in order to produce product, the child doesn’t go to school that day.”
Sundial’s Community Commerce model encourages a strategic dialogue and assessment with the cooperatives that produce its products — a conversation that aims to determine the best resources for a community’s specific needs. This means, for one, building schools and wells that are in close proximity to one another.
“If we can bring them that water,” Dennis says, “the girls no longer have to miss school, which supports growth for independence and their future.”
Sundial stands behind this position by not allowing children on-site at the cooperatives it supports, so they can instead stay in school. The company is also clear on how imperative it is for these cooperatives to continue their progression far beyond Sundial. “We also want to empower them so that we’re not their only customer,” Dennis says. “We want to train, educate, and provide better facilities and equipment so they can make products they can sell to other people and other businesses.”
“We’ve created a model that demonstrates how businesses can simultaneously be successful and purpose-driven,” he goes on, “and we aim to impact everyone in our ecosystem in a positive economic way.”
This also includes women and girls in the United States, whom Sundial supports through mentorship and educational fellowships that focus on entrepreneurship, direct investments into their businesses, and other programs that help Sundial achieve its purpose of “empowering people to live more beautiful lives,” as Dennis puts it.
“The bigger we get,” Dennis says, “the more women we can help to either get out of poverty or develop the resources and skills to ensure she never experiences poverty — and that will always be our biggest driver.”
This idea of empowerment through education traces back to Dennis’ own upbringing. He grew up in Liberia during a time of “tremendous violence and upheaval” — so much so that Dennis’ family would routinely flee to Sierra Leone, and return to Liberia when the violence in Sierra Leone grew too intense, and then do the same thing in reverse. Dennis watched his grandmother do whatever she could “in order to escape abject poverty.” This manifested in her selling shea butter products in their village market, and her work ensured that Dennis’ mother could go to school. Dennis’ mother later did the same for him and his sister.
The strong female influences in Dennis’ life – including his wife and four daughters – shine through in his dedication to breaking down societal barriers around beauty. “Black women have done a lot for our society and have not been recognized for those contributions,” he says. “By way of the natural hair movement, she’s saying, ‘This is who I am, and I am going to impact and influence you whether or not you acknowledge it.’” SheaMoisture is a brand that has been there to support this journey and, Dennis affirms, will always be there.
Of course, the journey will not always be smooth. Dennis points out that all pioneers experience missteps, and the true testament of Sundial’s maturity and growing influence is its ability to recognize those mistakes, to learn from them, and to stay the course.
Take the backlash against SheaMoisture’s recent “Hair Hate” Facebook ad. Some customers saw the video — which featured two white women along with one biracial woman with loose curls sharing their journeys toward acceptance of their natural hair — as a sign that SheaMoisture was no longer committed to its loyal black base, and Dennis understands why. “Sundial as a company and SheaMoisture as a brand have fought for ‘inclusion’ in the beauty industry long before the term was popular or P.C. And that particular video did not include the representations of black women we have championed the most and who we know have experienced the most societal ridicule and bias simply based on their natural beauty,” he laments. “And we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” In other words, SheaMoisture cannot and will not neglect the customers who make it what it is, and will not equate their struggle with anyone else’s. “Those struggles are not the same,” Dennis explains. “We don’t want to get so far ahead that we ever make her feel as though we are leaving her behind.”
The incident raises the question of Dennis’ aspirations for Sundial, and particularly SheaMoisture, and where the brand is headed. Asked if he wants to tack in a mainstream direction, Dennis doesn’t hesitate: “Black women are the mainstream. We are influencing the mainstream.” He points to a sizable demographic shift, with those who were once disenfranchised from the broader world now having become the majority. “I don’t think it’s about us going mainstream,” he concludes. “I think it’s about us accepting that we are already on par with the rest of the world.”
In many ways, Dennis’ own infuriating and humiliating retail experience as a young black man, being followed and searched upon exiting stores, inspired him to build a brand that cares about people who look like him. He recalls thinking, “You gotta do something about this. You can’t just let it go.” It was that realization, that sense of responsibility to others who shared similar experiences, that propelled Sundial Brands forward and into the mass marketplace.
Once SheaMoisture hit the shelves of national chains like Target, Dennis made good on his desire to take action. “It’s not just about being followed around in the store; it’s the shelving, where the product is placed,” he says. Dennis championed for inclusion and succeeded in changing the thinking around ethnic hair product placement and brand integration all over the country. Sundial Brands now has four distinct brands that focus on high-quality products with fair trade, ethically-sourced, natural ingredients, which simply weren’t found in major retailers 25 years ago when Dennis got his start.
Today, Sundial continues to empower and influence. While Dennis agrees that a financial goal measures the brand’s ability to stay in business and compete, its real success lies in the impact Sundial has in helping the next generation of minority entrepreneurs fight to end poverty and create their own legacy.
“If they can at least see a clearer path to building their own businesses and not have to face the same challenges that we’ve faced,” he says, “I’d say we did what we came here to do.”