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Richelieu Dennis on Profit With a Purpose

The Sundial Brands ceo shared how he built a business for the greater good.

Over the course of 27 years, Richelieu Dennis built SheaMoisture and Sundial Brands into a $240 million firm. But during a fireside chat with Allison Collins, WWD’s beauty financial editor, he made it clear that the mission, not money, has been his key motivating driver. “For us, the model is built on how do we leverage our business to serve consumers and the community,” he said. “If we are taking out of the community, we should be putting back in.”

Sundial puts its money where its mouth is, making sure that the women and communities who are harvesting the raw ingredients used in the companies products are compensated and treated in a way that will have meaningful and long-lasting benefits. Dennis doesn’t believe in providing money to dig a needed well in rural Africa, for example, unless the community is trained on how to use and maintain it, and he has been insistent in making sure that the money benefits the people it is meant to assist. “This was part of our structure from Day One — we would buy raw materials from women like my grandmother and pay them above the fair trade product price,” he said. He added that Sundial has been able to help raise a substantial number of women above the poverty level in Sierra Leone, and help school enrollment increase from 30 percent to 98 percent.

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Last November, Unilever bought Sundial Brands, enabling the company to scale many of its community commerce initiatives. When asked how he managed to build the business from $1 million to $10 million to $240 million in sales, Dennis said, “A lot of blood, sweat and tears. More tears than anything. And a lot of failures.”

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Turning serious, Dennis noted that a key turning point came when his attitude shifted from ‘How do we survive?’ to ‘How do we make it equitable to everybody in the value chain.’ Reaching $10 million in sales took 17 years, he said, then $20 million another three years, and the remaining seven got the company to where it is today. “We built the business very intentionally,” he said. “It took us 28 years to have the level of impact we have and that wasn’t enough in trying to solve the big problem of equality and the poverty that comes from inequality.”

Dennis is passionate about promoting racial and gender equality on a global basis, and to do so effectively, he required a partner who could help scale Sundial’s business. That’s where Unilever, which has been at the forefront of running purpose-driven brands, came in. “We wanted a partner who was willing to invest in solving these problems together and showing people how to align together to create a path forward.” After traveling around the world with Unilever chief executive officer Paul Polman to understand the company’s commitment to social change, Dennis said he understood firsthand how the company could help elevate and integrate Sundial’s mission without the smaller company getting lost.

When it came to the business integration, Dennis noted that the key elements of success are intent and flexibility. “No integration is easy,” he said, “but I’m proud of ours because of the intentionality with which we went about it. Be intentional about what you want and flexible about how you get there.”

Unilever has also become a key partner in the New Voices Fund. Originally a family fund with about $20 million in assets, created to invest in women of color entrepreneurs, Unilever added its might after the acquisition in what is now a $100 million fund, which has thus far invested in 10 companies with $50 million in capital. “Fairness and equitable access is important,” Dennis said.

Last year, after selling Sundial, Dennis bought Essence Communications, and he linked that acquisition with the work he’s doing in helping budding entrepreneurs build brands. “As a family business, we are about serving the community,” he said. “Essence is a company that has driven culture, beauty and trends. We wanted to create a platform to elevate the voices of women of color, where they can share their expertise and ideas, as well as a platform where the New Voices companies have the opportunity to have their voices heard and build their brands.”