Exclusive: ESSENCE Ventures Founder and Chair Richelieu Dennis Talks Black-Owned Businesses

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Richelieu Dennis

According to the U.S. Black Chamber, while access to capital is one disadvantage of minority firms, information is among the many that can stagnate Black businesses.

But for those Black-owned businesses that are thriving, the key is to remain competitive and stay in business.

For ESSENCE Ventures Founder and Chair Richelieu Dennis, who launched Sundial Brands with his best friend Nyema Tubman and his mother “to address skin and hair care issues traditionally ignored by mass market companies,” this is exactly what he’s working on.

On the heels of his major role in helping the iconic ESSENCE magazine to become Black-owned again, Dennis recently launched a $100 million fund for existing and aspiring women of color entrepreneurs.

In Columbus, Ohio, in August at the National Urban League’s annual conference, Dennis spoke on the “Black Ownership: Taking Our Power Back,” panel, along with ESSENCE Communications President Michelle Ebanks, and covered real talk about his entrepreneurial journey and ESSENCE’s return to operating under Black ownership. “Anyone who’s known me my whole life knows my stance on supporting Black women: they drive our culture,” Dennis told a jam-packed room of exuberant attendees.

For me, I knew I wanted a one-on-one interview earlier this summer when I noticed that the July/August issue of ESSENCE did away with the traditional Editor’s Note, instead opting for “A Note from Team ESSENCE.” It felt so fresh and modern – a bold break from the traditional model. Instead of featuring a single photo of the Editor-in-Chief (a position that no longer exists at ESSENCE), the page features photos of several members of the editorial team (some younger too, which could potentially draw in new readers from the next generation). In essence, it highlights the faces and perspectives of others on the team who might otherwise go unnoticed. As a consumer, I liked the brand even more in that moment because the move speaks of the brand’s evolution and forward-thinking.

How radical and cool, I thought. I knew something new was brewing over at ESSENCE. Here, in an exclusive interview, the Liberian-born Dennis shares some of that intel with TNJ.com as well as his take on the current state of Black-owned businesses.

Sergie Willoughby: Hi Rich. I attended the panel discussion you gave on “Black Ownership” at the National Urban League event last month where you shared your position on the importance of Black people owning their own businesses. Is this why it was important for you to help ESSENCE become Black-owned again?

Richelieu Dennis: Not just owning our own businesses, but owning a direct line of communication into our community and having the responsibility of being able to curate the content around all of our ideas; as a community, it’s about securing the ideas that are bubbling up in our community to drive the conversations that are important to us; it’s about creating content that is socially conscious and invested in our community. That’s the  real driver here because when we think about who we are as a community and what our aspirations are as a community, the communications around those and the authenticity with which those communications are delivered are critical for us to achieve our aspirations.

S.W: During the panel, you made reference to “the duality of what Blacks in business face since we have not had the opportunity to build, and that our community, therefore, does not understand the challenges of building and scaling a business.” How can we turn that around? How can we become investors in our own companies when access to capital remains a problem?

R.D.: There are those of us who do have access to capital. They just don’t invest it in our community. Part of the challenge in our community is that we have not yet had an established track record of when someone within our community invests back into our community. We have not seen a broad record of strong returns when it comes to investing in our communities.

Whatever you invest in, there’s an expectation of strong returns that allows you to grow the capital base. We have not had a history of doing that with each other. We do it in other communities and with other partners, but we have not done it in a significant, sustained ways that allows you to grow the capital base. Part of the work we have to do is demonstrate that that can be done. ESSENCE is a great example of us doing that; as well as the New Voices fund, which is our $100 million fund that is focused on investing in women of color entrepreneurs; so that we can show broadly an investment that is measured by any other standard of investment, with the top priority being a return on that investment.

S.W.: It seems like investing in Black women, whether a Black hair care company, such as Shea Moisture, or a media company focused on Black women, such as ESSENCE, seems to be smart business. Why do you think that is?

R.D.: For a long time, the marketplace was looking at women-owned and women-run businesses from a very myopic lens, which limited the size of the opportunity that that investment had. Investing in women, Black women in particular, is smart business because Black women have demonstrated an ability to work with fewer resources where you eliminate some of the constraints to their growth and the returns you see are even higher. We’re seeing that in our investment right now. Culturally, Black women have had to make lemonade out of lemons. This has been their experience throughout time. In fact, I would call it champagne out of lemons. So, instead of providing them with lemons to make champagne, how about we provide them with grapes to make champagne? That’s what this is about.

S.W.: What skills and expertise did you garner from Sundial Brands and other ventures that have lent themselves to your work at ESSENCE? What have you learned that has made you the business person you are today?

R.D.: I’ve learned, first and foremost, that the community is more important than the brand. That was an epiphany I had 12 years ago. While everybody was focused on the brand, my take on was, “Forget the brand; focus on the community.” Deliver to the community what they need. Make decisions on behalf of the community, not the brand. In doing this, the community will see that in the product – in your execution and in your presentation. They will then become consumers, you become champions and the brand becomes a part of the consumer’s existence. That’s the holy grail of where you want a brand to be: when it becomes a part of your community’s identity.

S.W.: I noticed over the summer that ESSENCE magazine has done away with the traditional ‘Editor’s Note’ and has instead has opted for ‘A Note from Team Essence.’ I think this is a really cool idea that showcases some of the younger editors, and as a result, the page has a fresh and young feel. How did you make the decision to change that model?  

R.D.: That credit goes to Michelle Ebanks. Her vision is that Black women are not one group of people; they are a community of individuals with like needs, wants, aspirations and a lot of commonalities. But they are not one voice; they are unique unto themselves. So what Michelle is now endeavored to do is to showcase that. And you don’t showcase that by talking about it; you showcase that by how you run the business. So, what you’re seeing is this thinking around our community that is made up of many different wonderful ideas and goals and we want to showcase that. We no longer want to be seen as one type of person as the face of ESSENCE, because we’re not one person. We have to break that stereotype, and that’s what you’re seeing on that page.

S.W.: With print publications folding left and right, what do you think longtime media companies can do to remain competitive?

R.D.: People are very engaged today around the issues that are pertinent to their future. Not that that wasn’t the case in the past, but people look at it very differently today. People are way more conscious of where they’re spending their time, what they are spending it on, and how they’re spending it. I say all of that to say old media, new media, companies are folding,… the substance of what these companies have done, which is to create and deliver content, is the same. What’s changed are the mechanisms through which that content is delivered and the form in which they are delivered. If you can let go of the idea of being married to print, and focus in on “what are the new forms of product distribution around the content I’ve created?” then you stand a chance at success.

Everybody paints this idea that old media print is dying and digital is where it’s at. But many new media companies and digital companies are also struggling to find a foothold in a consumer’s preference level. So, I don’t think that one is going away and the other one is coming up; I think print and digital are both equally challenged.

The tradition of print might be more challenged, but I think they’re both challenged because many of them have not yet figured out how to deliver value through different products and forms of print distribution to an evolving consumer base.

S.W.: Lastly, during the panel in Columbus, you said upon coming onboard at ESSENCE, you had a big ask for the ESSENCE audience: to show up to the ESSENCE Festival in July, and to invest back into the brand in light of the many new platforms recently created to remain competitive. Did you get what you asked for?

R.D.: Absolutely. The turnout was unbelievable. We had between 500k and 600k people in New Orleans; 3 nights of sold out concerts; and our e-suites programs were completely sold out. In terms of the readership, readers are stepping up and stepping in. As we approve content, nothing warms my heart more than having heard you talk about the editors and all of their voices being heard and how young and fresh that looks and feels. That is exactly what we’ve asked for, and that’s what we’re getting. And we can’t become complacent because we are at an early stage. There is no other communications & media company for Black people like this one, so we need to continue to push and grow on the scale, and on our end continue to innovate and bring fresh, new content in various forms. We have to hold up our end of the bargain. Yes, we’re doing well and seeing tremendous momentum, but I won’t declare victory yet!