By Katrice L. Mines, Editor
Richelieu Dennis is coolly confident; so laid back that even when you’re talking with him about one of his greatest passions in life, you feel as if you’re hearing him recite a recipe for his favorite dish. It’s a gift that is well reflected in the brands he’s brought to the marketplace.
Born in Liberia, the Sundial Brands CEO came to the United States to attend Babson College. However, when he graduated in 1991, he was unable to return to his homeland because of civil war. Driven by his passion for entrepreneurship and sustained by a vision to fill unmet consumer needs, Dennis partnered with his best friend, Nyema Tubman, to pursue a bold concept: address skin and hair care issues traditionally ignored by mass market companies. Drawing from deep traditions born out of his family’s roots in Africa and passed down to him from his grandmother, Dennis incorporated four generations of recipes, wisdom and cultural experiences into natural bath and body care products, co-founding Sundial – the parent company of SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage and Madame C.J. Walker Beauty Culture with his mother – Mary Dennis – and Tubman.
AT recently caught up with Dennis to talk about his brand’s success in the beauty market and SheaMoisture’s #BreakTheWalls campaign — a transformative and revolutionary multimedia effort to highlight the divisive constructs of beauty and move towards the inclusive shopping experience that all women deserve. The first phase includes a 60-second short film, a 30-second spot, #BreakTheWalls digital and social assets and behind-the-scenes footage that highlight everyday women and beauty vloggers raising their voices to ask one simple question: “Why is our beauty not reflected in the beauty aisle?”
How do you stay relevant in the marketplace?
As long as we’re focused on what a woman needs throughout her life stages, I think we’re fine. As women go through life, what her needs are when she’s 19 and what they are at 25 are different. Her hair changes, her body changes … So she’s constantly changing along with her life. And so where we focus, is how do we service her around all of her need states and where she is at a particular stage without judgement. I think that’s sort of been a big competitive advantage for us. Two – I think there’s also a credibility and authenticity issue with brands that wake up one day … and, you know, five years ago they couldn’t care less about their black customers and they put our crap, and now they’re coming up with new brands or changing to go after what they see as a trend. And so I think because we’ve been so dedicated and committed, and focused – consumers aren’t stupid. They understand what this is and I believe we’ve gotten a lot of support based on that. The third thing is we’ve really invested in growing our business. What we’ve done is said, in order to compete and grow we need to plow back everything that we can into growing and competing; everything from building teams to help us scale the business to partnering with retailers on programs that drive the business; and being very strategic with where we spend our resources. So, you put those three pieces together and I think that’s what’s continuing to lead us. We’ve always looked at ourselves as a platform from which our consumers have a voice and staying true to that consumer means that we’re here to have the hard conversations about what needs to happen in order for her to move forward in her own beauty, and owning her own identity, and not allowing others to own that identity for her.
What is your research base like? What is your process like for bringing a new product to the marketplace?
Just listening to her … What is she doing? What does she want? What is she missing? Why does she want it? What are her challenges – both her physical hair challenges as well as her psychological challenges in how she’s being perceived in the world? And taking that and incorporating all of it into our formulations, into our messaging, into our communications with our retail partners. It’s really just focused on her.
#BreakTheWalls seemed organically next … How did it come about?
I consider myself a guy who runs a company, who cares about what they do. And if you care about what you do and you care about the people who do it then you have to speak the truth. And #BreakTheWalls was just about speaking the truth. We didn’t say anything in #BreaktheWalls that black women haven’t been saying for the past 40 years. Whether or not they recognize it … because a lot of the feedback was “wow, I didn’t even realize that. But, now that you say it, I get it. Or, “me and my girlfriends have been talking about this for years and we just figured yeah, that’s the way that it is.” So you have varying views of what women want, but overwhelming what they want is access to great product. They want it to be affordable and they want to have an incredible shopping experience. And what you find with the current shopping structure is not only is it limiting … Because if you think about it, if you walk into a store – even if you have an ethnic space – and all you can have access to is four feet of product, there’s no way you’re going to be able to find all the things you need in four feet. It’s just not possible and its part of thinking that made it impossible for women with natural hair to find products three years ago. What it said was, we only have four feet and the majority of these women are relaxed so we’re just going to sell relaxers and all the products to support relaxers. Now you have many women going from relaxed to natural, and you go into the store and can’t find your relaxed product. So, the pendulum has swung. What about saying, let’s put these products in the store based on the need state so that I can find product that speaks to me … that’s made for me, and I can vote with my dollar. So #BreakTheWalls is really about giving us the freedom to not be confined by all of these other psychological or business infrastructures. But, saying, I deserve to have what I need in the store, and I need to not be told that my form of beauty is not beautiful.
How do you keep your team inspired to keep being fresh and bringing relevant products to the market?
We want people to work with us that care about this mission … that care about taking care of women, and that really care about seeing these societal walls broken. So, when we’re looking for people, we’re looking for those who have a passion around that. We’re interested in people who really care about the consumer that we’re serving, that live the lifestyle of the people that we’re serving and who take a sense of pride in seeing the change that we’re bringing. If you’re doing that, it’s very easy to keep the values alive and to keep people working towards those values. Culture is extraordinarily important to any business; you have to have a strong culture to go against these norms because it’s not easy to do. Over time as people understand, then you start to really feel the pride in the change that you’re bringing.
Next for us is always continuing to do what we do and that means we’re going to be disruptive. We’re going to bring different things to the market that focus on the needs of the consumer but in a disruptive way. Next for us is always an evolution.