He’s co-built a beauty empire on his grandmother’s legacy, brought Essence magazine back to fully black-owned status, and at this summer’s Essence Festival (his first as owner), announced The New Voices Fund, a $100 million investment in black women entrepreneurs. Now, Richelieu Dennis, founder and CEO of Sundial Brands (Shea Moisture, Nubian Heritage, etc.) and Essence Ventures, is attempting to make a new investment in black girl entrepreneurial magic—by returning to the source.
As reported by the Hudson Independent last summer, Dennis quietly purchased Villa Lewaro, the legendary 34-room mansion in Irvington, N.Y., completed in 1918 for groundbreaking beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker, and designed by black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
Walker unfortunately only lived to enjoy the home for a year, dying in her master bedroom in 1919. Villa Lewaro was a frequent meeting place for the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance—but nearly 100 years later, Dennis hopes to honor the beauty mogul’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit by transforming Walker’s historic estate into a training center and retreat “designed to support black women entrepreneurs in their efforts to turn their ideas into flourishing enterprises,” according to the Independent.
The move comes amid new zoning laws in the town of Irvington, allowing adaptive reuse of registered historical buildings for non-residential purposes. Villa Lewaro is only one of three properties in the area that currently fit the criteria. As the Independent reports:
While using Villa Lewaro as a museum is one of Mr. Dennis’s options, the entrepreneurial center concept better meshes with his ongoing commitment to promote African-American women’s business opportunities and a logical extension of his business. ... [L]ast year, he launched the New Voices Fund, seeding it with $100 million to support black women entrepreneurs through training, mentorship and networking. Other supporters include Chase Bank, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Harvard and Amos Tuck graduate business schools and Babson College, from which Dennis graduated. Villa Lewaro would seem a natural venue for New Voices development programs.
Of course, this is not Dennis’ first investment in Walker’s legacy. He first revived the mystique of the country’s first self-made woman millionaire with the 2016 launch of Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, a line of hair products building upon Walker’s unique talent for restoring health to the hair.
“The story means so much to so many,” Dennis said at the time. “And I felt it wasn’t right that the most relevant and cultural icon of beauty and the beauty business, and the representation of what beauty means to our community, was not represented in the same way as Estée Lauder and Coco Chanel. It’s not like we don’t have that [Walker] legacy to look up to.”
Now, Dennis hopes to inspire new generations to follow in Walker’s dynamic stead. On Monday, Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. EST, he is scheduled to appear and outline his plans for Villa Lewaro before Irvington’s board of trustees. The meeting is open to the public.
“Black women need access, support, expertise and capital,” Dennis said in conversation with Rep. Maxine Waters during the Congressional Black Caucus in September, as reported by Essence. “I’m building something so I take that wealth and help the community. We have to create our own businesses so we can hire ourselves.”