Essence Answers Sexual Harassment Claims Against Owner Richelieu Dennis With Results of 1st Internal Review

Richelieu Dennis on stage at 2019 Essence Festival Presented by Coca-Cola on July 06, 2019, in New Orleans, La.
Richelieu Dennis on stage at 2019 Essence Festival Presented by Coca-Cola on July 06, 2019, in New Orleans, La.
Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images)

As the 26th annual—and first virtual—Essence Festival dawned this year, #BlackFemaleAnonymous, a group of “former and current employees” of the 50-year-old magazine published an indicting missive titled “The Truth About Essence.” The open letter (subsequently legally referred to as “the Article”) alleged a toxic workplace culture, pay inequities, nepotism, and “an unhinged abuse of power.” Most disconcerting were claims of sexual harassment and misconduct on the part of Essence Ventures owner Richelieu “Rich” Dennis, who the letter writers claimed had a history of inappropriate relationships and “a debaucherous sexual appetite” dating back to his days as co-founder of Sundial Brands, which he’d sold to Unilever in 2017, just prior to acquiring Essence.

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#BlackFemaleAnonymous (BFA) demanded the resignation of Essence’s core leadership team, which at the time included Dennis, former Essence Communications CEO-turned board member Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content and Creative Officer Moana Luu, setting a five-business-day deadline of July 3, at which point more damning evidence would be revealed.

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As previously reported by The Glow Up, it never came to that. Collins Profet had already accepted a position elsewhere and according to Essence, Luu agreed to step aside while an independent review took place. Dennis, who had been leading day-to-day operations while searching for a new CEO since Ebanks’ resignation as CEO in March, hired former Target exec Caroline Wanga as Essence’s interim chief executive officer. Seemingly appeased, no further action was taken by BFA, which has not issued any further public statement or been active on Twitter since July 14, as of the publication of this article.

Wanga, in turn, retained Proskauer Rose LLP to investigate the sexual harassment charges made within the organization, the first (and undoubtedly most urgent) phase of their independent review, which began on July 2 (a day ahead of the July 3 end-of-day deadline set by BFA). According to documents provided to The Glow Up by Essence, leading the investigation was Keisha-Ann Gray, a partner in Proskauer’s Labor & Employment Department, assisted by Atoyia Harris, an associate in the Labor and Employment Department at Proskauer and a member of its Employment Litigation & Counseling Group.

The review, which was exclusive to the sexual harassment allegations (a separate investigation of pay equity and workplace culture will be reviewed by Morgan Lewis, LLP) sought to identify individuals with firsthand knowledge of the allegations leveled by BFA. Essence says it sent a notice of the review via email to all current employees of the organization on July 7, as well as verbally informing the staff during Essence’s Town Hall meetings. In both cases, employees were encouraged to contact Gray directly with any information regarding sexual harassment. On July 22, they also contacted BFA to substantiate the claims.

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Per the review’s synopsis:

Anonymous allegations by their very nature are challenging to evaluate due to the fact that the origins of anonymous allegations are unknown. Nonetheless, as reviewers, we were tasked with the responsibility of evaluating the evidence obtained through the Review to ascertain whether there exists any factual basis to substantiate the anonymous allegations of sexual harassment made in the Article. A primary focus of the Review was to identify individuals who may have relevant information...No employee contacted Ms. Gray...

...

On July 22, 2020, we (the reviewers/investigators) contacted BFA by direct message on Instagram from the username “Essencereview” at their username “Take Back Essence”. We chose to contact BFA through this method because it is the method in which BFA had solicited information related to their allegations from the public...BFA publically stated that they are “monitoring [the] internal investigation” on Instagram. However, no one from BFA responded to our direct message requesting information about their sexual harassment claims. BFA also did not respond to our request for information...

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The Glow Up has also reached out to BFA and has yet to receive a response (we will update this story if that changes). Despite not receiving any response to their requests for information from either current Essence employees or BFA, Proskauer identified and interviewed 17 individuals who they assessed as “likely to have information helpful to our review given, among other things, their positions and tenure at Sundial and/or Essence, and the frequency of their interactions with Richelieu.” This, in addition to “a thorough review of various categories of documents, including, but not limited to, the Article, related social media posts, information related to due diligence reviews for Sundial, the Essence handbook and organizational chart, as well as other materials pertaining to Essence and its employees.”

The review declared BFA’s claim that Dennis sexually harasses women “who don’t seemingly consent” at private company events unsubstantiated, writing: “All witnesses stated unequivocally that they have never experienced, seen or heard of Richelieu behaving in an inappropriate manner, much less a sexually inappropriate manner at private company events or otherwise.”

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“Never, never. There [have] never been any rumors, whispers, conversation after work or conversation during work, never any emails, text, slacks, [or] phone calls,” one respondent stated. “There was never anything that has been communicated to me about Richelieu related to sexual misconduct or harassment.”

That testimonial admittedly somewhat contradicts the statements of at least one anonymous source formerly employed by Essence and interviewed by The Glow Up when BFA’s allegations first broke, who claimed to have heard rumors of misconduct and inappropriate relationships. Nevertheless, rumors are not proof of misconduct, and the individuals interviewed by Proskauer claim they neither heard of nor witnessed any questionable behavior.

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“I am around Rich a lot in the office. I have been at private events, at birthday parties and barbecues and things like that. I have had one-on-one sessions with Rich and have never seen or experienced him make any innuendos or anything where I have felt like it is inappropriate,” said another respondent, who added: “I have felt that before in my work life (in other jobs) so I know what it is like. Never in my experience with Rich. I have never felt that he acted towards me in any sexually inappropriate way or anyone else.”

Here, we must also note that the claim that it did not happen to a specific individual does not mean an accusation is rendered entirely invalid. We’ve previously acknowledged this paradox in our coverage of Gabrielle Union’s discrimination allegations against NBC, which her former colleague Terry Crews seemed to refute by saying he’d experienced no such treatment.

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But again: neither does the existence of this paradox mean that the allegations made against Dennis are true—and without concrete evidence to the fact, the claims would inevitably be found unsubstantiated. So too, in Proskauer’s assessment, were BFA’s allegations that Dennis has a “surface-level commitment to Black women [that] is driven by greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite.”

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Per the report:

Richelieu has demonstrated that he has a commitment to Black women that is beyond “surface level.” No one during our Review described Richelieu as a person who has a surface level or disingenuous commitment to Black women, or who otherwise mistreats Black women. When questioned about Richelieu’s commitment to Black women, witnesses explained that Richelieu routinely places Black women in positions of power within his organizations and engages in various efforts to elevate Black women.

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“I was flabbergasted and could hit the floor especially because I have been working with Rich for so long,” said another of the individuals interviewed. “I could give you hundreds of stories of Black women who saw Rich on the street who were aspiring [business] owners. They would all want to get insight from him or ask him to invest in their businesses...He would always try to help them and would set up time to help them engage in their business...”

“I have always seen the Rich who wants to see the betterment of Black women and how they can lead and be an entrepreneur. I have never witnessed in any shape or form, greed,” said the same witness, who described herself as “an inside person,” adding: “I was extremely hurt and shocked that any one of these individuals would make an allegation like that....When you speak to the commitment Rich has to Black women, if you would say we want 100 percent commitment for the betterment of Black women, I would say his commitment is 200 percent...He does this because he really wants to see us as Black women build and have the empires that other races have had for years because of connections to power that those other races have and can make. I can wholeheartedly say that Rich’s commitment to Black women is genuine and it’s from the heart.”

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Others interviewed refuted the claim that Dennis previously had sexual relationships with staff members at Sundial, and no witnesses came forward to substantiate that claim. “First and foremost, no female member of the Sundial staff who participated in this Review corroborated,” read the report.

All witnesses, including those who knew and/or worked with Richelieu when he owned Sundial, stated that they have no knowledge of Richelieu having a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff. ... [A witness] laughed in response to the allegation and stated that in her opinion the allegation was absurd because approximately 85% of Sundial’s staff was Richelieu’s family. She explained that Richelieu built Sundial and worked at Sundial with his mother, wife, nieces, cousins, and mother-in-law and described Sundial as a family-owned and family-oriented business which Richelieu built on the principles instilled in him by his grandmother and mother. This witness also stated that Richelieu’s vision for Sundial was driven by the values and focus he has on his mother, grandmother, and now his daughters—as well as their experiences as Black women in business.

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Proskauer’s review closed on August 11, with the results of an investigation by Morgan Lewis, LLP still pending. We will continue to follow this story as it develops.


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Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, an avid eyeshadow enthusiast and always her own muse. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.

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DISCUSSION

feministonfire
FeministOnFire

Those were some pretty full-throated, unequivocal refutations of the allegations! The allegations cannot be viewed impartially when they were first hinted at in such an extortionist way either (inflammatory verbiage, social media outreach as the first step, media outreach secondarily, threats to publicly reveal damaging info, ransom deadlines), then disappearing when the requested ‘investigation’ is done by the requisitely thorough Big Guns?!

The same sort of allegations were made against the pastor of my old church. Guns were pulled on men of the ministry by big money congregants, threats to resign membership were made, locks were changed & key people locked out. But an independent auditor’s report asserted that no funds were misused and while one salary was slightly high, it was not unreasonable or improper. Everyone involved looked that much smaller, pettier and more un-Christ-like by their actions and responses.