Will Madam C.J. Walker’s Home Become an Incubator for Black Women Entrepreneurs?

Richelieu Dennis, founder and chairperson of Essence Ventures, attends the 2018 Essence Black Women In Hollywood Oscars Luncheon on March 1, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California; the rear view of the Villa Lewaro, the mansion of the country’s first self-made female millionaire, Madam Walker, is seen Oct. 19, 1998, in Irvington, N.Y.
Photo: Leon Bennett (Getty Images for Essence), Ed Bailey (AP Photo)

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.