Kwanzaa Shout: Richelieu Dennis, the ‘Essence’ of Cooperative Economics

Essence Ventures CEO, Richelieu Dennis speaks onstage during the 2018 Essence Festival presented by Coca-Cola at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 6, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images for Essence)

Today—Dec. 29—the Kwanzaa principle celebrated is Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics,” and there was very little debate as to who personified the “essence” of this concept, simply defined as such: To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Richelieu Dennis, founder of the and CEO of Sun­dial Brands, which includes Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage, valued at over a billion dollars, and Essence Ventures (bringing the storied media brand back to full-black ownership) announced this summer The New Voices Fund, a $100 million investment in black women entrepreneurs.


As part of that effort, Dennis quietly purchased Villa Lewaro, owned by the first self-made American woman millionaire, African-American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, and designed by black architect Vertner Woodson Tandy over 100 years ago. The legendary 34-room mansion in Irvington, N.Y., will serve as a space to incubate and train black women entrepreneurs.

As reported by the Lower Hudson Journal News:

“When people think of women’s empowerment and economic inclusion, they should think of Irvington,” said Dennis, who moved to the U.S. from the West African nation of Liberia to attend Babson College on a scholarship.

“The idea is we would create a think tank where we would have some of the some of the best minds in the country thinking about entrepreneurs and the challenges of entrepreneurship for women and women of color.”

For Dennis, the first order of business is to restore the estate to its original glory.

Once that is done, he is proposing using the estate to hold small retreats for graduates of a program developed by the members of the think tank. With technology, it would be accessible all over the world.


Dennis obviously has a penchant for making products for, about and in celebration of black women. But beyond that, he is also laying a foundation for self-sufficiency and job creation, the very essence of ujamaa.

Who do you think best embodied cooperative economics this year? Sound off in the comments.


For each day of Kwanzaa, the African-American cultural holiday that eschews the typical commercialism of the holiday season, we will be highlighting a person or persons from the past year who exemplifies the principle of the day. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 to uplift a sense of community through the principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith—all things which have helped us to survive since we were dropped on these shores some 400 years ago.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.