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Shea Moisture’s Founder Wants to Transform Madam C.J. Walker’s Old Home Into an Incubator for Black Women Entrepreneurs

Sundial Brands co-founder Richelieu Dennis is taking his efforts to provide Black women the “access, capital and expertise” they need to make their businesses flourish to a whole  new level.

Dennis, 48, is the now the owner of the 34-room mansion Villa Lewaro, the historic former estate of pioneering Black woman entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker. The Irvington, New York, residence once served as a meeting spot for major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and the Shea Moisture founder now hopes to transform the space into a training center for Black businesswomen like Walker.

Richelieu Dennis

This is Richelieu Dennis’ second venture honoring Madam C.J. Walker. In 2016, his Sundial Brands launched a hair care line called “Madam C.J. Walker Beauty and Culture.” (Photo by Benjamin Norman for the New York Times)

The estate will serve as a retreat “designed to sup­port Black women entrepreneurs in their ef­forts to turn their ideas into flour­ish­ing en­ter­prises,” the Hudson Independent reported.

The new venture comes nearly year after Dennis purchased Essence Magazine to make it 100 percent Black-owned again. Months later, he launched the $100 million New Voices Fund aimed at supporting women of color with dreams of having a successful businesses.

The newspaper reported that Dennis’ move couldn’t have come at a better time, as “Irv­ing­ton has only just passed a new zon­ing law that per­mits adap­tive reuse of reg­is­tered his­tor­i­cal build­ings for non-res­i­den­tial pur­poses, in­clud­ing schools, tours and certain kinds of events.” The goal of the new law was to help ease the burden on homeowners by giving them some relief from the high upkeep and tax expenses that often come with owning such properties.

Although the actual sale of the estate took place earlier this summer, the revelation of Dennis as the new owner comes just this month. The Essence Ventures CEO met with Irvington’s board of trustees on Monday to lay out his plans for Villa Lewaro, which included possibly using the mansion as a museum.

However, the Hudson Independent noted that “the en­tre­pre­neur­ial cen­ter con­cept bet­ter meshes with [Dennis’] on­go­ing com­mit­ment to pro­mote African-Amer­i­can wom­en’s busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties and a log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of his busi­ness.” Like Walker, Dennis has helped manufacture hair care and cosmetic products specifically designed for women of color. In 2016, his Sundial Brands even launched a line of hair products called “Madam C.J. Walker Beauty and Culture,” an homage to the nation’s first Black millionaire.

“The story means so much to so many,” he 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.”

Supporters of his latest venture honoring Walker include Chase Bank, Goldman Sachs and Dennis’ alma mater, Babson College, just to name a few.

Dennis’ proposal is still awaiting approval from Irvington’s board of trustees.

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