Richelieu Dennis Buys Madam C.J. Walker’s Mansion, Plans Incubator For Black Women Entrepreneurs

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Sundial Brands co-founder Richelieu Dennis so admired one of the 20th century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs that he bought her mansion in New York, and now he plans to turn it into an incubator for other Black women en­tre­pre­neurs.

Earlier this year, Dennis, 48, bought the 34-room Villa Lewaro — the historic former estate of pioneering entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker.

Depending on the source, Walker was the first Black American woman to become a self-made millionaire or the first African American self-made millionaire period. Netflix has announced a 2019 series on Walker’s life starring Octavia Spencer and executive produced by Spencer and LeBron James.

Dennis’ identity as the buyer of Walker’s mansion in Irvington, New York, was initially kept under wraps, according to the Atlanta Black Star. The house’s previous occupants own­ers were Am­bas­sador Harold Do­ley and his wife He­lena, who lived there for 25 years. She worked with the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion to cre­ate an ease­ment on Villa Lewaro that would al­low it to op­er­ate as a mu­seum as well as their home. Do­ley was Ronald Rea­gan’s am­bas­sador to the Ivory Coast, Hudson Independent reported.

Irvington is an affluent suburban village in the town of Greenburgh in Westchester County.


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Dennis, who immigrated to the U.S. from Liberia and made a fortune as an entrepreneur, hopes to transform the mansion into a training center for Black businesswomen like Walker.

The residence was once a meeting place for members of the Harlem Renaissance. The city of Irv­ing­ton recently passed a new zon­ing law that permits reg­is­tered his­tor­i­cal build­ings to be adapted for nonres­i­den­tial pur­poses, in­clud­ing schools, tours and cer­tain types of events, Hudson Independent reported.

Richelieu Dennis
Richelieu Dennis arrives at the 11th Annual Essence Black Women in Hollywood Awards Luncheon on Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, on Dec. 23, 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove, had been slaves before the end of the Civil War. A child of sharecroppers, Walker transformed herself. Here’s how she described her transformation in her own words:

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.” — Madam Walker, July 1912

Walker died in 1919 but her name lives on in a line of hair care prod­ucts. In 2016, Dennis’ company, Sun­dial, added a Madam C.J. Walker line in her honor. Sundial is now a sub­sidiary of Unilever, a British-Dutch consumer goods company that has ranked as the largest in the world by revenue.

Richelieu Dennis
Madam C.J. Walker

The co-founder of Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage brands, Dennis came to the U.S. to attend  Babson College business school. He graduated in 1991 but was unable to return to Liberia because of civil war. He partnered with his best friend and college roommate, Nyema Tubman, starting a business in skin and hair care that addressed problems for Black consumers long ignored by mass-market market companies. Drawing from traditions passed down from his grandmother, Dennis incorporated four generations of recipes, wisdom and cultural experiences into natural bath and body care products, co-founding Sundial Brands with his mother – Mary Dennis – and Tubman.

Dennis bought Essence Magazine about a year ago, returning it to 100-percent Black ownership. Soon after, he launched the $100 million New Voices Fund aimed at supporting Black women entrepreneurs.

Richelieu Dennis
FILE – This Oct. 19, 1998 file photo shows the Villa Lewaro, century-old Italianate-style mansion that was the home of Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur considered to be the nation’s first self-made female millionaire, in Irvington, N.Y. The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018, that Villa Lewaro was recently bought by Richelieu Dennis and his family. The price wasn’t released. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey, File)

The Essence Ventures CEO met with Irvington’s board of trustees earlier this month to discuss his plans for Villa Lewaro, which included possibly using the mansion as a museum, Atlanta Black Star reported.

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.”

Madame C.J. Walker’s story means so much to so many people, Dennis said when he launched the line of products in her name. “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 legacy to look up to.”

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