Probably our favorite thing about high-end real estate transactions is seeing the widely divergent paths these folks take on their journeys to vast wealth. While a hefty number of buyers are indeed to-the-manor-born, many others used their entrepreneurial grit to elevate themselves above the middle-class (or out of abject poverty, in some cases). Today’s buyer definitely belongs in that latter category.
Late last year, a strikingly ultra-contemporary mansion set in the hills above the Sunset Strip was listed with an attention-grabbing $21.9 million pricetag. The house was spec-built by a developer on the site of the late James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz’s home. (After taking a peek at the old Mankiewicz residence, we think it’s probably a good thing the tired ol’ gal was razed. But we digress).
After the better part of a year on the market and a change of realtors, the spec-mansion eventually sold for $15,750,000. That’s a significant discount from the original ask but still a ton of moolah, of course. And Yolanda finds no evidence of a mortgage on the property.
The buyer? He’s a guy from New York named Richelieu Dennis.
Mr. Dennis’s story begins in Liberia, the war-torn nation on Africa’s western coast. Today, the country is considered to be one of the world’s poorest, with a shocking 80% of the population living below the poverty line.
Born and raised in the capital city of Monrovia, Mr. Dennis didn’t exactly have an idyllic childhood — his father died when he was just eight years old, and his widowed mother spent years shuttling him and his sister between Liberia and the neighboring country of Sierra Leone as civil unrest and violent conflict alternately flared up in both nations.
As a teenager, Mr. Dennis left Africa for the first time to attend Babson College in Massachusetts. He planned to return to Liberia after his studies were completed, but the universe had alternate plans.
Our Mr. Dennis graduated from Babson in 1991, and his mother traveled from Africa to the U.S. to watch his graduation ceremony. As it happened, the early 1990s was right when the First Liberian Civil War — one of the bloodiest civil wars in world history — broke out. While she was in America, Ms. Dennis’s residence and possessions back home were completely destroyed. To hear her tell it, she was left with nothing more than the clothes packed into her one suitcase.
Ms. Dennis and her son never returned back home. Instead, they set up shop in a rented Queens apartment. To survive, the pair partnered with Mr. Dennis’s college roommate and began hawking handmade soaps on the streets of Harlem. The ingredients were based on recipes handed down by Mr. Dennis’s grandmother, an shea butter expert who had been known as a village healer back in Liberia. The soaps proved popular, and gradually the Dennises began to expand into other bath and beauty products. Sundial Brands was born.
People of color had traditionally been overlooked by mass-market beauty companies, and Mr. Dennis saw an opportunity to both help his fellow minorities and attain financial security for his family. Sure enough, the venture proved successful. Sundial has grown to encompass well-known brands such as SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage, which have become staples of the haircare and skincare markets. Y’all might think that designing beauty products for the black and Latino communities would be a no-brainer, but truth is that nobody had focused on that niche. Until Mr. and Ms. Dennis came along, of course.
And y’all should know by now that beauty is big business these days. Sundial Brands grew until it was the largest black-owned beauty brand in the world and one of the ten largest black-owned businesses in America. Naturally, as one might expect, the company soon had a variety of suitors who wanted a chunk of that success. In 2015, Bain Capital purchased a minority stake in Sundial that reportedly valued the company at a whopping $700 million.
Two years after the Bain investment, Sundial Brands was acquired by consumer goods giant Unilever.
While terms of the Unilever acquisition were not (publicly) disclosed, based on online gossip it seems common knowledge that Mr. Dennis and his mother’s little shea butter company — originally a Harlem street vendor — went for well north of a billion bucks. Ka-ching, in other words.
Last month, Forbes officially proclaimed that Mr. Dennis and his mama have a combined net worth of $850 million, making them two of the wealthiest black entrepreneurs on the planet.
But perhaps the coolest part of the Unilever deal isn’t Mr. and Ms. Dennis’s full-circle success story. As part of the acquisition, Unilever and Mr. Dennis together created the $100 million New Voices Fund, which is aimed to assist entrepreneurial women of color achieve business success. The fund will be looking for worthy investment opportunities over the next few years, so just a heads up to y’all.
Today — in 2018 — Mr. Dennis remains CEO and Executive Chairman of Sundial Brands, leading the company under the Unilever umbrella. He also made big news a few months back when he paid Time, Inc. an undisclosed sum to acquire Essence (the company known both for its lifestyle brand and its eponymous magazine). Clearly, Mr. Dennis is a busy guy.
Still, he has somehow found time to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Let’s check out his snazzy new home.
The decidedly louche residence is located at the very end of a perilously narrow and winding dead-end road and is immediately adjacent to the celeb-soaked Bird Streets. According to the listing, the structure clocks in at a massive 12,109-square-feet of living space spread across three full floors, one of them subterranean. The house is completely gated and secured with a state-of-the-art security system: cameras, infrared beams, bloodthirsty crocodiles, all that jazz.
Mr. Dennis is a fan of exotic automobiles, and as such he will certainly appreciate the dual garages, which can accommodate at least four vehicles. A short flight of well-lit steps leads to the all-glass front door. The Domino’s pizza delivery boy will no doubt be awed by the majestic foyer with its double-height ceiling and sculptural “floating” staircase.
The home includes a 2,500-square-foot living room — that’s bigger than the average American house, FYI — a slick kitchen with all-white everything and a marble backsplash, ebonized hardwood floors, a family room with a fireplace and walls of glass, and a formal dining room that can easily seat 10.
There are 6 beds and 7 baths within these walls, plenty of room for Mr. Dennis, his longtime wife Martha Dennis, and their four daughters. The upstairs master suite brings on the drama with all that glass in the bedroom — Mr. Dennis must feel like he’s floatin’ above the twinkling city lights. And the master bath has a party-sized glass shower, an “infinity bath tub” — damn, what will these kids think of next? — his-and-hers closets, and a private office.
Elsewhere in the home is a “wellness center” w/ sauna and salon. Perfect for a beauty mogul, right?
Down in the underground level is a wine cellar with space for 1,000+ bottles, tasting area, and three massive wine fridges. Also buried somewhere down there is an indoor basketball court and a movie theater with tiered seating for at least a dozen people.
Like many Hollywood Hills homes, this place is tightly packed onto a rather small lot — .35-acre, in this case. Still, the property makes good use of its meager outdoor space. There’s a romantic Tuscan-style garden with gorgeous mature olive trees, plenty of outdoor seating options, a full backyard kitchen/wet bar, and a 30,000-gallon, boomerang-shaped negative-edge swimming pool overlooking the world-famous Sunset Strip and city of West Hollywood.
Sundial Brands continues to be headquartered in New York, so — as y’all might expect — Mr. Dennis also maintains some lavish East Coast digs. Back in 2015, he and Mrs. Dennis paid a fat $7,075,000 for a brand-new spec-mansion in the absurdly posh village of Old Westbury, New York.
For those of y’all not familiar with NY real estate, Old Westbury is located on Long Island and is famed as NYC’s most expensive suburb. It is often ranked as one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, and has long been known as a bastion of old money (though that tide seems to be shifting).
Records show that Mr. and Mrs. Dennis’s Old Westbury residence clocks in with a massive 13,000-square-feet of living space. Described as a “brick Colonial” in the old listing, the lavish house has three full floors (including one subterranean level), a full-size tennis court, a home theater, a gym, and a pool, all on 3.25-acres of lushly landscaped land.
It’s certainly a long way from that Queens apartment in the early 90s.