Richelieu Dennis Jr. ’91 arrived at Babson College from Liberia, full of hopes and dreams with a plan to start a citrus business in his home country, selling oranges, grapefruits, and pineapples.
“A funny thing happened when I got to campus 4,500 miles away from where I was born,” he said. “I found a home.”
By graduation day, his plans had changed, thanks in part to the lessons he learned and connections he made at Babson. But, circumstances also clouded his path forward. Liberia had become ensnared in a civil war that began while he was at Babson. Dennis’ mother had lost her home and everything she owned, and he became a refugee in the United States shortly after Commencement.
“I had no hopes and dreams that day. I had no idea what my future would hold,” Dennis said recently. “That day for me was one of great joy in what I had accomplished, but it was one of great uncertainty and great pain. But, that motivated me to do what it is that I’ve been doing over the past 30 years.”
Dennis—founder of Sundial Brands and founder and chair of Essence Ventures—returns to Babson this month for Commencement, where he will share his successes, experiences, and perspectives when he addresses the undergraduate Class of 2020 at the digital ceremony May 8.
The circumstances of this Commencement are vastly different than his own. But, it may not be a stretch to liken the uncertainty and chaos that exists today to the personal uncertainty and chaos that Dennis faced 30 years ago.
“I think you can certainly draw the parallels with the pandemic and this great sense of uncertainty, but also the social unrest and the social injustice that we’ve seen,” he said, “and how young people are fretting around how they can play a role in this world.”
After his graduation, Dennis quickly began carving out his role in the world. Rather than return to Liberia to begin citrus farming, Dennis founded Sundial Brands, beginning in Harlem, New York, to help fix the problem of inequality in the beauty aisle, creating high-quality products for Black women. In 2017, Unilever acquired Sundial in a landmark deal that also created a groundbreaking $100 million New Voices Fund to invest in and empower women of color entrepreneurs. The next year, Dennis acquired Essence, restoring the lifestyle magazine to a fully Black-owned publication.
“I think this is great inspiration for the people that are graduating today, not just around how to move forward in the pandemic, but also the roles that they play in bringing justice, social justice, and economic justice to all of our communities.”
Richelieu Dennis Jr. ’91, honorary degree recipient
Just as the events in his home country motivated Dennis to make a difference, the challenges today—the pandemic, social injustice, climate change, and more—are prime motivators for a new generation of innovators, entrepreneurial leaders who are trained to solve complex social problems.
“I think this is great inspiration for the people that are graduating today,” he said, “not just around how to move forward in the pandemic, but also the roles that they play in bringing justice, social justice, and economic justice to all of our communities.”
High Honor, Higher Purpose
In addition to addressing the Class of 2020, Dennis will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the Commencement ceremony.
Ask Dennis what receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater means to him, and he says, “I could stand here for the next 30 minutes talking about what this means.”
Watch Babson’s virtual Commencement ceremonies at babson.edu/watchcommencement.
He expresses his appreciation for the recognition of the work he has done and continues to do and the partnership he has developed with Babson, where he also serves on the Board of Trustees. But, he also says the honor carries greater significance and importance.
“It also means that I can inspire other people that come from communities that I come from, places that I come from, communities that I engage with, and inspire the young people there to see that there is greater value to the work that we do beyond the economic value,” Dennis said.
“I think this will inspire other young entrepreneurs that come from communities of color to drive not just their businesses but also to drive their work around changing the world.”
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