When Richelieu Dennis came to the U.S. from his home in Liberia to attend Babson College, he wasn’t expecting to stay. But unable to return home owing to the first Liberian civil war, stay he did, building the personal care products company SheaMoisture with his college roommate Nyema Tubman in Harlem and later establishing a larger holding company, Sundial Brands, that would oversee a suite of product lines focused on women of color.
Among them, SheaMoisture, Nyakio, Nubian Heritage and Madame C.J. Walker, named after a philanthropist and social activist and one of the earliest female founders of color. (Walker, the daughter of slaves, died a wealthy woman at the age of 51 in 1919, after herself developing a line of beauty and hair products for black women.)
All that hard work was seemingly rewarded when, last year, consumer goods giant Unilever acquired Sundial for undisclosed terms. In a unique twist, the deal should fuel the companies of future founders of color, too.
To wit, when the acquisition was announced, Unilever and Sundial announced they would create a new investment vehicle to empower minority women entrepreneurs — the New Voices Fund — to which they would commit an initial $50 million.
Thursday, at 2018 Essence Festival in New Orleans, Dennis said he was officially launching the fund with twice that amount — $100 million — adding that roughly a third of the fund has already been committed to black women entrepreneurs. (According to the fund’s site, it writes seed through Series C checks.)
The outlet Black Enterprise was first to report the news.
The development will undoubtedly be welcome news to women, and particular women of color, who are among a fast-growing percentage of entrepreneurs in the country, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a 31-year-old, Washington-based nonprofit. According to one of its reports, women of color — who constitute approximately 35 percent of the female population aged 18 and older — owned 929,445 businesses in the United States, representing 17 percent of all women-owned firms, in 1997. By 2014, that number had hit 2,934,500 businesses, or 32 percent of women-owned firms.
Naturally, these aren’t all venture-backed (or backable) businesses, but those numbers are on the rise, too, and their founders are going to need capital on the scale that New Voices is promising.
Per digitalundivided, an organization that supports black and Latina women tech founders, of the $84 billion that VCs plugged into startups last 2017, just 2.7 percent flowed to women-led companies, and black women founders saw just .2 percent of that capital.