Liberia: ‘ESSENCE Acquisition More Cultural Than Business Decision’, Richelieu Dennis Addresses Controversy
NEW YORK – Mr. Richelieu Dennis, the Liberian-born businessman, cofounded Sundial Brands humanitarian and owner of ESSENCE magazine says when he acquired the magazine two years ago after more than a decade of being owned by Time Inc., he was fully aware that it would require a major cultural and business overhaul and significant investment to make sure that the publication which has been a beacon of Black culture in America could survive and flourish – and we are on our way. “We did not acquire ESSENCE because it was the best financial decision, but because it was the best cultural one”, the entrepreneur said in an Instagram Post this week, addressing the controversy stemming from allegations that he fostered a culture of sexual harassment and poisonous environment at the magazine.
Mr. Dennis says ESSENCE has been the Place where Black women and communities have consistently been uplifted, celebrated and empowered, and that’s always something worth fighting for, investing in and building up. Thus, he would never tolerate or harbor such conditions as have been alleged. Dennis said: “I wanted to clarify that an anonymous blog post last week included a number of allegations against ESSENCE that we refute. This include an accusation that I have engaged in sexual harassment- I have not.”
Last week, a group called Black Female Anonymous published an essay accusing executives at Essence magazine of facilitating an “extremely unhealthy work culture.”
The essay claims that Essence has “been hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power”; and that staff was “systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism, and classism.”
Dennis says in an effort to ensure total transparency and the confidence of employees and the community, he asked the organization to initiate a thorough and independent workplace review, which will be conducted by two recognized law firms beginning this week. “I will always welcome truth and look forward to addressing any workplace issues that may be identified as a result that may be identified as a result of the review.”
In this direction, Caroline Wanga was named as the new Chief Growth Office and interim CEO.
Her task will be to oversee the process as well as provide the business with the focus it needs during the controversy, until a new CEO is identified.
Additionally, he reiterated that he never resigned his position as CEO as was reported last week. “I did not step down/resign as CEO of ESSENCE because I never served as its CEO, interim or otherwise. Rather, I operated as an owner to keep the business functioning after the departure of the long-time CEO in March during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic(which caused the CEO search we’d launched in March to be paused).”
“it’s also why we have focused on bringing opportunities for Black focused on women of color entrepreneurs, a non-profit providing almost 15,000 women of color owned businesses with unprecedented access, capital, and expertise to grow their businesses, and beyond. That commitment to the work and to building together is ongoing.”– Richlieu Dennis
Since the acquisition, Mr. Dennis says, he and his team have embarked on a path to advance the mission and vision of the working environment “This work -operational infrastructure to support finance, human resources under the prior conglomerate structure – began immediately post-acquisition – and has been accelerated over the past six months.”
This is why he explains that Ms. Wanga was brought on board, to focus on Human Resource and organizational culture and market strategy. “With an organization whose employees are over 80 percent Black Women, it’s also why we have focused on bringing opportunities for Black focused on women of color entrepreneurs, a non-profit providing almost 15,000 women of color owned businesses with unprecedented access, capital, and expertise to grow their businesses, and beyond. That commitment to the work and to building together is ongoing.”
Mr. Dennis says he and his team was under no illusion that they would completely turn around the business and culture of a 50-year-old legacy brand in just two short years, but they are on a mission toward doing so. “We are here to continue doing what it takes to guide this brand to serve the needs of Black women for the next 50 years. And the past two weeks are the proof of that focus – and triumphant and record-breaking time period for the incredible women at ESSENCE.”
Mr. Dennis lamented the impact the ongoing deadly COVID-19 pandemic has had on the magazine’s annual gala. “As I and members of ESSENCE leadership struggled for more than a month to recover from COVID-19- which had also shut down our 26th annual festival in New Orleans, our team created and mounted UNSTOPPABLE – the first-ever live streamed Essence studios, our very own 100 percent Black-owned streaming platform which is part of our strategic direction and was launched in March at the onset of the pandemic- activating the initial pillar of our transformation strategy from an analog publisher and event producer to a content, technology and commerce platform creating economic opportunities for Black creatives, telling Black stories across all communications channels and connecting Black Culture Globally.”
He described the recent events which included internationally live-streamed, groundbreaking Festival – with tens of millions of views- as a landmark achievement that should be celebrated for Black culture and for Black women. “Team ESSENCE joined together to put global Black culture and excellence, in every facet of our communities, on display for the world to experience. This is the resiliency, this is the passion, this is the purpose, this is the ingenuity, these are the women of ESSENCE.”
This, he added was the primary reason for the investment into the magazine. “So that Black women have the opportunity to lead, create, innovate, be seen, be heard and soar. I envision the future of ESSENCE as the driver of culture, the owner of economic equity, the voice of equal justice, the platform for educational experience, and home of celebrating and acknowledging the women in our communities and in our organization. This is our focus, this is our work, this is our mission – today, tomorrow, always.”