The owner of Black business empire Essence Ventures, who vowed to step away as the acting CEO of Essence magazine after being an awful boss during last year’s racial reckoning, is not-so-quietly asserting his power again—and Black influencers are torn.
In the summer of 2020, a Medium article was published with damning accusations against Essence’s owner Richelieu Dennis. Under the pseudonym “Black Female Anonymous,” Essence magazine staffers demanded Dennis’ resignation—along with other leadership changes—after they said women were “systematically suppressed by pay inequity, sexual harassment, corporate bullying, intimidation, colorism and classism” and the company had been “hijacked by cultural and corporate greed and an unhinged abuse of power.” The staffers blasted execs for an ironic turn of events: A publication that was meant to empower Black women instead mistreated and abused the women who worked for it.
A new CEO was named for Essence magazine and the company, which owns several other entities like Afropunk festival and hair care company Naturally Curly, promised that Dennis would be taking a step back. But this month, he was back.
Essence Ventures swooped in at a foreclosure sale to acquire BeautyCon, the so-called “Super Bowl of the Beauty industry” that nearly filed for bankruptcy last year after being ravaged by the pandemic, financial issues, staff layoffs, and unpaid bills.
SheRea DelSol, a Black content creator on YouTube who focuses on natural hair content, told The Daily Beast she won’t be participating in BeautyCon now that Essence and Dennis are at the helm.
“I’m not in the business of selling my soul for a couple of dollars or for popularity,” DelSol said. “I would have to see change, see an apology, in order to participate or contribute. Even with your apology, [victims] still have their trauma and the after-effects. I don’t even know if there’s an apology substantial enough to fix it.”
In the Medium article, titled “The Truth About Essence,” anonymous staffers claimed that Dennis slept with his employees and harassed those who rejected his advances. They also alleged that he “tried to force Essence employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements” to protect himself and his family members who worked in leadership positions at Essence.
The company hired two law firms to conduct an investigation, which found that staff felt overworked and underappreciated but concluded that Dennis didn’t engage in behavior that would have amounted to “unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation.” (The anonymous writers of the Medium article did not speak to investigators.)
Those findings have not changed the views of some.
Alexis Nottingham, whose TressesOfAlexis YouTube channel focuses primarily on Black hair care, said she understood that the allegations were found unconfirmed, but still felt uncomfortable with the accusations. “Everybody ain’t lying,” she said.
However, she also doesn’t think BeautyCon will suffer from the negative stain of Essence.
“While [people] say they want to protect Black women, that’s a lie. We idolize Black capitalism, Black consumerism, and Black wealth over Black people, and I don’t see this being an issue at all for them. I see this being extremely profitable, honestly, just because people are going to spend money however they want to. They don’t take into account victims unless it’s close to home or it happens to them personally.”
The Daily Beast attempted to reach out to former and current Essence magazine employees to get their views on Dennis’ latest business ventures in light of the 2020 controversy. However, they either didn’t respond or declined to comment.
“I’m not surprised people are not talking,” DelSol said. “When you have someone that dominates space that already provides windows and opportunities for women of color—and Black women in particular—if Black women speak up, what other spaces are there for them? When we think about power dynamics and who has the power, if the allegations are true regardless of an investigation that took place—where can these women go?
“No one cares about Black women,” she continued. “The allegations didn’t even go very far. I think many people don’t even know about it because no one cares about Black women. So, these Black women in particular, if they come forward, where will they go? They’re going to look like whistleblowers, they’ll look like sellouts, they’ll look like they’re bringing down the quintessential definition of what Black excellence looks like. We value Black activism. But Black capitalism looks like misogyny, sexism, and sexual assault. We accept that because what else is the ultimate goal in this country?”
Founded in 2011 by Marina Curry, a Black woman, BeautyCon was a hub of live events before it started to falter in 2019. Last year, The Wrap reported that a year after a huge event that attracted thousands of attendees, BeautyCon was still struggling to pay vendors. Other businesses and contractors who worked the event were reported to have filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau or sought assistance from collections agencies. The coronavirus pandemic didn’t help financial matters.
And while BeautyCon devotees have described the event as an inclusive community that allows beauty and lifestyle enthusiasts to network, meet their favorite influencers and get discounted makeup, Black influencers have not always felt welcome.
The event had always “centered white women and white entrepreneurs,” DelSol said, and therefore never appealed to her.
Shanygne Maurice, creator of beauty product reviews on a YouTube channel called TooMuchMouth, said she had a “rather unpleasant” experience as a Black creator at the last BeautyCon but actually sees the Essence buyout as an opportunity to make the event “more inviting and inclusive for Black influencers and enthusiasts—given Essence’s history in the Black community.”
“I’m not sure if I’d participate in the first one [under Essence’s ownership],” she said. “But if I were to see how that goes and hear about the event moving in the right direction and it being the fun and inviting event it’s supposed to be, I’d certainly attend in the future.”
Nottingham, however, questioned whether Essence could really change BeautyCon or if it was another case of diversity initiatives being “whitewashed.”
“Like SheaMoisure,” she said. “When it started off, we knew their demographic. We knew they wanted to help Black people with Black hair care, especially with people who do their own hair. And I feel that over the years they expanded their branding and their marketing, which is fine, but I feel like they kind of neglected their base demographic.
“They neglected their niche of Blackness… their base demographic of Black women with kinky hair. It’s not to say that they shouldn’t be able to cater to all types of hair and all types of people, but there’s always this desire to cater to whiteness and white features. That superseded the priority of Black hair care.”
Despite the allegations made against him, Dennis has broken some racial barriers within the beauty industry. Originally from Liberia, he founded Black beauty brand SheaMoisture and then Sundial Brands, the parent company to SheaMoisture. In 2017, it was sold to the conglomerate Unilever, but Dennis remains Sundial’s CEO and executive chairman. In 2018, he bought the Essence brand, vowing to “scale Black-owned brands and bring much-needed diversity” to the beauty and lifestyle world.
When The Daily Beast spoke to him this week about his buy up of BeautyCon, Dennis refused to directly answer any questions about the 2020 controversy and his promise to step away from Essence magazine. Instead, he framed his latest venture as part of a mission to fight racism in the retail industry.
“I spent 30 years of my life breaking down the racial barriers of beauty,” he said. “It took me 16 years before I agreed to go into mass retail. The reason is because of the racist structures that existed in mass retail.”
He said hair care products were once racially segregated on store shelves but, thanks to his efforts, retailers have come to realize “there’s a much bigger market opportunity when you engage in Black brands on a fair and consistent basis. We’re very proud of that, and we see [BeautyCon] as a continuation of that work.”
He vowed that Essence Ventures would “bring heightened inclusivity” to BeautyCon.
“The whole idea when [BeautyCon] was founded was to be an inclusive place for all women to express their individual beauty,” Dennis said. “Our objective is to make it into that by making it inviting, by diversifying subjects, by being inclusive in the brands, by being intentional in the commitments.”
Dennis acknowledged that, though progress has been made in the beauty industry in terms of racial efforts, it “doesn’t mean the problem is solved.” He said there’s still a need for awareness and education to dismantle structural racism at the root of bias in the community.
Whether BeautyCon becomes a platform to help combat those inequities remains to be seen. Despite Dennis’ promises, Black influencers are still wary.
“Essence is Black A.F.,” Nottingham said, “which is beautiful, but how are they going to [integrate that with BeautyCon]? Because I hope they don’t stray from the culture of Essence. I don’t know, but I don’t have high hopes of BeautyCon being a more Black space.”