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Backstage at the 2016 spring/summer Tracy Reese show. Photo: Bennett Raglin/ Getty Images
Backstage at the 2016 spring/summer Tracy Reese show. Photo: Bennett Raglin/ Getty Images

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This Company Is Trying to Keep the Trust of Natural Hair Customers

Sundial, the company behind brands like Shea Moisture and Madam CJ Walker, is trying to make the so-called "ethnic" hair aisle obsolete.

Seven years ago my best friend Mishael went natural. She heard about a woman who did natural hair out of her home and made an appointment for her big chop. Mishael had no StyleSeat referrals to go off of, no Yelp, no Instagram tips. The woman's home left no cliché unturned. Underneath a gaggle of hanging herbs and to the sounds of plinky-plunky music, she applied homemade concoctions to Mishael's curls. I stepped outside to get a break from the fog of incense. When I came back inside my friend was nearly bald.

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"She's lost her mind," I thought. "She's finally lost it."

From that day on, all of our conversations seemed to center around Mishael's hair. What new oil she was trying, the new forum friends she was making, or her hair's most recent act of curl unruliness. The learning curve was steep; without tutorials to watch or bloggers to listen to, the struggle was real.

Cut to present day – a bout of terrible breakage inspired me to take the plunge and go natural. I researched curly hair sites and followed curly bloggers like Naptural85, Taren Guy, glamtwinz334, and Natural Neiicy, all of whom had my hair type. I stocked up on product, and splurged on a few wigs that would serve as my protective styles. With the help of several how-to videos, a friend of mine was able to give me a successful big chop and some stylish Bantu knots. Just like that I went from relaxed to natural. Dramatic, yes. Difficult, no.

So how did we get from Mishael's sketchy kitchen cut to my vlogger-assisted big chop? A few years ago, natural hair became increasingly visible online. More and more women chose to embrace their natural hair texture, leading to a deluge of tutorials, tips, and product recommendations on how to make the most of what they were born with. Eventually, mainstream brands like Garnier and Paul Mitchell caught on.

By all accounts, however, said brands were late to the game. Plenty of women embraced natural hair pre-YouTube, and they needed products, too; those products were usually relegated to the so-called ethnic aisle.

Hey, #CurlyGirls! with Curl Nourish then add the leave-in to damp hair for shinier, softer #curls. #CurlsCan

A photo posted by GarnierUSA (@garnierusa) on

Whether the mainstream newcomers see curly hair as a fad or not remains to be seen. But one company that has long had its ear to the ground in this community and plans to continue doing so is Sundial. You may not have heard of Sundial the parent company, but you've certainly heard of their product lines Nubian Heritage, Shea Moisture, and the Madam CJ Walker Beauty Culture line, which recently launched at Sephora, a far cry from the traditional drugstore aisle aimed at people of color.

With a substantial investment from Bain Capital Private Equity (it has also invested in TOMS, Canada Goose, and Dunkin' Brands, to name a few), Sundial, whose value according to the Wall Street Journal is about $700 million, is now on even more shelves and has expanded into cosmetics.

Natural hair care in more stores means more awareness, inclusiveness, and convenience for the curly-haired customer, but can there be a balance between being on Sephora shelves and keeping your ear to the streets? I had a very candid chat with Sundial CEO and co-founder Richelieu Dennis. We talked about the brands, the history, and the companies who don't care about "her," the consumer he claims he's dedicated to standing up for while also letting her stand up for herself.

Richelieu Dennis. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

When and why did you start Sundial? What did you see missing in the market?

I came here to go to college. I'm originally from West Africa, Liberia. When I graduated we had a full blown civil war in Liberia where my  mother is from so I couldn't go home. My grandmother made different natural hair and skin preparations in Sierra Leone  and sold them in our village market. So my mother and I and my college roommate started making the same products and selling them on the streets of New York.

It wasn't until after we started that we saw how underserved consumers are. Being out there and engaging with consumers one-on-one and hearing what they wanted made it very clear to us what was missing: They wanted natural products but couldn't find them in the retail shops.

Because of how we started we were able to bring with us our community commerce model, which means purchasing our ingredients from women cooperatives in West Africa at fair trade prices and reinvesting it to help them with their infrastructure, running water, more efficient stoves, their manufacturing process, and their development. You put it all together and you realize there are some natural ingredients that weren't necessarily rewarding the women in those communities that were producing them and consumers who wanted products to live a healthier, better lifestyle and they weren't getting them.

Was it difficult to find retailers when you first started? What was some feedback you got at first about your brands?

Oh yeah, it took us sixteen years!

*Falls off chair*

Yeah, the natural lifestyle wasn't something retailers were attuned to. At that time, when you went into a store all you found were relaxers and products made with petroleum and mineral oil. It took sixteen years to educate them.

How has the industry changed since you first entered it?

The internet put the power in the women to say, "This is who I am, this is how I want to look. I'm not going to be dictated to, I'm going to determine how I look." This brought a major shift that coincides with our own philosophy and views on what the marketplace ought to be. People should define their own beauty and it's our job to supply them with products that allow them to express their beauty in any way and every way that they choose."

What are some new challenges you're facing?

There are some huge challenges! Up until maybe three or four years ago, these major national brands could not care less about this consumer. They didn't make products for her, they didn't fight for her, they didn't stand for her. All of a sudden they see her as a growth opportunity,  so now we have a lot more of the national brands trying to attract a consumer that they didn't historically care about. Now we're competing against some very major brands and multi-national corporations that are not so easy to compete against.

"All of a sudden they see her as a growth opportunity, so now we have a lot more of the national brands trying to attract a consumer that they didn't historically care about."

How has social media affected how you do things?

We've always been a social brand; we started on the streets, so our social media was one-on-one conversations with consumers telling us, "I like this soap but I want it to smell like that," or "I like this shampoo but I need it to work like this."

Shea Moisture has garnered accolades within the natural hair community. Why do you think the product ranges have resonated so well among curly-haired customers?

Our job is to make products that work for her, not to market to her, not to just sell things that we want to sell. Not somebody sitting in a lab saying, "Hey, I have this great idea now go sell it."

Shea Moisture's #BreaktheWalls campaign calls out the ethnic hair care aisle and "traditional merchandising segmentation." For people who have never experienced anything other than the standard beauty aisle, can you explain why this movement is so important?

It's about all of these different struggles that women go through to claim their beauty. #Breakthewalls is one manifestation of that and it's quite a metaphor for the walls that divide our beauty as a society. Every woman experiences these different issues. It's the fact that as a black woman to go get products you need for your hair you have to go to three, four, five stores. When other women hear of this they're like, "Wow does that really happen? How can I wrap my mind around that because when I go into the aisle there are a sea of things there." It's a sea of oneness, of things for one person. This brings awareness to all consumers around the sort of things that we do inadvertently that keep us apart.

Sundial is in the headlines with the launch of the Madam CJ Walker Beauty Culture line. What was it like creating this line from concept to Sephora shelves?

Madam CJ Walker was, more than any other person that I think has ever lived, so transformative around the inclusion of beauty and the inclusion of women of color in the beauty lexicon and the beauty conversation. What we wanted to do was revitalize that historic woman and brand but in a very modern way. Unite consumers around being on a pedestal and being able to walk into the most renowned beauty environment in Sephora and find products there that spoke to her and worked for her, that were designed to help her deal with her natural hair and her curls to make a statement of self. That was our vision and it's incredible to see it come to life.

What's in the future for Sundial? How does it plan to maintain a balance of integrity and mainstream awareness?

We have one mission and it's to serve our consumers' lifestyle needs however they may choose to live. To not dictate to them to not put them into a box to build them up to flourish however they choose. We have one singular issue and that's to make sure she is living a more beautiful life—whoever she may be.


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