I was selling shea butter to my classmates. I would get supplies from
my mother for my personal use. My
ambition was to go back to Liberia
and become a citrus farmer. People
were starving there, but it’s such a
lush, lush agricultural haven. You’d
have these orange trees and you’d
have these mango trees, but they
would just spoil. There was no cannery. There was no juicing market.
That problem remains with development in Africa, all of the resources that are extracted out, as opposed
to developed in. You could say I
eventually did become a, maybe not
a farmer, but more of a harvester. I
never got to the citrus farming idea,
because I got here in ’ 87, and then
the internal conflicts in Liberia
really started to escalate.
So you became a refugee
By 1989, the conflict was basically
What made you focus on
full-blown, so there was no going
back. That’s when I started to sell
more, just as a means to buy food,
because there was no money coming
There are things that Liberians have
been using in their communities for
centuries. To protect themselves
from the sun, to survive, to eat, to
live. And they were never quite
developed commercially. So shea
butter is something that has been
used in our culture for centuries, all
over Africa, for very specific purposes that people have been trying to
solve for in the West. So you start to
educate people on the benefits of it.
It was also around that time that
And then your mother moved to
the mindset or the consciousness
of consumers started to shift, and
they started to question what they
were putting on or in their bodies,
ethically sourced? Was it exploiting
the U.S. to join the business?
She actually didn’t move—she came
to my graduation, on the last flight
that left Monrovia before the rebels
invaded the capital city. She left
with two suitcases, and by the time
she landed in New York, her home
had been bombed.
So Liberia’s implosion impelled
Sundial to become a real company
rather than a college survival gig.
We started making di;erent preparations, whether it was soap or
incense or just the shea butter by
the pound or by the ounce, and
selling them in Harlem on 125th
Street and Fifth Avenue. I set up a
table and started selling. There were
12 of us in a Queens apartment, and
we were all just like, things will
calm down back home and we can
return. It’ll be another week, maybe
another two weeks. Nobody expected
it to last almost 20 years.
But lots of guys are on 125th
Street selling stu; on card tables.
At what point did you break out?
There are a lot of guys on 125th
Street with card tables. There are
very few guys on 125th Street with a
Babson education. One of the things
that I learned: There’s always an
opportunity in a disorganized market for the guy who can organize it.
So we started to deliver. Back then,
it was beepers. They’d beep us, give
us an order, and then we’d deliver.
That’s how we started our distribution business. We had a Toyota
Prius; we loaded up all our stu; and
we started delivering to the vendors,
and then we started supplying for
flea markets and county fairs. Then
we started in health food stores, and
started to think about going retail.
What made you think you could
make that transition?
Being on the street allowed me to
very quickly understand that our
customer wasn’t being serviced in
Funding the Future
Dennis started a
$100 million fund
to invest in businesses
run by black women.