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Essence CEO Richelieu Dennis Steps Down Amid External Review Into ‘Unhealthy Work Culture’ & Harassment Claims

Richelieu Dennis

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Amid controversy from an anonymous group exposing alleging inappropriate behavior and unfit working conditions, the CEO at Essence is stepping down. Richelieu Dennis, the founder of Shea Moisture whose brand was acquired by Unilever in a $50 million deal, is stepping down from his position at Essence effective immediately.

The news comes after a group called Black Female Anonymous penned an exposé titled “The Truth About Essence.” In it, they alleged that “the brand promise is fraudulent” and noted that while it should be a “safe haven for black girl magic”, it deceptively mistreats black women on the inside. The group called out top leadership specifically and demanded that they resign.

“We demand the immediate resignation of Essence Ventures owner and Chief Executive Officer Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu. We are calling for AT&T, Coca Cola, Chase Bank, Ford, McDonalds, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and Warner Media to immediately eliminate all active or future sponsorships and media buys at Essence Ventures until the company is under new leadership.”

 

In particular, they said women were subjected to sexual harassment and an “extremely unhealthy work culture” that resulted in wrongful layoffs and resignations. They also called out Dennis directly and said he had a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff, (the parent company of Shea Moisture that he sold in 2017) to fuel his “debaucherous sexual appetite.”

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Essence has released a statement announcing an internal investigation. The new statement comes after the brand initially denied the allegations and dubbed them “unfounded attempts to discredit our brand and assassinate personal character.”

“Out of an abundance of caution and an unwavering commitment to transparency, ESSENCE is in the process of hiring law firms and other independent external experts to assess and review the company’s policies,” Essence said in a statement.

“To further foster the transparency we practice and value as well as to provide necessary confidence to our employees and community that the process will be conducted in a fair and independent fashion, we shared with our staff earlier today that Caroline Wanga, who joined ESSENCE on June 29 as its new Chief Growth Officer, will step in as interim CEO of Essence Communications, Inc. to work with team leads across the organization and run day-to-day operations, as well as oversee the independent review process.”

While Richelieu Dennis has officially resigned as CEO he will remain as chair of the board of Essence Ventures, reports Page Six. By July 3, Caroline Wanga is expected to outline an actionable plan as to how she will make Essence “a more safe and equitable workplace for Black women,” with Black Female Anonymous advising “Fix it or Fold”, reports MadameNoire. 

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Dennis himself has since spoken out and he’s praising Caroline Wanga while noting that his position was only meant to be temporary.

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Sometimes in life you meet people and know the purpose of meeting is greater than you know in the moment.  That was my experience meeting Caroline Wanga.  Brilliant, bold, purposeful, unapologetically herself.  Truly a force, she built an impressive career at Target –  most recently as Chief Culture, Diversity & Inclusion Officer & VP of HR – where they partnered with @essence on our Fashion House and Marketplace celebrating and providing opportunities for Black creatives, designers and businesses.  Her commitment and life’s experience focusing on and elevating Black people and others who have been disenfranchised, making connections and helping build great organizations made her a clear choice to join our team.  While we announced her a month ago as Chief Growth Officer overseeing culture (HR), market strategy and new growth opportunities, we also announced yesterday that we’re appointing her as acting CEO of ESSENCE.  When ESSENCE’s longtime CEO stepped down in March, I stepped in temporarily to provide day-to-day leadership and launched a new CEO search – as I’ve always believed ESSENCE should be led by women.  I asked Caroline to serve in an official interim CEO capacity in this time because I wanted to ensure that the Black women I have spent my lifetime working to empower feel confident that the external review, which I asked our team on Sunday to initiate with independent law firms/experts, would be a fair process.  I am taking such extraordinary steps because I believe this is leadership in action and that our employees and communities deserve to feel safe in their love and support for this brand. We still have much work to do on the business transformation journey we started just 24 months ago, and I’m excited to partner with Caroline as she leads this transformation.  With a shared belief in building communities, we remain undeterred in doing the critical work that we’ve begun together. Please join me in welcoming Caroline to the fam!  #shesdope #bosslady #togetherwestand #steppingupnotdown #communitycommerce #essencemag #newvoicesfamily

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