New Owner to Propose Using Villa Lewaro as a Training Center for Entrepreneurial Women of Color

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by Barrett Seaman – 

The actual sale of Irvington’s Villa Lewaro, home more than a century ago to Madam C. J. Walker, the black entrepreneur who made a fortune selling skin and hair care products to African-American women, took place last summer, but the identity of the new owner—and his plans for use of the 34-room mansion—are emerging only just this month.

Richelieu Dennis, new owner of Irvington’s Villa Lewaro

Richelieu Dennis, 48, founder and CEO of Sundial Brands, manufacturer and marketer of cosmetics for women of color, is the new owner of the estate on North Broadway, having purchased it from Harold and Helena Doley, who lived there for the past 25 years. Mr. Dennis is scheduled to appear at the regular meeting of Irvington’s board of trustees on Monday, December 17, when he is expected to outline his plans to use the estate as a training center/retreat, designed to support black women entrepreneurs in their efforts to turn their ideas into flourishing enterprises. The 7:00 p.m. meeting is open to the public.

His timing couldn’t be better. Irvington has only just passed a new zoning law that permits adaptive reuse of registered historical buildings for non-residential purposes, including schools, tours and certain kinds of events. The purpose of the new law, which grew out of the recent Comprehensive Plan update even before the sale of the estate, is to give the owners of such properties some relief from the high upkeep and tax expenses that burden ownership. At present, only three such properties meet the criteria for the new law: Villa Nuits in Ardsley Park, the Octagon House and Villa Lewaro.

The previous owners, Ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena had worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to create an easement on Villa Lewaro that would allow it to operate as a museum as well as their residence. Doley, who had served as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the Ivory Coast, envisioned something like the Barnes Foundation, on whose board he sat, which once housed one of the world’s great collections of Impressionist art in an elegant home in a residential neighborhood of Philadelphia that is not unlike Irvington.

While using Villa Lewaro as a museum is one of Mr. Dennis’s options, the entrepreneurial center concept better meshes with his ongoing commitment to promote African-American women’s business opportunities and a logical extension of his business. Sundial, now a subsidiary of Unilever, already includes a Madam C.J. Walker line of hair care products. More to the point, last year, he launched the New Voices Fund, seeding it with $100 million to support black women entrepreneurs through training, mentorship and networking. Other supporters include Chase Bank, Goldman Sachs, Bank of American, Harvard and Amos Tuck graduate business schools and Babson College, from which Dennis graduated. Villa Lewaro would seem a natural venue for New Voices development programs.

Some of the estate’s immediate neighbors have expressed concern about the potential for noise and traffic under the new zoning guidelines. Village officials have assured them that the language of the new law gives the trustees full authority to limit the numbers of vehicles coming in and out of the property, the types of events held there and any changes in the property itself. Whatever Mr. Dennis proposes must first meet with their approval.

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