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Estate acquired to bolster entreneurship for women of color

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WASHINGTON —  The  Dennis family, including entrepreneur, investor and social impact innovator Richelieu Dennis, has facilitated the acquisition of Madam C.J. Walker’s 100-year-old estate — Villa Lewaro — outside New York City.

Dennis, founder and chief executive officer of Sundial Brands,  also founded the New Voices Foundation, which helps women of color entrepreneurs achieve their vision through innovative leadership initiatives. The foundation will spearhead the stabilization of Villa Lewaro’s structure and planning for future uses, including a think tank for women of color entrepreneurs.  The acquisition comes a century after the completion of the Irvington, N.Y. estate, once home of the nation’s first self-made female millionaire and beauty pioneer Madam C.J. Walker .

“In the one hundred years since Madam Walker built her majestic home, Villa Lewaro, it has served as a landmark both to her own success and to her endeavor to create a space dedicated to the achievement and empowerment of African Americans,” said Brent Leggs, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “Under the 25-year stewardship of Ambassador Harold Doley Jr. and his wife Helena, Villa Lewaro flourished as a monument to all that Madam Walker represented — the spirit of American entrepreneurship, perseverance in the face of adversity, and African American achievement. We believe that the New Voices Foundation’s and Dennis Family’s stewardship of this site will not only ensure its future, but will lay the foundation for a new generation of entrepreneurs and cultural leaders to explore ways they too can preserve places that help to tell the full American story.”

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 for its architectural significance, Villa Lewaro, named after Walker’s daughter (A’Lelia Walker Robinson), was once a social and cultural gathering place for notable leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. The home, which Walker called her “dream of dreams,” was designed and completed by the first licensed black architect in the state of New York and a founder of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Vertner Tandy.

Walker was the first person of color to own property in Irvington, close to Lyndhurst, a National Trust Historic Site. During the time it was built, Villa Lewaro was located on what was referred to as Millionaire’s Row, in an area that was also home to Rockefellers and Astors. Purchased in 1993, for the last 25 years Villa Lewaro served as the family home of ambassador Harold E. Doley, Jr. and his wife Helena.

With a long admiration of  Walker, the Dennis family first reignited her cultural, entrepreneurial and hair care legacy through the acquisition of the Madam C.J. Walker brand in 2013 — when conversations to acquire Villa Lewaro also first began — and the brand’s subsequent relaunch on retail shelves in 2016 at Sephora.

“To be able to steward something so rich in our culture, history, legacy and achievement through the New Voices Foundation and guide it into its next phase of impact and inspiration is an incredible honor that my family and I welcome with tremendous responsibility and humility,” said Dennis. “When we relaunched the Madam C.J. Walker brand two and half years ago, our goal was to give the brand back to our community and elevate it in the iconic way deserving of such a phenomenal woman. Today, we have a similar focus with Villa Lewaro, as its significance is much greater than just a house or property or historic landmark. It is a place where — against all odds — dreams were formed, visions were realized and entrepreneurs were born, and we look forward to returning its use to support that mission.”

Dennis continued, “Squarely aligned with the mission of the New Voices Foundation, we are excited to announce that the vision for future use of the property includes utilizing Villa Lewaro as both a physical and virtual destination where women of color entrepreneurs will come for curriculum-based learning and other resources aimed at helping them build, grow and expand their businesses. When people think of entrepreneurship services for women of color, we want them to think of the New Voices Foundation and Villa Lewaro.”

Stabilization efforts are currently underway to ensure the property is structurally sound.

An advisory team consisting of preservationists, historians, and others will study Villa Lewaro’s structures and history to provide  additional use recommendations.

Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and biographer, as well as brand historian, A’Lelia Bundles added, “No one at the time believed that a black woman could afford such a place. So, I can think of no better way to celebrate Villa Lewaro’s 100th anniversary than the vision of the New Voices Foundation and the Dennis family for this historic treasure as a place to inspire today’s entrepreneurs, tomorrow’s leaders and our entire community. Richelieu’s own success story — from a humble family recipe to an international enterprise with an economic empowerment mission — very much mirrors Madam Walker’s journey of empowering and uplifting women. Just as Madam Walker aided in the preservation of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s Washington, D.C. home, the Dennis family continues this tradition of preserving historic sites that raise awareness about the contributions people of color have made to the American narrative.”

The National Trust holds a perpetual preservation easement on Villa Lewaro that ensures the property’s historic character will be preserved. This easement was jointly supported by the Dennis and the Doley families. The home was named a National Treasure by the National Trust in 2014 and is part of a growing portfolio of African American historic sites protected through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, an initiative designed to raise the profile of African American sites of achievement, activism, architecture, and community.


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