When Richelieu Dennis was asked how he came up with the idea for SheaMoisture, he said the company is actually nearly a century in the making.

As a 21-year-old widow Dennis’ grandmother Sofi made handmade African shea butter soaps, which she sold all over the countryside in Sierra Leone to support her family. Later, Dennis decided to use his the experience he gained helping his grandmother to create shea butter soaps, incorporating four generations of recipes into his handmade natural bath and body products.

“Growing up, that’s what I did,” says Dennis.

Dennis and his childhood friend Nyema Tubman both were born in Liberia, but fled civil war after most of their possessions were destroyed. They both immigrated to the United States and they found themselves without resources or employment. In 1992, they began to sell their wares along the sidewalks of Harlem. Their routine was to make the soaps and shea butters in the early hours of the morning, load them into their rickety van and then set up products on tables on the street at sunrise. They would sell them until the sun went down.

Their work ethic paid off. By the second year, they formed Sundial Creations and the SheaMoisture brand.

SheaMoisture shampoos, conditioners and styling aids have gained a following among customers of all ethnicities, with all hair types. Favorites include Curl Enhancing Smoothie, Shea Moisture Coconut & Hibiscus Curl & Style Conditioning Milk and Shea Restorative Trauma Masque.

SheaMoisture products are carried throughout the United States at retailers such as Target, Duane Readeand Walgreens. Sundial’s Nubian Heritage brand is carried at natural food retailers such as Whole Foods, Wegman’s and Vitamin Shoppe.

Just like Sofi’s original blends, SheaMoisture’s products contain combinations of exotic herbs, oils and butters, including African black soap, “raw” or certified organic, African shea butter, cocoa butter, mango butter, tamanu oil and green tea extract. Whenever possible, raw materials are purchased from fair-trade co-ops throughout Africa to ensure co-op workers are paid a fair wage and offered training to better their lives. Products all are made in small batches at the company’s Amityville, N.Y., factory to ensure freshness. Packing and shipping is done with recycled materials.

All of SheaMoisture’s products are free from all chemicals, including parabens, animal ingredients, mineral oil, petrolatum and synthetic color and fragrance.

With Dennis acting as founder and CEO and Tubman acting as COO, manufacturing moved to a 3,000-square foot plant, with products sold through a network of street vendors, convenience stores, health-food stores and beauty supply retailers.

Sundial’s two brands—SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage—have developed a reputation for high-quality products at value prices, driven by Dennis’ vision to create products using rare natural ingredients from around the world to provide skin- and hair-care solutions for people of all enthicities.

“If somebody is looking for a natural product that answers the clean living within their family or lifestyle, they really should give us a try,” Dennis says. “No one has clean a product that works as well as ours.”

In 2008, Sundial Creations received the Black Enterprise “Emerging Business of the Year Award,” which recognizes businesses that have posed themselves for growth by carving out a special niche.

Dennis attributes the company’s success to keeping its focus, even as it has grown.

“We’ve always been focused on natural,” he says. “We’ve learned over the years how to improve upon natural products—be it for hair, skin or babies. And we’ve always focused on what the needs of the consumer are, rather just on what we think can sell.”